A game’s protagonist can either make or break the story. They are ultimately our window into the world and overall experience. It makes their motivations just that much more important.
There are many factors that can drive a character. One of the most interesting and devastating factors is the loss or suffering of a family member(s).
For this list, we’re looking at six protagonists driven by the desire to either avenge or save those they care about.
Max Payne – Max Payne Franchise
If you like pulpy hardboiled neo-noir detective fiction then Max Payne is one of the most protagonists you’ll find.
Payne’s motivation is simple: he’s a former NYPD detective who uproots his life after the murder of his wife and baby child. The story leads him to work undercover for the DEA while he infiltrates a mob family tied with a designer street drug called Valkyr. This eventually leads him to be caught in a massive conspiracy. He becomes entangled with the Russian mob, mafia, corrupt figures, and a secret society known as the “Inner Circle”
Despite being caught in over his head, his drive to avenge the death of his family keeps him going. It’s this struggle that helps make Max Payne such an amazing character. While dealing with the present-day drama that unfolds as the game goes on, he also deals with past trauma that made him the broken man he is. Not only does he have the deck stacked against him in all of the games, but he’s also dealing with a variety of personal issues.
Due to that trauma, Payne suffers from survivor’s guilt, PTSD, and addiction. The deck is absolutely stacked against him, but he’s too driven to fail. He strives to do what’s right for himself and his family.
Alan Wake – Alan Wake Franchise
Like Payne, Alan Wake is motivated by the loss of family. While the former’s character arc deals with atonement, Wake’s is focused on saving his wife, Alice. That’s not all, though; Alan Wake has to also save himself.
Wake is a writer suffering from writer’s block and insomnia. During what he thinks is a vacation, his wife Alice disappears, and he starts finding pages for a story he doesn’t remember writing, a story that may help him find his wife.
The game heavily deals with the struggle of Alan Wake to not just save his wife, but also himself. He’s psychologically tortured constantly while working through the “story within a story” he discovers as the game progresses. The game’s setting of Bright Falls adds to it, feeding into Wake’s traumatic past and showcasing his many struggles.
Eventually, we learn that it’s an eldritch darkness using Wake’s novel as a means of escape that moves the plot forward. Throughout, though, Alan Wake’s motivation allows him to propel forward, even making an ultimate sacrifice to bring Alice back.
Alan Wake received both a DLC and a follow-up title, Alan Wake’s American Nightmare. We learn that Wake is still trying to find his way home and return to his beloved Alice. The follow-ups feature a great hook that will hopefully be more fleshed out in the recently announced sequel, Alan Wake 2.
Barret Wallace – Final Fantasy VII
While Barret may not be a central figure in Final Fantasy VII, he’s still a vital piece of the ensemble. His actions, while seemingly unjustified and overtly violent, all have an explanation and meaning.
Barret’s motivation is solely based on revenge. Despite supporting Shinra in order to take care of his sick wife, they still took everything he knew and loved. The death of his wife, best friend, and destruction of his home pushed him to the terrorist organization known as Avalanche.
His motivations are based mostly on revenge, but you can also see the love he has for his daughter Marlene. It adds an extra dimension to his character arc and story. Barret isn’t solely driven by his hatred of Shinra and its evil practices. He also wants to make the world a better place for Marlene and others. He wants to give others a way of life that was taken from him.
James Sunderland – Silent Hill 2
This one is a bit more of an anti-hero, but he is still a fascinating character. The town of Silent Hill is essentially a bit of a Rorschach test for the protagonists in each game. The town reads each protagonist and then shapes the monsters and experiences from the guilt and fears of each character.
Each person who comes to Silent Hill also has their own reason to be there. So, what is James’ story? He’s a widower whose now-deceased wife Mary lost a battle to a terminal disease. Three years after her death, he receives a letter from his dead wife. She’s waiting for him in their special place, a hotel in Silent Hill.
His hook and storyline are entirely about trying to find closure. He knows she’s dead, even if he can’t accept it. He knows, too, that he euthanized his wife. However, he needs to accept some things in order to be able to move on. He’s not the cause of the disease that she suffered from. She wants him to be happy and would’ve wanted him to be happy, even if he didn’t euthanize her.
Instead, he felt trapped caring for a chronically ill person. He felt guilty for fantasizing about other women while his wife was often too sick to leave her room. During her sickness and after his death, James felt that he couldn’t be happy. And so Silent Hill called to him, in the form of a letter. The monsters he ends up encountering are perverse or frightening recreations of his emotions and fears surrounding Mary’s death.
Sam Fisher – Splinter Cell Franchise
Sam Fisher’s character in Splinter Cell focused on a post-9/11 Splinter Cell program. Fisher, due to his previous experience in the intelligence world, was the program’s first recruit.
Much like Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, Sam Fisher is a bit of a boy scout. He tries to be as prepared as possible and is willing to stand up for what’s right. He also has a defined reason for why he patriotically does his duty: his daughter.
Splinter Cell Conviction specifically took a darker turn with Fisher’s personality. Fisher believes his daughter is dead, leading him down an unexpected path. The story involves him working to root out rogue agents within the government while avenging what he believes is the death of his daughter.
It’s yet another tragic story, only this time, our protagonist wasn’t created by the death of a family member. Sam Fisher was already well established, but his grief allowed him to tap into something even darker.
Ethan Winters – Resident Evil 7 and Village
Ethan Winters spends not one but two games being maimed, stabbed, chopped up, and dragged. Why does it do it? For his family.
The Ethan Winters saga begins in Resident Evil 7, where he receives a message from his wife Mia. Mrs. Winters has been presumed dead for a handful of years, but Ethan never lost hope. That drives him to travel to backwoods Louisana. A fan of punishment, Ethan also then scours an unnamed supernatural European village to find his missing baby daughter, Rosemary.
Both “travel” and “scour” are doing a lot of heavy lifting here; Ethan goes through literal hell. He loses several body parts, learns the true past of his family and their secrets, and even makes the ultimate sacrifice. Throughout, Ethan always makes his true intentions clear, even in the face of unspeakable horrors. Nothing stands in his way.
Resident Evil Village, in particular, heavily leans in on Ethan’s motivation. It provides not just fuel for the story and the conclusion of the Ethan Winters Saga, but also for gameplay and level design as well.