Narrative Analysis: The Basics
Game Discussed: Metal Gear Solid (Konami, 1998), Final Fantasy X (Square-Enix, 2001)
Every person has their strengths and weaknesses, and characters are no different. Well-rounded characters have both positive and negative traits that set them apart from other members of the cast. Positive traits, or strengths, are the attributes that help them reach their goals; negative traits, or flaws, are the attributes that work against them. (To learn more about Character Flaws, head here). According to Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, authors of “The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes,” character strengths can also be defined as: “…traits that produce personal growth or help a character achieve goals through healthy means. They also enhance relationships and typically benefit others in some way.“1 In other words, strengths are not just qualities characters use to achieve their own goals; they’re also qualities that help them connect with other characters.
Like characters from other forms of media, the best video game characters all have strengths that help them achieve their goals. Due to the task-oriented nature of video games, many characters have specific physical attributes that help them on their quests—running, jumping, fighting—but they can also have emotional strengths that help them in more subtle ways. For example, in Metal Gear Solid (Konami, 1998), protagonist Solid Snake is able to complete his top-secret mission not just with his sneaking skills and firearms expertise, but also with his ability to remain calm under pressure. This emotional strength sets him apart from his scientist sidekick, Otacon, who is prone to panic at the slightest provocation. By maintaining a cool demeanor, Snake helps Otacon stay grounded, which in turn helps Snake achieve his goals. Snake’s emotional strengths are even more important in situations where his physical strength is compromised, whether it’s because he’s been captured or he’s trying to remain unseen. In these scenarios, his ability to remain calm is his greatest asset, as it’s the one his enemies can never take away from him.
Not all video game characters have the physical strength to meet their goals, which forces them to rely even more on their emotional strength. One example of a character who fits this archetype is Yuna, the secondary protagonist of Final Fantasy X (Square-Enix, 2001). As a small, thin woman without much muscle, Yuna is one of the least physically imposing members of her traveling party. Her strength lies in her ability to easily form close bonds with others, which allows her to summon divine beings known as Aeons. These Aeons can assist her in combat, turning her into one of the most valuable party members. Yuna’s emotional strength is also helpful outside of combat. Through her kindness, empathy, and desire to please, Yuna is able to connect with people from all walks of life, which helps her recruit a powerful team of guardians to protect her. These guardians admire her not for her summoning skills, but for her positive emotional attributes, which set her apart from other characters in the party.
When Strengths Become Weaknesses
Game Discussed: Metal Gear Solid (Konami, 1998), Final Fantasy X (Square-Enix, 2001)
While well-rounded characters have both strengths and weaknesses, sometimes those attributes can be one and the same. Sometimes the character is aware of this, but oftentimes, others have to point it out. “Most characters have at least one fatal flaw, a negative trait that causes him to be somehow “stuck” at the start of his story,” say Ackerman and Puglisi. “To complicate matters, he will often misinterpret this flaw as a strength, and can’t see how it is keeping him from achieving what he desires most.”2 In situations where characters draw strength from their flaw, they must learn how to separate the good from the bad, tapping into the emotions that help them succeed without succumbing to the ones that make them fail.
In Metal Gear Solid, Snake’s unflappable demeanor is one of his greatest strengths, but it also creates problems for him along the way. His relentless indifference makes it difficult for others to connect with him, which is something he prefers. At the start of the game, Snake is quasi-retired, living alone in Alaska with a pack of huskies. He has no interest in spending time with other people, especially not members of his old team, and he’s not afraid to let his former commander know it. As a result, he’s shocked when his commander refers to him as a friend and replies: “With my personality, I don’t have too many friends.” It’s a confession that proves that Snake is painfully aware of his weaknesses, weaknesses he’ll have to overcome when he needs the help of allies. Throughout the story, he learns when and how to let down his guard, allowing him to make friends while maintaining the cool detachment that enablles him to survive. He sheds his weakness, but he keeps his strength: proof of his growth as a character.
