It’s April, the season of fools. As a group of people who both play and write about games, we are the real fools—but this isn’t about us. This month, we’re talking about gaming’s biggest fools, dinguses, and clowns, and what function they have in context.
Gut-check: who is gaming’s biggest fool? No explanation, just go.
Melissa Brinks: Arthur Morgan of Red Dead Redemption 2.
Maddi Butler: Snow, from Final Fantasy XIII.
Zainabb Hull: Nathan Drake from Uncharted.
Nola Pfau: Peter Molyneux.
OK, now you can think about it. With a little more thought, who’s gaming’s biggest fool? Do you stand by your gut check? Why or why not?
Melissa: I think the only reason I went with Arthur is that I’m pretty sure he repeatedly calls himself a fool. He’s not wrong—he is a fool, but I’m going to choose Alistair from Dragon Age: Origins for this one.
Even if he’s not gaming’s biggest fool, Alistair is not the sharpest sword in the armory and he makes some ridiculous choices throughout the first game, as well as later in the series. He holds foolish beliefs about mages, he’s a fool for love, he’s a fool every which way. It just so happens that I like fools.
Zainabb: Honestly, I agree with Melissa that Alistair is at least one of gaming’s biggest fools. His naivety gets him into some scrapes and heartache but, although he grated on me a bit during my first playthrough, I now find him very endearing.
Not endearing is Nathan Drake who my gut checked mostly because he just kept falling off cliffs and flopping into traps during my time with the first Uncharted and its slippery controls. Maybe some of his actions are also foolish but he also operates staunchly in line with the functions and expectations of colonialism so I, uh, guess he kind of knows what he’s doing by not knowing what he’s doing.
Maddi: I gut checked Snow because his whole character deal is that he’s down bad for Lightning’s sister Serah and will do anything to save her. As such, he tends to barrel into every situation without much thought. I mostly stand by this, but I think Wakka (Final Fantasy X) and Ryuji (Persona 5) are also worthy candidates. Both characters tend to speak before they think, and, respectfully, level up their brawn much faster than their brains.
Nola: Oh, we were talking fictional characters? My bad. I feel like the Final Fantasy series as a whole is about fools learning valuable lessons. Cloud Strife is a fool who convinces himself he’s a supersoldier, Squall Leonhart is a fool who convinces himself he doesn’t care about his orphan siblings even as he traipses the world fighting all of time for them. Zidane Tribal is a weird little monkey-tailed fool who thinks the best way to be a thief is by travelling on a gaudy airship as part of an extremely prominent theater troupe. You see my point here?
Melissa: God, how did Final Fantasy X‘s Tidus not even enter into my mind?
What function do fools and foolish characters serve in a game narrative?
Melissa: I think it depends on context, but I think of a fool as a character who makes poor choices and decisions, but in a way that tends to make you go, “aw,” more often than, “hey, what the fuck are you doing?” Archetypally, the fool is a character who aims for greatness despite personal shortcomings, in part out of naivety, in part because that’s just who they are, deep down. They’re the kind of character who you know is going to fail frequently, and it’s going to hurt, but you want to see them try nonetheless.
In games, I think that speaks to me because failure (and overcoming that failure) is often so much of the gaming experience. When I play super powerful heroes who are good at everything, there’s an inherent comedy to it—I’m always accidentally running off of cliffs, dying in ridiculous ways, or jumping wildly around the map rather than walking from place to place. Playing a foolish character smooths some of that friction away, as I no longer feel like I’m playing against the grain. When I play Arthur Morgan, it tracks that he sometimes falls off his horse or hauls off and punches someone in the face instead of saying hello. If he were real, he probably wouldn’t do that, but if he were real he also wouldn’t be able to take 45 bullets to the chest and still be fighting. Arthur punching people instead of saying hello is just an exaggerated version of who I read him to be: someone who just doesn’t know how to stop being an asshole because he’s never learned another way to be, even if he very much wants to. Also, a fool.
Zainabb: There’s something that’s chiming with me about Melissa’s distinction that fools are more likely to make you go “aw,” a reaction that both reflects Melissa’s particularly strong love for dorky foolish characters and also feels true generally. Like, I know that I find a particular kind of naivety and foolishness annoying, but off the top of my head, I’m struggling to think of game characters I feel that about. Partly, that’s down to narrative context: I found Alistair difficult during my first playthrough of Dragon Age: Origins, for example, because I accidentally romanced him and felt frustrated about being pushed into that relationship by the game. I despise Nathan Drake because he’s a coloniser. (Granted, I generally dislike cocky but silly white male characters but it’s entirely possible I would like a character like Drake in a different context. Maybe.)
Outside of context, though, foolish protagonists are supposed to be likeable rather than annoying. We’re meant to relate to them, after all. Thinking about the archetype of the fool that Melissa outlined, we all fail a bunch (unless you’re a real life antagonist like a billionaire), grappling with our own shortcomings as we aspire to whatever our goals are. Some characters provide power fantasies but fools might allow us to more easily see ourselves in a game’s world. And failing that, they provide plenty of conflict for the player to attempt to resolve.
