A simple concept, still seemingly lost on the writers of videogames: if a character is to be interesting he needs to have flaws. And “flaws” meaning genuine flaws. Not flaws like Nathan Drake, who clumsily, endearingly bangs his head, or makes frightened noises whenever he performs some impossible feat of freehand climbing. Not flaws like Trevor Phillips, who is violent, anti-social and filled with anger, but expresses it all in ways we’re encouraged to find amusing and cool. Flaws meaning shortcomings and weaknesses, the things we not only all possess but would be inhuman without. The things which make our lives complicated and thus efficacious.
This post is short because the point it’s intended to make is simple. Because he has actual flaws, Cole Phelps, from LA Noire, is superior to every videogame protagonist. Phelps cheats on his wife. Phelps lies about his war record to earn himself a promotion. Phelps is officious, pedantic and humourless. Phelps doesn’t seem to have any friends. Played to perfection by Aaron Staton, whose inoffensive good looks help convey a cultivated, manipulative manner, Phelps is someone with whom we can identify. We don’t gun down criminals. We don’t solve murders. We don’t live in the Los Angeles of 1946. But we do cheat, we do lie and we do succumb to vanity, and that helps us recognise Phelps, which in turn makes us empathise with what he experiences.
Our presumed taste for escapism catalyses the creation of videogame protagonists: game-makers assume that what we want is to be someone impossible, to feel, for a fleeting period, like we are things we actually are not. But this is a dismal understanding of escapism. If escapism is intended to alleviate the pain of everyday life or mundane experience, there is nothing more soothing than seeing, on a screen, our pain articulated and understood by another human being – it lets us know that the things we suffer are not our’s alone to bear and that, contrary to shameful and needing to be hidden, they’re considered by compassionate others beautiful enough to feature in art.