I’ve read in a few places Hitchcock’s thought that a viewer’s empathy for a character could be created via suspense despite things they might actively dislike about the character. The archetypical example is the thief breaking into a house, under threat of getting caught – He’s a a thief for starters, so it’s not like he’s going to be of particularly solid moral character, but properly filmed you can be on the edge of your seat, caring about what the heck’s going to happen to him.
(As an aside, the first time I read Hitchock’s thoughts on this was in Hitchcock by Truffaut, which is a fascinating read).
One of the best examples is Psycho: Janet Leigh as Marion Crane, is the main character of the movie up until “Mother” kills her. After which we have to watch Anthony Perkins/Norman Bates cleaning up evidence of the crime, and so now we’re hooked on following Norman, wondering if he will succeed or not.
I was just reading “The Sands of Time: Crafting a Video Game Story” by Jordan Mechner, in Second Person: Roleplaying and Story in games and Playable Media, and Mechner discusses a point of contention in the storyline during the game’s development:
“The Prince’s army attacks the Indian palace for no good reason other than greed and conquest. The point raised some concern during development: Might players not resist identification with such a hero? For whatever reason, I always liked this aspect of the story and felt confident it would not bother players in the least.”
He goes on to detail Hitchcock’s theory with Psycho and then continues:
“Watching someone attempt to accomplish something difficult and dangerous usually causes us to empathize with them – even if we disagree morally with what they’re doing. I felt sure this principle would apply to video games as well as movies. Because we control the Prince’s actions and thus his fate, we’re even more inclined to identify with him, and less inclined to judge him, than if it were a movie.”
When I read that passage, my first thought was “What battle at the beginning? Oh yeah, that’s right.” So it worked on me, in any case.