Maddi: It occurred to me as I was answering the last question that many games where the player character is part of a party or group of friends have one character who fills the role of the fool. In addition to Snow, Wakka, and Ryuji, Final Fantasy VII Remake has Biggs and Wedge, Final Fantasy XV has Prompto, Horizon Zero Dawn has the oafish but well-meaning Erend.
I agree with Melissa’s distinction that the fool is a character you want to root for, in spite of or even because of their shortcomings. I think they play an important role in the group, too. Often, foolish characters provide a bit of comedic relief or tension, adding some variance to a group dynamic. For me, having that conflict either in the character’s beliefs or actions within the group helps to deepen and further develop the group dynamic. If every character in my group agreed all the time, I think games on the whole would be a lot more boring.
Wakka’s prejudice toward the Al Bhed in Final Fantasy X, for example, allows us us to see how the followers of Yevon think, and it also provides an opportunity for Wakka’s character to meaningfully grow and become more accepting by the end of the game. (He remains a fool in other ways, though.)
Nola: The point of a story is to enrich, and the point of a fool within a story is to provide a point of ignorance to which wisdom may be dispensed. Because fools are, well, foolish, they often have the room to be funny in otherwise serious narratives, which of course makes them endearing.
Do you like playing as fools? Why?
Melissa: I have a “Let Me Tell You About My OC” coming up about this from a tabletop perspective, so I’m only going to answer this for video games.
The answer is simple: yes, absolutely! I think it can be frustrating in some circumstances to watch a character be less sharp than you are, such as watching a supposedly brilliant detective fail to spot even the most basic clues, but playing a foolish character can be a lot of fun, too. I don’t always want stories about people who are great at what they do—there’s a lot of fun to be had in characters who frequently screw up, too. Uncharted is a flawed series in many ways and Nathan Drake is far too good at things he has no right being good at (why can he use every kind of gun with incredible accuracy?), but he’s an absolute failure at interpersonal relationships beyond his initial charm. He’s foolish when it comes to relationships. What makes the fourth game so good from a story perspective is not the treasure hunt or the long-lost brother or any other cool-guy-Drake thing—it’s that he has a good thing and he loses it because he’s too foolish to realize how good it is. Watching him claw his way back from that is what makes the narrative compelling, and ultimately satisfying when we see how he’s grown.
Zainabb: I agree, I think for the most part I enjoy playing as fools. I think it can be more compelling and, like Melissa said earlier, more true to how I play (that is, with a lot of flailing and failing). For me, though, there needs to be a balance between the player character consistently making mistakes and how much I, the player, can see that the character is getting things wrong. It can create dramatic tension to show me, I don’t know, the enemy’s plans so I’m aware of the trap my character’s unknowingly walking into. But give me too much information and I can get frustrated with, if not the character themself, then the game. It can depend on the type of game, too; in an open world game like Red Dead Redemption 2, it’s a little annoying to see all of the obvious red flags that Arthur’s missing about some of his gang mates, knowing that I can’t do anything about it despite theoretically being able to just… earn loads of cash and ride off into the sunset.
In comparison, even though literally every playable character in Until Dawn is a fool (to varying degrees of likeableness), I’m better able to roll with their poor decisions because it’s a linear game that draws on the same tropes from slasher films, where everyone makes bad decisions all the time.
Melissa: You’re so right about Arthur Morgan missing the red flags. Please make one (1) friend who isn’t also raised in this horrible environment so you can see it isn’t normal, Arthur. Red Dead Redemption 2 definitely suffers from a world that’s too big and too full for a story that’s actually quite small, made worse by the fact that surely if he spoke to even a single one of the people he meets along the way, they might give him a scrap of an idea that he (and everyone else!) are being exploited.
Maddi: Yes. I love when I am given the opportunity to think less. I had a lot of fun playing foolish characters during a recent playthrough of End of the Line, a TTRPG in the vein of a Final Destination story.
However, this is an archetype that can very quickly slip into “annoying” territory—I grew tired of Erend’s constant bluster and advances on Aloy when I recently played Horizon Forbidden West, because he didn’t get a ton of depth beyond that. On the other hand, I loved Prompto in Final Fantasy XV, because partway through the game it became clear that his jokey cheerfulness is an attempt to keep spirits high within the group as the road trip goes increasingly wrong. You, as Noctis, can also have a conversation with Prompto where he admits that he adopts a foolish persona to cover his insecurities; unlike the others, he doesn’t have a noble pedigree and feels like he doesn’t belong in Noctis’s retinue. I really liked the depth that gave his character and appreciated him all the more for it.
Nola: I love a fool, because I have a background in shared roleplay experiences, and it’s as fun to be the fool as to be the villain in those scenarios. For both, it’s about being the character who reacts to others, who “sells” the things other players are trying to do with their characters, gives those actions weight and meaning. I’m a long-time GM, so that’s… basically 90% of the reason I’m at a table.
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.