There are good video game protagonists, and there are bad video game protagonists. Then there’s a 200 foot sheer drop into a lake of garbage, past a sunken pirate ship and a few oil barrels, where there’s the true hall of shame in terms of bad protagonists. I may be coming off as slightly dramatic here; these particular characters aren’t that bad. But they do represent some of the worst qualities of a person that make them unrelatable, and frankly, just unlikeable.
Max Caulfield, Life is Strange
To be fair to Max, she is a teenager, and teenagers aren’t always the most likable of humans. They’re angsty, dramatic, self absorbed, and tend to think only of themselves (I am also well aware that I just described Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones.) Max plays into all of these stereotypes pretty efficiently, for better or worse.
Life is Strange is the first in a series of games telling the stories of teenage protagonists who end up with magical powers, and must traverse the world with their new abilities. In this first installment we meet Max, a student at a prestigious boarding school in the pacific northwest who suddenly finds that she has the ability to turn back time. Teaming up with her childhood best friend, Chloe, the pair set out to try and find a missing teen named Rachel Amber, who disappeared out of nowhere and remains unfound.
To be clear, Max is not an awful person. She’s a teenager. But when it comes to the available choices to her, they are often frustrating and lack any sort of common sense. In one scenario, right after spilling paint on one of your class bullies, you have the option to either mock or comfort your victim. Both scenarios feel weird and out of place after making a sneaky move to dump paint on her and try to avoid being seen. Of course, this is one of the more mild choices to be made in the game, but the higher the stakes, the more frustrating I often found Max’s decisions to be, or more peeved by her logic. Such is the way of the young, I guess.
Altair Ibn L’Ahad, Assassin’s Creed
The very first game in this iconic franchise is certainly not the most memorable, at least from a main character perspective. When Assassin’s Creed burst onto the scene in 2007, it provided a fun and engaging new world to explore with unique, albeit at times frustrating, mechanics. It was a fun and raucous entrance into the conflict between the Assassins and the Templars, but one person that made it a real slog at points was none other than its protagonist, Altair.
At the game’s onset we see an arrogant, selfish, and careless man who leads his companions into certain death and doesn’t care at all about the outcome. Even after the consequences of his actions are played out, Altair still doesn’t seem to really “get” why he has been demoted and must regain his status in the Order. Worse, he has the personality of a stick of celery and a monotone voice that grates against your eardrums.
It’s hard to step into Altair’s legendary boots when he struts around with an arrogance that just feels gross. And while he does come around in the end, the brutishness of his behavior in those early hours is hard to move past, and it begs the question on if he would have ever learned his lesson if he hadn’t been given a chance to earn everything back with such rapidity.
Jake Conway, Ride to Hell: Retribution
This game is bad. To quote Yahtzee Croshaw, it is “apocalyptically bad.” Sometimes, games can be bad but still have a redeemable protagonist. This is not that game.
Ride to Hell: Retribution tells the story of an outlaw biker named Jake Conway who is positively hell bent (see what I did there?) on avenging his brother, who was ruthlessly (and kinda senselessly) murdered by an outlaw biker gang called the Devil’s Hand. He sets out to dramatically murder every single member of the gang to avenge his brother’s murder, and chaos, naturally, ensues.
It’s not about how bad the game is, though trust me, it’s bad. It’s not even about how buggy and nonsensical the gameplay is. Though trust me, that’s bad too. But Jake as a character is just about as endearing as a root canal and as relatable as a stick of gum. His one-track mind is completely non believable, and his choices are even worse. In one scenario, he saves a woman from being attacked by a bunch of thugs, and proceeds to immediately have sex with her (with clothes on).
Even upon hearing a major story twist relating to his family’s involvement with the Devil’s Hand, Jake seems unmoved, like a robot with a one track mind to wreak havoc and bang a few ladies for good measure. Jake is certainly the sum of his parts. His very buggy, mechanically ridiculous parts.
Abby Anderson, The Last of Us: Part 2
Conversely, we have an example of a great game (albeit dark as hell and that I could only get through once) with a really terrible protagonist. Or I guess in this instance, one half of the protagonists in this game.
Part 2 of Joel and Ellie’s story picks up 4 years after the events of the first game, and the first 90 minutes of the game culminate in one of the most shocking and painful twists, being the brutal death of Joel at the hands of Abby. It’s revealed halfway through the game that Abby is the daughter of one Dr. Jerry Anderson, who happened to be the surgeon that was going to remove Ellie’s brain to reverse engineer a vaccine to the cordyceps infection, and who happened to be gunned down by Joel while he was saving her.
However, Abby’s unlikeability doesn’t really stem from murdering Joel. Heck, it doesn’t even stem from the ass kicking she gave Ellie. It’s the entitlement she has in a world where nothing is promised and choices have consequences. She hunted down and murdered a man to avenge her father, and then was somehow shocked that the people who loved that man repaid that violence in kind by murdering every single one of her friends and accomplices. And then somehow thinking it’s a good idea to sleep with her ex (who is dating somebody else and about to have a child with her) in the midst of their world collapsing around them. It all feels so perplexing and at times infuriating.
While Abby isn’t the worst of the worst in terms of character development, the fact that we are introduced to her in the midst of her murdering one of the most beloved characters in gaming history, and then just refusing to be accountable for her actions, really makes it hard to relate to her or even give her the benefit of the doubt.
Dante Alighieri, Dante’s Inferno
I could go on and on about all the things wrong in this game, from the dramatized depictions of historical characters, to the blatant misogyny, to the completely inaccurate and bastardized reinterpretation of one of history’s most renowned epic poems. But instead, I’ll just focus on the titular Dante, who has enough problems on his own.
Dante’s Inferno is a very loose retelling of the famed poem of the same name, detailing Dante’s descent into the Christian Hell guided by the ancient Roman poet Virgil. In the poem, Dante seeks inspiration from his muse, a woman named Beatrice (who was not his lover, by the way), as he works his way through Hell, then Purgatory, and ultimately Paradise, where she resides. In the game, Dante must fight through the legions of Hell to save his lover Beatrice who has been kidnapped by Satan because she sold her soul to him believing that Dante would NEVER cheat on her.
Not only does he, in fact, cheat on her, he literally gaslights her for accusing him of it while they are standing in Hell in front of Satan. Like, the jig is up, my guy. It’s made even worse by knowing right from the start that Dante has committed heinous war crimes as a crusader knight and doesn’t seem to really care about all the innocent lives he ruined for no reason.
Dante is a misogynist, heinous, dense headed hypocrite who never takes accountability for his actions, even when his “beloved” sells her soul to become Satan’s queen. It’s all gross and nonsensical, and even though the game is actually a lot of fun to play, doing so as Dante is very much not.