Whilst games in more recent years have started putting more effort into their narratives, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ve all been successful in that endeavour. After all, the lifeblood of any story is its characters, but what does that mean when the characters are insufferable? Yes, we have boring, bland figures every year in video games, with personalities that would make the cast of a Transformers movie look like Shakespeare, but these tend to be forgotten swiftly and are usually content to stagnate in a corner somewhere.
But sometimes there are thorns. People whose every action is like sandpaper rubbing against the taste buds, and they stick with us for a long time. Some of them have become infamous for it.
So here we have a selection of particularly annoying entities from gaming history, and the lessons that should’ve been learnt from them. Maybe it’s wrong to cast the first stone, but truthfully I’d be delighted to see any of these pricks buried under a landslide.
TOM SHELDON (THE JUST CAUSE SERIES)
Just Cause was never celebrated for its story, but quite frankly it didn’t need to be. When gameplay is as maniacally fun as this then I’m willing to let a silly plot slide, particularly if it intrudes very little on the game as a whole. And Just Cause 2 understood that.
But that doesn’t mean that it gets away with it entirely. Though none of Just Cause 2’s characters were hugely likeable or complex, they generally did whatever was needed of them and then were shunted off-screen to let the madcap action take place. Basically, they all had the role of signposts saying “THIS WAY FOR EXPLOSIONS.”
Except for one of them, whose every moment on screen made me want to hookshot him off a cliff, or tie him to a helicopter and fly it into the ocean. And yet he was the one person for whom the game would not allow it.
So meet Tom Sheldon, an ostensible ally of the player who plays like an awful stereotype of the worst urges associated with Southern States America and right-wing republican idiocy. He’s constantly burbling about barbecue, getting other people to do work for him and contributing fuck-all to help out, bar a vague sense of slightly racist superiority to any other country. And of course he hates communists for no real reason besides blind patriotism, just to round it all off. Pair this shallow, unpleasant wanker with a voice that sounds like a piece of metal being torn in half and my tolerance wears thin real fast, as he shrieks another high-pitched “YEE-HAW” for the thirtieth time that day.
But how could you fix this character without destroying it completely? Well, I’d say what was needed for Sheldon was a great deal more awareness about the archetype they were playing with. He’s probably intended to be a parody, but this doesn’t count for anything if it’s just not funny (a theme we may be coming back to later). If you want an idiot, play him like one, commit to it. Don’t shuffle back and forth uncertainly, and at the very least make him worth something when it comes to the humour.
Sheldon comes across as unpleasant, but the game seems to think he’s cool – and he’s not. So what we have is somebody I don’t want to be near or even see getting praised, being fawned over by the narrative from dawn ‘til dusk, such as when it allows him to finish off a boss fight by crashing a chopper into the enemy. Rico spends the first half of Just Cause 2 actively trying to find him, then the second half working with him, which seemed somewhat at odds with what I wanted – aka, the hookshot-helicopter-hijack-hoorah, and to watch that ugly Hawaiian shirt and its pudgy contents plummeting into the sea.
Alright, so this one actually goes by many different names, but they’re really the same entity deep down. In water it’s called Tentacool, in deserts it’s Trapinch and in more recent games Bibarel has been a great source of frustration – but at their core, they’re all the same thing, the spirit of Zubat reborn over and over.
Here’s a basic rule of games and life in general – you can always make people angry by forcing them to expend effort, money, resources and time on something that doesn’t benefit them in anyway whatsoever. And Zubat is the personification of that feeling, mixed with a load of other little irks and niggles.
For those of you who don’t know, here’s how it works – Zubat is an incredibly common Pokemon that is frequently found in many of the game’s cave systems. It’s weak, ineffective and has a type disadvantage to pretty much anything. And yet it’s also one of the most horrific things that you have to endure, because caves are filled with Zubat. No sooner have you batted one out of the way then another drops from the darkness to get tangled in your hair. And Pokemon is nothing if not willing to drag its feet, so every one of these battles has to start with a protracted animation in which the two sides gear up, deploy Pokemon, give a squawking little battlecry and so on and so on and so on…
And then you have a choice. You could try to run (which is by no means guaranteed to work and uses up your turn, giving Zubat a chance to attack you for free) or fight it on its own terms, which uses up the limited pool of power points you’ll probably need for proper fights later on. You know, the fun fights that you want to be doing.
