Designing an Unlikable Lead

It isn’t hard to make a character unlikable. The character could have a terrible design, be extremely poorly written, have terrible voice acting… It’s a much harder job to have players like and enjoy a character, or at the very least be indifferent to them. But what about the characters that the players are designed not to like? These are the hardest characters to design overall! You have to make them unlikable but not so much that the player is turned away right from the start. It’s a delicate balance that doesn’t always work, but when it does? It makes for a great and memorable character that is sure to stick in the mind of players for a long time.

One of the most well known character like this is Kratos from God of War. Now let me clarify something: I’m talking about Kratos from the original God of War games here. Before he got an amazingly well done redemption in the kind of sort of reboot on PS4. Kratos was always a rage machine of a character. Screaming and destroying anything in his path of destruction. At first, this is somewhat justified. He’s tricked into killing his family by Ares after all. Dude is entitled to some revenge. However, it’s when Kratos gets his revenge that things start to turn. It would be one thing if he was content with things after that. Killing Ares and becoming the new God of War. But it’s quickly established at the start of God of War 2 that Kratos just kept going…

With his new found godhood, Kratos doesn’t stop. He keeps warring and he keeps winning! This is when, hopefully, the player starts to have some disconnect with Kratos. Sure, he was always a ruthless guy. He’ll sacrifice a boat captain in a heart beat. But that was always justified, right? As God of War 2 progresses, it starts to become clear how much of Kratos’ quest is brought upon by himself. This revenge he seeks against the gods is something of his own doing. It becomes very clear in the third game especially, as the world literally crumbles around Kratos with each major god he kills. It’s hard to see Kratos as that same man who was just wanting revenge on the god that tricked him into killing his family. Kratos is the villain now. And by extension, so is the player…

I suppose the obvious question now is “Why would you want to play a character like this?” After all, like I said before, you are basically controlling the villain at this point, as it becomes more and more clear what Kratos’ actions are leading to. There’s a few different answers to that question though. First, and most obviously, it’s not hard to disconnect from Kratos as a player. The story is very clear that it is Kratos doing these things. You are playing Kratos but you aren’t in control of him. You don’t have much choice over his actions as the player. The most choice you tend to have is how he’s going to brutally kill the next thing in his way! As such, it feels more like you are along for the ride rather than committing these terrible acts yourself. Second, the games are fun! The best way to get the player to tolerate any part of your game is to make the game play fun. And it’s hard to deny the fun you have quite literally ripping through your enemies while screaming at the gods. Lastly though is the fact that the game addresses Kratos’ descent into a man who is obsessed with revenge that he is bringing upon himself from a man who loved his family. And this is easily the most important part to remember when it comes to designing an unlikable main character.

The thing that separates a character that is designed to be unlikable and a character that people don’t like because of the way they are designed is how the world they are set in treats them. If the world they are in is clearly aware of the character and their flaws then it feels like those flaws were deliberate. They become flaws of the character and not of the one designing them. The story and world of God of War very clearly views Kratos’ actions as wrong. It shows how his decisions ruin the world around him and the fact that Kratos knows it. By the third game, you can see how the world is being destroyed with each god Kratos kills. Even if the gods had done some terrible things as well, it’s hard to call what Kratos did ‘heroic’ or that he was designed to be a character the player looks up to.

Now whether or not the player feels like Kratos is justified to do what he did is up to them. In the end, the player could still identify with Kratos and find him to be a likeable character. It really comes down to a matter of opinion. But despite that, there is still a very clear difference between designing a character to be likeable and unlikable. I’m sure there are lots of people who like Kratos for the fact that he is unlikable! It’s a very different approach than most main characters. It gives them a lot more depth than the usual hero that players normally find themselves in the shoes of. If done correctly at least. If done poorly you’re just left with a character no one likes… But let’s look at another example. One of my favorites in fact! Let’s talk about James Sunderland from Silent Hill 2.

