Hey Main Character, Your Love Interest Should Replace You

Hey Main Character, Your Love Interest Should Replace You

(Warning: this article contains spoilers for Thief and Assassin’s Creed: Unity)

There’s no question that we’re getting more quality female protagonists in games than we used to. Sadly, however, many AAA publishers still aren’t getting the message that most gamers are grown-up enough to appreciate a well-done protagonist regardless of gender. This problem is best highlighted by two of 2014’s games in which the male main character’s love interest is a far more interesting character.

I may not have been impressed by this year’s Thief reboot, but one thing that interested me about the game was the character of Erin. A young, brash female thief who suffers a fair bit of paternalism from the main character Garret, Erin sadly becomes a damsel in distress for most of the plot. She may prove herself an independent person at the beginning and end of the game, but think how much more interesting it could have been to go along on a journey as Erin than as a poorly-resurrected Garret.

What kind of character development is available for a man who has already seen it all? The beloved character of Garret was ill-used in the game, going through the motions of a paint-by-numbers anti-hero tale. It would have been far more interesting to play as Erin. She has to learn to come into her own as a thief, develop some subtlety to go along with her courage, and figure out how to deal with a mentor who thinks he always knows better than she does. She also has the chance to see the crisis facing her city from the inside, which provides more opportunities for plot twists and character growth than Garret’s traditional outsider perspective. Placing Erin in the lead wouldn’t have changed the gameplay issues that plague Thief , but it could at least have made the game stand out in the story department.

Assassin’s Creed: Unity is a better game than Thief , but it suffers from a rather lackluster story. The main character, Arno, feels like Ezio Lite, an amalgamation of every mildly charming young upper-class protagonist with an axe to grind. He spends much of the game attempting to protect his girlfriend Elise, who clearly isn’t interested in being coddled.

Imagine, instead of seeing Elise as an object lesson, a person who functionally ends up helping Arno learn and feel things, we could play as Elise herself. She’s intelligent and articulate (while Arno often comes off as bumbling), and has a major rebellious streak. In the game she’s shown as being obsessed with revenge, but if she were the main character, she’d have the opportunity to work past that rather than having it lead to her demise.

As Elise, we could have had the chance to see the French Revolution from the perspective of somebody with the privilege of class but a disadvantage of gender—and a burgeoning women’s rights movement played a major role in the Revolution. We also could have approached the Assassin vs. Templar conflict from a unique perspective. Perhaps Elise would end up seeing both sides at their best and worst, then have to ultimately decide whether to choose one or go her own way entirely. We could have experienced a story that made far better use of actual historical events while advancing the in-universe story at the same time.

Hey Main Character, Your Love Interest Should Replace You

The best video game protagonists, male and female, are emotive, interesting, and have the chance to go through a transformative character arc during the game’s story. It’s sad when a generic male main character is upstaged by a cool supporting female cast member, because it feels like the man was chosen as the lead simply due to his gender. In the cases of Thief and Assassin’s Creed: Unity, the games could have had far more compelling stories if they’d let Erin and Elise step into the lead roles.

I believe that most gamers these days would rather play a well-written female protagonist than a generic male one. It’s time for developers to step back while story boarding and ask if perhaps they’re going too much with the flow by putting a dude in the lead role. Is a major non-playable female character more interesting and fun than he is? Put her in charge. Let her have agency over the game instead of being placed in an ill-suited role as somebody who must be protected or rescued. It will make the game better and give you a lead who will stick in the minds of fans.

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