With E3 2014 right around the corner, gamers everywhere have been enjoying a slew of game announcements from AAA publishers and developers, each offering fresh details on the titles that will be competing for our time and attention over the next year or so. Among the upcoming entries into the genre of near-future military shooters are Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare - the first entry in the franchise from Sledgehammer Games – and Crytek’s Homefront: The Revolution, a sequel to Kaos Studios’ second and last release before the dissolution of publisher THQ. And these two games have us asking some questions.
While sharing a genre, there are some significant differences between the two games: Advanced Warfare is the next installment of an established franchise, whereas Homefront: The Revolution is practically a new IP. Advanced Warfare will presumably feature the same kind of linear single player missions as the previous games in the franchise, while The Revolution will be an open-world shooter based as much around scavenging and crafting as it is around shooting.
There is one thing that the two games have in common, however.
When asked to describe Private Mitchell, the sole protagonist of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Sledgehammer studio head Glen Schofield replied with the unforgettable: “he’s a… uh, a dude, from the United States. He’s just sort of a normal guy. We do have a whole backstory on him and it’s fairly generic.” Likewise, Crytek UK game designer Fasahat Salim summed up Homefront: The Revolution‘s hero, Ethan Brady, as “an average everyday guy.”
As a rather unfortunate coincidence, both Mitchell and Brady are depicted in their respective trailers as brown-haired white guys wearing beanie hats (you, like us, would probably have trouble telling them apart in a police line-up).
But who is the “everyday guy” that Salim describes? What does an average everyday normal guy look like? Apart from being in peak physical condition and extremely proficient at handling weapons, of course. The answer is one we may not like, but it’s a question that becomes more and more unavoidable as the years tick by.
It’s time to take a look at ‘Mr. Normal,’ and try to figure out just how he managed to take over the AAA game industry.
Across the broader medium of video games there exists a genuinely exciting and varied range of characters, from colorful cartoons like Kirby to the mismatched band of survivors in Telltale Games’ lauded The Walking Dead. Within the genre of action/adventure/shooter/military/sci-fi however, it’s hard – nay, impossible to ignore the fact that the player character design lacks variety.
The ‘Brown-Haired White Guy’ has become a frequently-mocked trope of action games marketed towards mature audiences in recent years, but even with the trend becoming a punchline in itself, it is still a cliché that game developers just can’t seem to drag themselves away from. Occasionally some brave soul will attempt to jazz things up by giving Brown-Haired White Guy dark auburn hair, or possibly something as outlandish as a pair of spectacles and a goatee, or even slick shades built directly into his face. Ultimately, though, it’s hard not to see these slight deviations as simply the Brown-Haired White Guy trying to wear a pair of Groucho Marx glasses to disguise himself for the carbon copy he really is.
The lack of ethnic and gender diversity among video game protagonists has been a much-discussed issue over the past few years, and it’s something that seems to be inextricably linked to the AAA game industry’s love affair with the Brown-Haired White Guy. But who is Brown-Haired White Guy? Is he the secret alter ego of Everyman? Why does he keep repeatedly cropping up at the forefront of AAA action games, like an even less interesting version of Assassin’s Creed‘s Connor Kenway at every major event in the American Revolution?
The most likely explanation is that for whatever reason, the Brown-Haired White Guy has simply become the default character model. When a Western video game developer closes their eyes and thinks of a default human being, the face they see is any one of those featured in the collage above. Using this as a starting point, some developers will go on to tinker with the concept until he becomes a Brown-Haired Hispanic Guy, a Blond-Haired White Guy, or – even more rarely – a Brown-Haired White Girl.
Some of the very creative designers may end up with a protagonist who bears no resemblance to the Brown-Haired White Guy at all. Many more, however, will just leave the Brown-Haired White Guy as he exists, and move on.
