I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all had a point in time where a fictional character has caused us to stop, think, and go “oh yeah. That’s me, kind of.” It happens in film, TV, books, comics, and, yes, games too. For us, as critics and writers within the gaming world, it can sometimes be a bit of a daunting prospect to try and find time to reflect on the stories and characters that meant the most of us, when caught up in the full swing of covering all the latest. But that doesn’t mean those characters don’t walk with us as we go. Here are 5 of our writers on characters that we’ve related to in some of the most personal ways possible.
Luke fon Fabre, Tales of the Abyss
As someone who grew up with Asperger’s Syndrome, I can’t begin to tell you how frustrating it is not being “in the know;” in other words, knowing common knowledge. I was the only kid in preschool who didn’t know who George Washington was, I didn’t know you had to wash potatoes before microwaving them when in my teens, and only just recently learned about lane lights in supermarkets. Us Aspies aren’t stupid, y’see: we just tend to get a little hyperfocused on our interests and passions, and that’s how all that pesky (but vital!) common knowledge tends to slip through.
This is a similar struggle faced by Luke fon Fabre, the teen protagonist of Namco’s Tales of the AbyssRPG. A self-absorbed noble confined to his manor, his fish-out-of-water status is immediately apparent when he’s suddenly thrust out into the world; namely, the point where he’s not aware you have to pay to eat an apple from a grocer. But hey, according to him, maybe the manor will pay for it. (Not really)
While thankfully, I didn’t share the main character arc of Luke — he starts out as a complete asshole and ends the tale as a selfless, decent human being — his confusion at the world’s rules and knowledge identified with me immediately. His lack of common knowledge regarding, say, the effects of Fonons and the Planet Storm mirrored much of my own frustrations in learning the inner workings of school, interaction and even self-care, right down to the apple thing. The”manor will pay for it” excuse rings all too familiar, as I’ve made more than my fair share of impractical conclusions without thinking them through.
I can’t entirely blame Luke for not knowing how the world of Auldrant works — the game gets a little too caught up with its technobabble — but his own confusion was a great vehicle into the game’s universe, and that he redeemed himself into a infectiously modest human being along the way renders him one of my favorite video game protagonists.
Rabbi Russell Stone, The Shivah
One of the major differences between Judaism and Christianity is that the latter believes in finding answers, while the former seeks only to ask the right questions. From his first spoken line – “Why does G-d allow suffering” – Rabbi Russell Stone’s journey is all about questions; questions that are familiar to any religious person, but which hit especially close to home for American Jews like myself.
To be fair, despite folks in my Twitter feed constantly claiming that we control the media, it’s rare to see any members of the Tribe in video games. Our biggest claim to fame is Doctor Hal Emmerich, the most punchable character in the Metal Gear series. But I don’t find Rabbi Stone a uniquely relatable character because we both wear yarmulkes – it’s because his questions are questions that I struggle with every day. Our Judaism tells us that everything that happens is part of G-d’s plan, but how do you reconcile that with intense, random suffering? How is it that everyone at my synagogue can be the kindhearted, hardworking, righteous people I know they are, and yet there are Nazis marching in Charlottesville and anti-Semitic violence against people I knew in my own hometown? Why is it that my brother and I got called “dirty Hebrews” and had rocks and shoes thrown at us when we were in elementary school growing up in the most liberal part of Kansas?
Rabbi Stone believes – as I believe – that the answer to these questions can be found in Jewish study and Jewish traditions. And yet his rigid adherence to the letter of G-d’s law drove away and hurt faithful members of his congregation. There are many stories of those whose love – whose marriage, in this case – went against their faith, but few of those stories are told from the point of the view of the man who chose to stand in their way. And what’s important is that the game doesn’t glamorize that, doesn’t excuse Stone’s actions – in fact, he himself refuses to do so. Rabbi Stone is a leader who failed his people, a holy man who isn’t sure he can believe in a god anymore – he’s a man trying to follow the path of light in a world where that path is never clear, just like me, you, and the rest of the human race.
In the typical fashion of a d’rash, let me end with a beginning. The Shivah – a point-and-click mystery made by Wadjet Eye Games before they were Wadjet Eye Games – opens in a tiny synagogue that’s almost entirely barren. I still remember the first time I saw this room, because it looked so much like my own synagogue that I audibly gasped. We had the same crappy folding chairs, the same cracks in the walls, the same simple altar. And like my own place of worship, Stone’s synagogue is almost entirely empty, its Rabbi discouraged by the lack of true devotion in his own community.