But, as you are probably thinking, what’s so bad about all this? Yes, it’s annoying, but who cares when you’ve just said the Zubat is no proper threat to the player?
It’s a little hard to explain it clearly, but the issue is that Zubat’s the kind of fighter that will go for all the below-the-belt punches. This winged pain knows a lot of bullshit attacks which aren’t dangerous per se, but will keep the fight going in the most unsatisfactory way possible. Zubat regains health, confuses your team, makes them flinch to miss turns and poisons them to cause damage even after the fight is over. And I hope you’ve got some kind of antidote, because otherwise that poison isn’t going away until it’s reduced your Pokemon to zero health. Hooray!
Basically, Zubat is all the most annoying moves and tactics combined into one creature, then repeated forever, until you finally break through or just throw away the Game Boy. Picking away at your health and morale until only a shell remains. Kind of appropriate for a creature that has the signature move “leech life.” And though the games allow you to buy an item that keeps wild Pokemon at bay, Zubat is usually at its worst in the early stages and that’s when these items tend to be proportionately very expensive. So the system is basically suggesting that you bribe it to keep the little sods off you for a while. Not cool, Game Freak.
What’s to be done about it? Well, let’s have no more enemies with all these horrible attacks up their sleeves. Mix them up, make them less annoying, and change what you’re likely to find inside caves. Maybe one day we’ll be able to look back on this with forgiveness. Maybe.
BEN PAUL (TELLTALE’S THE WALKING DEAD: SEASON 1)
(Warning: this one requires a little bit of spoilers to talk about properly. If you haven’t played The Walking Dead: Season 1 yet, feel free to skip this.)
The problem with this part is that I suspect that supporting character Ben Paul might have been designed to be annoying at a basic level. But I still think my criticism stands, because the overall public response to Ben was – “OH GOD, WHY ARE YOU STILL HERE?”
I do respect the writing in The Walking Dead Season 1 greatly. In fact, let’s not split hairs – it’s the best interpretation of Robert Kirkman’s work, including the original material itself, which meandered on and on without ever really going anywhere, thus losing the tight focus and narrative elegance that Telltale’s story had.
And what I like most about the characters in The Walking Dead is that they’re all universally flawed and realistic. Clementine in particular is like a monument demonstrating how to portray children in fiction without getting on your nerves (another thing we’ll be coming back to), but this is the problem that I’m toying with – does a realistic perspective justify the addition of a character who is so unlikeable as to make the game less entertaining as a whole? Or, to put it more simply, can you justify sticking a real bellend in your game, one who’s so frustrating that he makes you want to stop playing completely?
The reason why I suspect Ben was designed to annoy the player is because we’re constantly given chances to let him die. It’s a little ethical test put upon us by the writers to see if we’ll break and give him up to the hoard, but I actually don’t like this challenge. Ben is discovered by the group at the beginning of the second episode, and whilst to begin with he’s tolerable enough, that rapidly changes as he makes one frustrating mistake after another, many of which indirectly result in various deaths of his friends. He even abandons the infant Clementine to the hoard to save his own skin, which drove me nuts with outrage. Yes, it’s a plausible response for many people, but it made me aggravated to see him constantly making these errors and other people paying for them.
But what’s the lesson here? Isn’t this an intentional choice? Well, yes – but it’s a bad one in my opinion. A complex character certainly has flaws, but isn’t entirely composed of them. Ben has no real redeeming qualities, no reason why we should want him around, which in itself seems kind of implausible. He’s cowardly, stupid, throws a couple of tantrums, seems unwilling to admit to his bad decisions until he suddenly becomes a big moping mess and is genuinely detrimental to the group as a whole. And when he finally died (because of yet another thing that he fucked up) I felt only a vague sense of gratitude to the zombie that finished him off, marred somewhat by the fact that another, more interesting character got taken out with him. For fuck’s sake, Ben – you even ruined your own death for me.
Ben needed nobility, some purpose, something – even if it was just a sense of commitment to what he was doing. There’s few things more irritating than watching someone flip-flop back and forth, learning nothing and contributing even less. Even evil characters tend to have a backbone, or some strength of will that makes them a tinge more admirable. And when you rank below all the worst villains, something’s gone horribly wrong.
The second half of this list will be available soon, only at joelfraney.com.