It’s easy to see why publishers might encourage this particular character design, or at the very least not actively discourage it. The Brown-Haired White Guy is safe. He is inoffensive. Hollywood action movies were built on guys like him, and for the most part so were modern AAA action games. He has been the face of many a best-selling game (and also quite a lot of poorly-selling ones, which tend to get forgotten). Even fantastical RPGs like Mass Effect and Dragon Age II offer the default option of role-playing the life of a Brown-Haired White Guy in another time and place, and you don’t need to watch the trailers for Skyrim to guess what the default Dovahkiin looks like (hint: he’s not a Khajiit).
Many gamers will clamor to defend the honor of Brown-Haired White Guy with claims that video game publishers have a right to do whatever they think best in order to make the most amount of money, thereby ensuring future adventures for their hero. If a developer or publisher wishes to market a big, bold, and brash game experience as effectively as possible, then it certainly makes sense for the protagonist to belong to the large demographic of brown-haired, Caucasian men… since nothing says “escapism” like playing a character who resembles you as closely as possible.
Assuming for the moment that the kids really do go crazy for Brown-Haired White Guy, and that it would be a grave mistake to start shaking things up by giving him, say, blond dreadlocks or breasts, perhaps we can at least hope for more variation in the personalities of his many incarnations. Without, of course, introducing any characteristics that would impact upon his flawlessly-generic good looks.
Even in the personality department however, Brown-Haired White Guy seems to continually adhere to a fairly strict set of personality traits. He is angry on a scale ranging from “slightly” to “very” (with the anger often tied to the murder/kidnap of his wife/girlfriend). He is sometimes permitted to be funny or wisecracking, on the condition that his humor is (at least) slightly sardonic. He is cool under pressure, underwhelmed in the face of attacking soldiers, nuclear bombs or aliens chewing on his face.
He didn’t ask for this, but he deals with it in the best way he can. He’s, you know… a dude. An average guy with a fairly generic backstory.
Oh, and he’s straight. Obviously. He loves the ladies. Especially his murdered/kidnapped wife/girlfriend.
The most likely explanation for this parade of dull, virtually (pardon the pun) identical protagonists with little-to-no characterization is that the player character is often intended to be a blank slate onto whom the player can transplant their own personality. It’s one of the reasons that silent protagonists have enjoyed such a sustained popularity. Character arcs and colorful personality tend to be the domain of NPC’s, who are generally designed to be every bit as nuanced and unique as the player character is bland and forgettable.
Some might argue that the way video game developers churn out titles with protagonists so devoid of distinguishing characteristics is a symptom of creative bankruptcy and a severe lack of imagination in the industry. On a more optimistic note, perhaps the fact that developers have managed to produce so many variations on the exact same theme is a testament to just how bottomless their well of creativity really is.
Time for a change?
Of all the reasons that consumers tend to complain about video games, the omnipresence of the Brown-Haired White Guy and his bland, cut-n-paste looks and personality is quite a long way down a very long list. Perhaps I’m an exception to the rule for having my enthusiasm for Watch Dogs killed off, not because of any kind of downgrade in the graphics, but simply because the hero of this intriguing-sounding game with topical themes and hacking gameplay was yet another gravelly-voiced, blank-faced, brown-haired white guy motivated by a vague revenge plot.
More and more we are starting to see games that make room for interesting and fully-fleshed player characters without having to sacrifice immersion. At the end of The Last of Us, Joel makes a questionable ethical decision that the player may not agree with, and both the story and Joel’s character ultimately become stronger for it. Joel also manages to crack the mold slightly by being about fifteen years older than the average brown-haired white guy.
After so much back-and-forth over representations of gender and race in video games, “diversity” has become something of a loaded word. But as much as it would be fantastic to see more female characters and characters from different ethnic backgrounds taking the lead in video games, it would also be nice if game designers could simply shelve the Brown-Haired White Guy character model for a few years and explore some of the other options out there.
Failing that, at least give us a Brown-Haired White Guy who actually does wear Groucho glasses for the entire game. That would be hilarious.