Sure, The Shivah contains a murder, a mystery involving $10,000, and a mastermind with an evil plot to rule the criminal underworld. But the game’s real stakes are simultaneously much simpler and much greater, centered around a single, oft-repeated question: “You call yourself a Jew?” It’s a question I’ve asked of myself a thousand times. And what makes Rabbi Stone remarkable isn’t that his journey answers that question – it’s that he’s enough of a mentsh to look in the mirror and ask it.
Tidus, Final Fantasy X
Tidus gets a lot of hate. Many gamers felt his voice was whiny, that he had a lot of daddy issues, and that laugh…well…
But when you take a step back and put yourself in his shoes, you realize how relatable his character actually is.
Tidus is a seventeen year old Blitzball star with a sweet life in Zanarkand. His high-tech city features machines, holograms, and technologies that we can only dream of, and as a major athlete, he has access to all the fineries life has to offer. Like any teenager, he has a lot of angst; it’s not unearned of, however, as he’s an orphan – his mother died after his father abandoned them. So he harbors a lot of resentment and anger towards his father for leaving and causing his mother’s death.
Imagine dealing with that, working through the loss of your parents as your biggest problem in life.
Now imagine being propelled 1,000 years into the past – a past without phones, TVs, internet, and other modern conveniences we take for granted.
You’d be pretty confused, right?
Now imagine that your dad, who you thought abandoned you, was not only also propelled into the past, but turned into a giant monster that destroys everything.
You’d be blown away, right?
Now imagine that this girl you’re kind of crushing on is going to die once you get to the end of the journey you’ve been pouring your heart and soul into since it’s the only thing that seems to make sense.
You’d be devastated, right?
Now imagine that you discover you’re actually not 1,000 years in the past, but instead 1,000 years in the future, and also you don’t really exist.
You’d be…wait, what?
Now imagine that you realize the only way to save the world is to abandon this mission that you’ve dedicated yourself to in order to permanently kill your father, resulting in not only your death but your complete and utter disappearance from existence. Like, you won’t even exist in an afterlife. That kind of disappearance.
You’d be…what the f-
Can you honestly look at that timeline of events and say that you’d handle that any better than he did? That you wouldn’t occasionally whine? That you wouldn’t have anger? That you wouldn’t feel moody, upset, and depressed?
So…all things considered, Tidus dealt with his issues in Final Fantasy X pretty well.
When I first played FFX, I was 14 years old and full of family and teenager problems myself. But watching that now-infamous scene where Yuna and Tidus awkwardly laughed until they felt better, I learned that, even though life gets difficult, sometimes it’s best to force a smile until you feel better. Because life is tough and you can never expect what will be thrown at you, but you’re going to have to deal with it. Tidus was always vocal about his problems and what his emotions were while going through things, but he gritted his teeth and faced them head on. I really admired that about him, and decided that I should handle my problems that way as well.
So even if I complain…even if I get upset…even if I don’t feel like laughing…I allow myself to rinse through those emotions but I will always push through to the end. Just like Tidus.
Josh Sauchak, Watch_Dogs 2
A bit of backstory first. Doctors told me that I was on the autistic spectrum back in elementary school, and later on I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. It’s made some things harder for me, like socializing and paying attention in school. But If someone came up and told me that they could “cure” my autism and get rid of my Asperger’s, I’d tell them to take a hike, because it’s been a part of my life for so long that it’s a part of who I am. I wouldn’t be the same person otherwise, because it’s so deeply ingrained into my personality.
When I was growing up, the autistic community was mostly ignored by the entertainment media. Video games and movies didn’t have too many good characters with autism or Asperger’s (this has gotten much better in recent years with an autistic Sesame Street character, and Billy in the recent Power Rangers movie). The lack of representation wasn’t a huge problem for me, but it would have been nice to have a character I connected with for more personal reasons than just “he’s funny and he wears green.”
This brings me to Josh from Watch_Dogs 2. Josh is part of the DedSec ‘hactivist’ group that the player is a part of, and is one of the major members of the game’s supporting cast, conversing with the player through phone calls and in cutscenes. While playing the game, I found Josh’s behavior to be…familiar. Then I watched the Helter Skekter cutscene where Josh talks about Marijuana being researched as a way of treating…something. He gets cut off before he can finish, but I realized why Josh felt familiar.
