In the last few months, two games have come out that have grabbed my attention. The first was Forspoken, a brand new IP from Square Enix that quickly became the internet’s latest punching bag for its dialogue. The other was Hi-Fi Rush, a new IP from Bethesda and Tango Gameworks that was released out of the blue and met with critical acclaim.
Now, these two games could not be any more different. Forspoken is an open-world game about exploration and magic while Hi-Fi Rush is an action-rhythm game. However, one thing that struck me was the similarity between the game’s main protagonists: Fraye and Chai.
On a base level, these two characters have a lot in common. Both are mostly ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances against their wills. Both are trying to find a way to escape and act like assholes to anyone who would drag them further into the mess. And both have what I like to call ‘Captain Obvious’ dialogue, where they just verbally acknowledge the crazy things that happen to them.
Despite their similarities, however, the reception to these two characters couldn’t be more different. Fraye has become one of the largest points of criticism leveled at Forspoken; players of that game pretty much universally hate her. Meanwhile, Chai has gotten a fairly positive reaction from Hi-Fi Rush players; he may not be the fan-favorite, but people generally like him.
So, what’s the deal? Why do people hate one but accept the other?
A large part of it simply boils down to their personalities. Fraye’s doesn’t go much further than ‘asshole New Yorker’ most of the time. She’s selfish, vulgar, and utterly devoid of sympathy for others. Her only priority is herself.
This only becomes more unbearable because of how the NPCs within Forspoken’s world treat her. For the most part, the people she meets in her isekai adventures show her kindness and understanding. After she kills the first major antagonist, they throw a massive town-wide feast in her honor! Yet she spends massive portions of the game essentially telling them all to fuck off.
Chai, while he can be rude and irritating to others, rarely goes out of his way to be an asshole unless he feels it’s a warranted reaction. He’s a goofball, a wannabe rock star with an ego to match. But if someone is polite and helpful to him, he’ll be equally polite and helpful to them. When someone antagonizes him, he returns the favor.
The only character he actively butts heads with is Peppermint. But that is a perfectly fair reaction; when he first meets her, he’s caught up in a stressful situation, suddenly being attacked by a mega corporation, and she shows up and starts telling him what to do and calling him an idiot. It’s perfectly natural that the two wouldn’t get along.
This is important as its a large part of both their character arcs. Fraye learns to stop being self-centered and become the hero everyone wants her to be. Meanwhile, Chai learns to get over himself and support his friends. The problem with Fraye’s attempt at the arc is in the pacing; after not growing at all for the whole game, her arc is blasted through at full speed in the final stretch. Meanwhile, Chai’s arc is built up and developed through every level of the game, culminating with the climax.
As for the Captain Obvious dialogue, that ultimately comes down to the tone of the games and the traits of the characters. Forspoken is supposed to be a serious and grounded game, and Fraye is supposed to be a serious character; having her ramble on about things that are obvious doesn’t feel natural, it just feels annoying.
It works with Chai because of two reasons. Firstly, Hi-Fi Rush is a much more comedic and frankly weird game than Forspoken. Secondly, Chai himself isn’t exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer. If something isn’t spelled out clearly for him, be it by himself or someone else, then he’ll remain oblivious to it forever.
Finally, we come to the simplest point: charisma. Fraye, as you might have pieced together, isn’t exactly the most charming person in the world. You’d find a porcupine more huggable than she is. Her insults aren’t even that clever, she just calls people assholes and tells them to fuck off.
Chai, on the other hand, is extremely easy to like in spite of his shortcomings. He’s goofy, excitable, and brimming with energy. He’s prone to bouts of extreme emotion, be it joy or frustration or panic. He’s the kind of goofball that you can’t help but smile around.
In short: Fraye was written to be as unlikable as possible, while Chai was written to be a likable guy with an ego and a temper. Both were given a story about growing more kind and mature. But only one earned it.
Again: Forspoken and Hi-Fi Rush could not be any more different as games. But the striking similarities, as well as the glaring contrasts, between their protagonists fascinated me. They’re both interesting takes on the current trend of ‘unlikable protagonist finds redemption’ we’ve been seeing in modern gaming.
Though I think most of us can agree that the trend could do to end at this point.