As I play through video games, I love to think about the characters and their motivations. I enjoy parsing through how a game- or movie, book, or any other media- represents its protagonists and their journey. Do their actions reflect any growth or movement of any kind emotionally or in their maturity? Do they come to terms with personal flaws and grow from them or, sometimes even more interestingly, do they keep their flaws and find ways to work around them? How does this piece of media engage me with a protagonist that acts as my surrogate in the world I’m interacting with?
Being a huge fan of role-playing games, I’m used to finding myself with 40 to 60 hours of time to sort through events with a small cast of characters from a variety of backgrounds and circumstances. They may start out selfish and have a turning point that leads them to a life of altruism or they may be a bit too naive and harden as the plot rolls out, becoming battle-weary and keen. In shorter games, it can be easier to track a character’s progression because the story beats are so close together and they have to have impact if the game takes pride in its narrative. On the other hand, it can be harder since there is only so much time to show someone’s story arc outside of the ongoing plot and changing a character too much in that time can prove disastrous. Games like The Last of Us, Tomb Raider, and Horizon: New Dawn work to fit an immersive story in with flourishes of character growth in a relatively short time. The protagonists, though, can be relatable to many of the audience members- those characters have their own struggles from the past and striking at them from time to time to rein the player into the mindset of their avatar.
In a bid to try to write a bit about the series, I’ve been playing through Dead Rising to refresh my memory and track improvements as the games released. While I’ve been enjoying it, there is one thing I can say for certain:
No one should be able to empathize with Frank West.
As usual, here is a warning that since this will discuss a character and game in depth that if you don’t want spoilers for the Dead Rising series, right here is where you want to stop reading.
Now, that may seem like a severe statement since it digs up the question as to why there would be a protagonist that the player shouldn’t resonate with. In subsequent games, the playable characters of Chuck Greene and Nick Ramos have some relatable qualities that make you sympathize and empathize with them. From the very beginning, though, we see that Frank is a reporter (a career that clearly has a particular reputation in the media and even this series) who looks out for two things above everything else to a dangerous degree: the next big scoop and himself. As he’s taking pictures on the way into zombie infested Willamette, his primary focus is on people who are suffering or dying, gaining more points for taking pictures of them at their most tragic.
Now to Capcom’s credit, Frank West breaks the usual protagonist mold. He’s rarely anything but impatient or put upon when he speaks with survivors he is trying to rescue and until the final hour or two of the game, he doesn’t show any sadness or disappointment regarding anything going on around him except for losing a part of his story. It’s during a very late-game story beat with on-again-off-again antagonist, Isabella, that he finally shows his humanity. Even then, the situation changes in his surroundings and the fight for survival results in his self-serving abrasive ways becoming the desire to uncover the truth to serve justice for Isabella and her much more malevolent brother, Carlito. In this, Capcom did a great job of keeping Frank’s personality consistent whether he’s being a hero to the people or a cutthroat investigative journalist.
So the question that came to mind for me was “why?” Why am I supposed to enjoy being in the shoes of Frank West, a man who shows little to no genuine sympathy or empathy toward most of the people he interacts with?
First and foremost, he appeals to the general fans of the zombie genre. He’s a bit of a badass who runs around slashing and smashing up the shambling undead with a myriad of weapons and items at his disposal. He’s essentially what folks who play these kinds of games would like to imagine they would be in a zombie apocalypse, praised by almost everybody he helps because he’s depended on and “gets the job done”. Women want him and men want to be like him, and it’s expressed a number of times throughout the game from a selection of survivors.
On a second note, his ‘breaking the mold’ is almost refreshing. There’s an inkling of noble intention in Frank by the time the credits roll, but he’s not specifically drawn as a character who would help people without his own motivations behind it- unless the player deems it to be so. Notable characters from other action franchises tend toward the heroic. They may be trying to survive their own ordeal, but they are driven by the story to help others and work toward the greater good. Frank has his own slant on that, but the story only dictates that he wants his answers and to get out of the Willamette Mall in one piece. His scenes with Jessie and Brad, the two DHS agents he is working with, all end with him pushing them for information and usually to an extreme where they close him out (sometimes physically) so that they can do their jobs and try to stop what’s happening. He’s invasive, insensitive, and in some ways, a breath of fresh air to the “action hero” trope.
The biggest contributor to me as to why Frank West is a protagonist that can get away with his actions and motives, though, is a fairly simple one once the game is analyzed through its cast: there are far worse people than Frank West.
In a just about brilliant move by the developers, Frank is made more palatable because of the introduction of Psychopaths, human “boss battles” who have snapped or taken their opportunity to act out because of the discord around them. Sure, Frank can be a little manipulative, but he sure isn’t tying people up to sacrifice in a cult ritual. Is he salacious toward a woman here and there? Yeah, but he hasn’t trapped a bunch of them in a store and threatened to beat them with a nightstick. Those awful pictures that net more points the most gruesome or exploitative they are become nothing when compared with a rival reporter who is literally judging that content and working to create his own by zombifying some poor guy and catching the transformation on film. The key way that Dead Rising turns a protagonist with questionable morals into a viable main character is by pitting him against zombies and people who are, regardless of their origins, lacking any morals at all.
Whatever the case, Capcom saw fit to have Frank stand as the primary character of the series, even releasing an alternate version of Dead Rising 2 that features him as the main character. There’s clearly no denying his popularity to fans of the series. On a similar note, this isn’t meant to outline why people shouldn’t like him. In fact, it’s meant to help analyze why people like him- especially since I’m not much of a fan of him myself. More and more outliers seem to be popping out of creators’ minds and onto store shelves as time goes by. In the end, it’s fantastic to have different leads in games who have different approaches and mindsets to keep things fresh. I feel it’s important, though, that if a game goes out of its way to make an unapproachable or self-interested person in their universe the central character, it’s worth sticking under a microscope to determine how they handled them to keep players interested and invested. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of picking the right person for the job over picking the “upright” person.
In this particular case, this doesn’t make the game suffer any. The heart of the game lies in its B-movie plot and the mayhem of surviving a zombie bloodbath using creative means and resources at your disposal. Being that it’s more story-based than character driven in the end, it leaves a little more leeway to have a character we may not agree with. If we had been given control of the morally sound Brad or Jessie, we’d have the same kind of hero we normally see in these types of games. Having Isabella as the protagonist would have been an interesting perspective but she gives us so much information on the main antagonist that it would have cut the game down in content considerably. Using Frank as a conduit for the story to progress and to make things feel a bit different may have been the best thing Capcom did for the game in the end. He isn’t so much an “audience surrogate” as he is an actor for the production playing out before the player.
Sometimes, you don’t have to be able to put yourself into a protagonist’s shoes to appreciate how the shoes were made.
Given how many games are starting with this trend of morally unsound protagonists, are there any that you personally couldn’t resonate with but you found interesting enough to keep playing with? Maybe there’s a protagonist that you really tried to empathize with or understand but just couldn’t? Feel free to chat about it in the comments on over on my Twitter account!
As always, thanks for reading and hope your weekend has been great!
– Matt (a.k.a. The3rdPlayer)