Final Fantasy X’s Yuna also struggles with separating her strengths from her weaknesses. As a summoner, Yuna’s job is to defeat the all-powerful entity known as Sin, but defeating him requires a sacrifice: her own life. Because Yuna wants to please others—a strength that helps her make friends along the way—she’s willing to sacrifice herself without seriously considering any alternatives. Even though she doesn’t want to die, she believes it’s her duty to her guardians and her people, so she represses her own feelings and marches towards her demise. As her story progresses, her guardians help her realize that her life and her feelings have value, and her desire to make others happy shouldn’t take priority over her own happiness. Like Snake, Yuna grows as a character by finding a way to separate her strengths from her weaknesses.
Balancing Strengths and Weaknesses
Game Discussed: Guild Wars 2 (ArenaNet, 2012)
All characters should have their strengths, but there comes a point when a character has too many positive qualities to be believable. “Too many [positive] attributes and not only will the character succeed too easily, she will be unrealistic,” write Ackerman and Puglisi, “threatening the reader’s ability to connect with the hero and the story.“3 Characters with too many strengths are a common problem in ‘wish-fulfillment’ stories: stories written to show the audience what it’s like to be the best at everything. When these flawless characters are written to resemble the author, they become what’s known as a Mary Sue. According to Pat Pflieger, the creator of the 1999 presentation “Too Good To Be True: 150 Years Of Mary Sue,” a Mary Sue is: “…more charming, more belligerent, more understanding, more beautiful, more graceful, more eccentric, more spiritual, more klutzy…She is singular; she is impossible to ignore.”4 While the term Mary Sue has traditionally been applied to over-powered author inserts in fan-written media, over time, it has become synonymous with flawless characters in general. Audiences are always quick to point out and reject Mary Sues, confirming Ackerman and Puglisi’s theory that flawless characters pull readers out of stories.
Video game narratives are not immune to flawless characters. Countless characters from early video games are technically flawless, as they aren’t developed enough to have weaknesses, but modern video games still occasionally struggle with limiting their cast members’ strengths. One recent example of a character with too many positive attributes is Scarlet Briar, a major antagonist in Guild Wars 2 (ArenaNet, 2012). Although Scarlet is extremely young, she has extensive knowledge of the world and all of its inhabitants. She’s also more brilliant than any of the Asura, a diminutive race known for their intelligence, and earns multiple advanced degrees from their elite colleges. After college, Scarlet leverages her countless connections to control powerful armies and limitless resources, which she uses to thwart the protagonists at every time. What’s more, she accomplishes all of this by the age of twenty-three, at which point she dies, having accomplished everything she set out to do. In short, she’s the best at everything she tries, and she has no weaknesses to offset her numerous strengths. Unsurprisingly, these qualities made her less than popular with players, who felt she was overpowered and obnoxious. As Ackerman and Puglisi so succinctly said, audiences couldn’t connect with her, and the story paid the price.
Well-rounded characters need strengths to help them achieve their goals. While these positive attributes can be physical, emotional strengths are a necessary component of a character arc. These strengths help them connect with other characters, who in turn help them on their journeys. Writers should be careful not to give characters too many strengths, however, as a character with too many gifts is liable to turn audience members away. The key is to strike a balance between strengths and weaknesses, one that makes the character feel as real as any person on the street.
1 Ackerman, Angela; Puglisi, Becca. The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes (p. 4). JADD Publishing. Kindle Edition.
2 Ackerman, Angela; Puglisi, Becca. The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes (p. 10). JADD Publishing. Kindle Edition.
3 Ackerman, Angela; Puglisi, Becca. The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes (p. 13). JADD Publishing. Kindle Edition
4 Pflieger, Pat. “Too Good To Be True: 150 Years Of Mary Sue.” Presented at the American Culture Association conference, March 31, 1999, San Diego, CA.
* Reference Footage (Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes): KefkaProduction. Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes THE MOVIE – Full Story. YouTube, 2016.
** Reference Footage (Final Fantasy X) Dansg08. Final Fantasy X HD Remaster – The Movie – Marathon Edition (All Cutscenes/Story). YouTube, 2014.
*** Reference Footage (Guild Wars 2): Ragucci25. The Story of Scarlet Briar [Guild Wars 2 Lore]. YouTube, 2014.