Sorry Mr. Roboto, I don’t feel for you
It took Wolfenstein: New Order about one hour to create better, more interesting characters than Call of Duty: Ghosts could in seven. This is odd because many of the things I lambasted Ghosts for are present in New Order. New Order has a burly, white, and male protagonist joined by equally white and male comrades in arms (no one does burly quite like B.J.) defeating a straightforwardly evil foe. Civilians, women, and minorities played no role in the story and the only diversity I’d seen was variations on Anglo-Saxon. Yet, despite all of this, I actually cared a great deal more about B.J.’s pals than I did anyone in Ghosts. The big question is: Why?
The difference of my feelings between the two game’s characters was made clear when New Order asked me to kill off one of my squad. Despite having only played an hour, it was a tough choice. I didn’t cry manly tears at the thought of losing my men, but I found that each character had their own merits and could make a compelling argument for survival. This is far more than I can say about the Ghosts squad. At best, they were bland stereotypes. At worst, their very existence was so trite and soulless that the difficulty wouldn’t be deciding who to save, but deciding who to kill. When the player wants to answer the above choice with “both”, then you know you’ve got a problem.
The humanization of New Order began from the very beginning. Fergus, your copilot, exhibits a sarcastic, pessimistic charm about the havoc surrounding the introductory invasion. During the death and mayhem, Fergus acts as your resigned second who knows the terror surrounding him, but has a job to do. This isn’t a particularly unique archetype, but it’s done well enough to establish Fergus as a human being. B.J. and Fergus are soon joined by a squad of raw recruits whose human frailties are on display and reflective of what I’d imagine people actually go through in war. The overall picture isn’t deep, but it does lend a sense of humanity to the proceedings. People die, men make brave charges, and the general feel is that these are men facing a tough situation.
Ghosts takes the opposite approach. Everyone is a badass. They are unstoppable killing machines whose day consists of Wheaties, murder, vengeance, and bandanas. They don’t fear, and they don’t ever consider the danger of their situation. This is not how actual people act. Even the most well trained veteran is motivated by more than patriotism and awesomeness. They have hopes, dreams, and ideals that extend beyond their immediate occupation and situation. These hopes, dreams, and ideals extend beyond mom, apple pie, and the flag, because very few people are so entirely consumed by the thought of generic patriotism and war that they don’t pick up a detective novel now and then. This is not only what makes them human, it’s what makes them relatable. To the average player at home who will never charge into battle with guns a-blazing, they cannot sympathize with a stars-and-stripes robot. If they were in a similar situation, they would certainly feel patriotism, but they would also feel all the gamut of emotions that comes with being in a dangerous situation.
It should go without saying that creating relatable characters means creating relatable humans. The godlike paragon may be the person everyone wants to be, but they are not a person that people can connect with. Creating interesting and sympathetic characters means moving beyond the generic badass into the squishy territory of emotions. New Order isn’t exactly the most emotionally evocative work, but the basic humanity it instills in its characters moves it well beyond anything Ghosts did. Having heroes that the player can relate to goes a long way towards forging a connection between the player and the game.