A Thief, a Rogue, and a Scoundrel: Thief, and the Terrible, Awful People I’d Like to See More in Video Games

[Originally published January 9, 2016]

You know what I love? Being a terrible person.

Let me rephrase that:

I came to a realization during my holiday break: I’m tired of games bending over backwards to make my player character a hero. This personal epiphany came to me by way of 2014’s Thief [1] in a moment of personal villainy.

For those who aren’t familiar, Thief puts you in an open hub-world in between linear missions, where you are free to break into the cityfolk’s homes. You do this, of course, so that you may rob these poor, oppressed, diseased people of what little they have. Right off the bat, you’re not a “good” dude. You are, in fact, the very definition of a thief. It’s amazing, and is – in my opinion – the best part of the game. My favorite excursion, however, began when I heard sobbing coming from the bottom floor of a house I had just entered. It was a woman, pouring her heart out to her friend in a moment of truly personal vulnerability. Clearly, I was not here to respect anyone’s privacy, so I listened in.

In between sobs, she relayed how her marital struggles had affected her life. Every night – every night– this poor woman’s husband would come home, stinking drunk, and take all the valuables he could find. He would then, apparently, sell them to pay off his egregious gambling debts. Not a great guy. This unfortunate lady then mentioned that – in spite of her husband’s despicable tendencies – he had yet to steal her wedding ring – a ring given to her by her deceased mother.  She told her friend that she had hidden it away from him, tucked it behind the chimney on the roof.

That sounds expensive. I bet I’ll get a ton of gold for that.

THAT WAS WHAT I THOUGHT. THAT WAS MY HONEST-TO-GOD REACTION TO HEARING THIS WOMAN’S STORY ABOUT HER TERRIBLE HUSBAND.

And do you know what I did? I snatched that priceless sh*t right up. I snatched it up, and so did Garrett. It was worth 50 gold – not a small amount. I felt good about it. My point, however, is that stealing people’s valuables is a BAD THING, and – yet – Thief wastes a lot of everyone’s time[2] trying to say otherwise. Though you do – at points – steal from a corrupt, wealthy class of people, you spend – far and away – most of your playtime robbing the poor of their silver forks, spoons, and knives. Or precious family jewelry. Oops. In spite of Garrett’s moral corruption, the game’s story does its best to tell you that not only is Garrett an honorable person, but that thievery is an honest profession.

What a crock of sh*t.

This brings us to game protagonists. These suave, attractive avatars live in an uncomfortable world of extremes; they have to be either totally sympathetic pillars of righteousness, or unforgivable scum. Gaming’s heroes are often the ones their worlds both need and deserve[3]. It’s not that they don’t have flaws, but their narratives often ignore them – or, worse, justify them through some sort of tragic backstory. We don’t want a story to affirm or inform the garbage behavior of these characters. We don’t need to be coddled by a commitment to innocence. The things that they do – or are capable of – are bad, whether that’s mass murder[4], thievery, or… mass murder[5]. Still, we get game after game after game with some other cliché, ham-fisted story that tries to explain away – to affirm – the unspeakable actions they commit in the name of gameplay. It’s internally inconsistent, and rarely original. In fact, I’d say that some of the best stories acknowledge the violent, flawed nature of their protagonists.[6]

I don’t necessarily have a fix, solution, or alternative to this problem. I understand that a lot of games involve violence, and that’s fine. I play a lot of video games, so clearly it’s not something that stops me from playing them, but I just wish I wasn’t so disappointed with their stories. I wish that they weren’t so inconsistent. As I said, I don’t have some sort of fix – some sort of cure-all – to this generic story problem, but I really do think that the first step comes with accepting that it’s okay to write a protagonist that’s evil. I’m not saying that games with explicitly evil protagonists don’t exist – nor do I think that evil protagonists have to be irredeemable, amoral psychopaths – but it would be nice if there were a few more games that cared more about acknowledging its protagonist’s flaws – rather than trying to justify them.

Man it was cool getting to steal that lady’s ring.

 

[1] A deeply flawed game, filled with just enough potential to make its failures that much more disappointing.

[2] Your time, the game’s time, morality’s time, certainly the writer’s time, etc. You get the picture.

[3] Somewhere – not quite knowing why – Batman sheds a single tear.

[4] Lookin’ at you, Nathan Drake, and – really – every game protagonist ever. Regardless, you are way too charming for somebody who can kick a man to death and go, “KITTY GOT WET!” Man, what’s wrong with you. You’re covered in another man’s blood. You weirdo. Weirdo.

[5] Um. You kill a lot of people in video games. I couldn’t think of a third thing. Sorry. You know what I’m getting at though.

[6] Braid. What’s up! Oh, hey Bloodborne, didn’t see you over there. What’re you doing later? Sawing apart beasts that used to be like you before they engaged in the same acts of violence that you’re committing now? Oh. Okay. I’ll… see you later I guess. Good luck with the murder thing. Man you’re such a good game.

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