In the base game, Josh is highly implied to be autistic, evidenced through his introverted behavior and exhibiting a number of defining traits that are common amongst the autistic community, traits that I have seen in myself and in friends of mine who are also autistic. It felt good to finally see an accurately-portrayed autistic character in a major video game. The only other use of a confirmed autistic character in a video game that I knew of was in Amy, but that was a horrible game with an unlikable character.
But then I played the Human Conditions DLC. During the DLC, there’s a mission involving nanobots during which player character Marcus asks Josh if he’d theoretically be willing to use nanobot technology to fix his autism. Josh responds to this by saying that he would be willing to test it, but only if it’s reversible, and says this:
“I like who I am. I might not like who I would be if I didn’t have Asperger’s.”
Josh responds the way I and many others would have answered in his position. I’ve never seen a piece of media treat autism or Asperger’s as respectfully or as realistically as Watch_Dogs 2 did. Josh was the relatable autistic character that I never had growing up, a character I and other people on the autistic spectrum could look at and go “I totally know how he feels.” So congratulations to Watch_Dogs 2 for having what is, in my opinion, the best portrayal of a character with Asperger’s in video gaming.
When Night in the Woods came out back in February, I was in a low place. I’m in enough of a better place now to admit that. I had recently gone through some drawn-out personal changes, and I was only just starting to come to terms with the reality that I had been emotionally abused and manipulated for a large part of the previous year and a half.
Almost a year before that time, through a combination of being a victim of abuse and the school I was attending not being what I had thought it would be, I watched myself grow detached from reality in a way that I just couldn’t put into words. I first really noticed it back in the Spring of 2016. Quite simply put, I felt disengaged from my surroundings. People, places, events, all of it. I would say that I was terrified, but I was too out of my own head to even feel terror.
And I existed like that for the next year. At its worst, it felt like I was watching a first-person TV show about my life, rather than living it.
So, in February, along came Night in the Woods. I immediately grew very attached to the game’s protagonist, a depressed but snarky cat-person named Mae. I was a final-semester senior in college (now a very happy graduate), and I was feeling really disenfranchised with a lot of the things that my college experience had become. Some of it just didn’t feel right, like I didn’t belong there. I found myself making more and more frequent trips back home, just because home was where I had something more of a sense of belonging. I closed off from chances to deepen friendships that I still feel bad about. Under different circumstances, Mae did that, too. Her character is a college dropout, and one whose reasons for leaving are kept obscure for over three quarters of the game.
I followed Mae through this strange journey, as she tried to reconnect with the town she left, and strived to get back what had once been. Near the game’s final act, Mae talks to her best friend Gregg about her reasons for leaving college, which go all the way back to a violent episode she had as a teenager. She describes to Gregg a sensation that the world was suddenly just a collection of polygons and pixels. That everything just became “shapes.”
She tells him how she floated along though that sensation all the way to college, and how badly it emotionally crippled her. She recounts hiding in her room even during breaks, unable to fit in because of how unable she had become to see the people and experiences around her as anything other than shapes. In the end, Mae returned to Possum Springs for the same reasons I started taking those long drives through the woods and mountains, back home. Home was the only place with shapes that were already familiar to her.
I’ve never seen a video game explore this before, and I never would have expected to, honestly. I never expected that a small indie mystery game would feature a protagonist whose depression-fueled, distorted view of the world was in so many ways close to my own. And at the bitter end, Mae doesn’t have some giant epiphany that cures her. Well, okay, she actually does have a pretty major epiphany, but there’s no sign that suddenly, all wrongs are made right; that suddenly, all is well again. No, what Mae does at the end is take a step forward. She goes to her parents, and finally opens up to doing the one thing she’s been finding reasons to avoid; talking about it.
And in that way, Mae helped me take those small steps, too. Steps away from the pain and hurt I had endured, to look back on it sadly, but from a distance. The kind of sadness that’s nothing more than a passing breeze, as opposed to a nightmare storm of the stuff that had kept me pinned down, shutting myself in and away from the world and my loved ones at my lowest points.
I’m still taking those steps. This site helps me do it. Creating projects like this list, which I really and honestly hope you’ve enjoyed, is part of it, too. Everything that one lets be part of the healing process, becomes part of that healing process. Mae Borowski came in and played the opening fanfare for mine, just as, in playing the game, I saw hers.
Thanks for reading, and thanks to everyone from our staff who contributed to this list.