James is a very interesting character. It’s clear right from the start of the game that James is meant to be a big departure from Silent Hill 1‘s lead, Harry Mason. Harry wasn’t much of a character if we’re being honest. He was a father who got into a car crash with his young daughter Cheryl while driving passed the town of Silent Hill. After the crash, Cheryl is gone and Harry is off to find her. And that’s about as deep as he goes! Which isn’t a problem honestly. Harry is very easy to relate to after all and his determination to get his daughter back is admirable to say the least. It shouldn’t be hard for a player to like Harry and want to help him find his daughter is what I’m saying! However, James is a completely different story.

Now things actually start kind of normal for James. Normal for a horror game, anyways. The game starts with James revealing the reason he came to Silent Hill was that he received a letter from his wife who died three years ago. Turns out she’s very much alive and is waiting for him in Silent Hill! Already you can start to see some parallels between James and Harry’s motivations. They are both wandering the foggy streets of Silent Hill looking for someone special to them. But right off the bat things start taking a turn.

You see, James is weird. Not quirky, not jokey, not playful. Weird. James is weird. It’s hard to explain without actually having the experience of playing the game but it isn’t long after the start that the player is clued in on the fact that something is off about him. It’s not something that’s thrown in the player’s face though. It’s all very subtle. At first, the player could brush off the weirdness because of the voice acting. Which is iconic for how strange it is. It seems like something that’s a product of the time or maybe the developers didn’t really understand how to properly cast or direct the voice actors. Something pretty common in the PS1 and PS2 eras. But as you continue on through out the game, it starts to become clear that the voice acting was very carefully chosen to be this way. After that realization, it’s easy to call into question James as a character. This is just the first step though!

Giving just a bit of thought to James’ actions throughout the game will quickly reveal that he is far from normal. From shoving his hand into a backed up toilet without question, to his first instinct when faced with a monster to be to pick up a wooden board and beat it up. Just like with Kratos, while you are the one controlling James the game makes it clear doing these things is James’ choice. It’s not like the player had any other option after all. Unlike with Kratos and God of War though, Silent Hill 2 is a lot more subtle about addressing James’ weirdness. In fact, when it comes to meeting some of the other characters James comes off as being somewhat normal. In comparison, at least. But as the game goes on, you start to see how James is just as weird as the others. This approach creates an amazing divide between the player and James. Assuming the player is on James’ side from the start, as most players are with any character they start playing as, the slow realization over the course of the game makes the player begin to trust James less and less. At some point, the player isn’t continuing to play to try and reunite James with his wife, they are playing because they want to see where all this goes! I could go on from here but I’m actually going to stop. If you haven’t played Silent Hill 2 I won’t spoil the big twist of it here. I honestly can’t recommend the game more, especially if you’re a fan of classic horror games!

James and Kratos are not meant to be likeable in the traditional sense. We don’t play as these characters because we want to be like them or look up to them. We play as them because it offers a unique perspective. They challenge our views on them. If Kratos was instead the villain of God of War and you played as another character trying to defeat him, I feel Kratos would lose a lot as a character. The player wouldn’t try and see things from his perspective and instead just see him as another evil guy rather than the more tragic character that he really is. This goes double for James as the mystery and slow burn of his character throughout Silent Hill 2 makes him incredibly unique! I’d even argue it’s one of the main reasons why Silent Hill 2 is often considered the best in the series. And why future entries in the series tried, and ultimately failed, to make another character like him.

Characters like James and Kratos are hard to get right, which is probably why we rarely see characters like them. That, and I feel like a lot of designers worry too much about having players play as a character they might not like. They worry that it’ll drive players away if they can’t relate or agree with the character they are playing as. And that’s a fair point! But I think designers don’t give players enough credit. They are nervous about challenging them and default to a much more basic and safe character. And while there isn’t anything wrong with that, you can’t exactly call it original either.

Give your characters depth! Make us think about their actions! Kratos and James are highlights of their series, not something players tolerated to get to the rest of the game. Try and take some risks! You may be surprised by how enjoyable something unlikable can be…

But those are just my thoughts! What are some of yours? Are there any characters you enjoy but would consider unlikable? Do you think designers should take more risks when it comes to making their main characters? I’d love to hear your thoughts so don’t be shy!

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