What makes a compelling game protagonist? What doesn’t seem to work?
I want to make one thing clear. In my opinion, video game protagonists cannot really be compared with protagonists from literature or film (hence the “game” above) for two main reasons:
1. As the player of this character, you have a different relationship with him than you do with the characters in film, theater, or literature (narrative-based artistic mediums, I’m calling them). You are stepping into his shoes, controlling his actions. You are him/her.
2. The purpose of the gaming is unique among other narrative-based mediums. As Roger Ebert points out in his infamous opinion Video Games Can Never Be Art:
“One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. [An opposing argument] might cite a immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.”
My purpose is not to argue whether video games are art or not (they are!), but Ebert brings up an important point—in games, you play to win. The burden rests upon your very own shoulders to shoot, stab, kick, and magic your protagonist along to the story’s conclusion. While you certainly root for Bilbo Baggins to return from Mount Doom with all ten furry hobbit toes intact, you have no way of altering Tolkien’s narrative. The only options for the reader are to set down the book, or keep on reading. (Or scribble in the margins. Or write fan fiction. If you can call those options.)
There were early RPG developers, from the 70s and 80s, who understood these important differences. If the player is the protagonist of a story, and if it is suddenly up to them to get Bilbo to Mount Doom and back again, how is she going to feel truly immersed in the story if she suddenly must don the pantaloons of a short, fat man who lives in a hill?
Their answer? The silent protagonist.
Rather than making gamers into Bilbo, some game developers have decided to go the opposite direction. We’ll drain Bilbo of the midnight snacks and awkward determination that have endeared him to millions of readers for seventy-five years, and instead we’ll create a protagonists whose only personality trait is a desire to save stuff—i.e. the world, the princess, his friends, stuff like that. Obvious, happy, archetypal goals that everyone can agree on, right?
The concept of the silent protagonist really wasn’t invented by game developers. Film and drama had already dabbled in the concept. But they did it not for immersion reasons, but artistic ones. Jacques Tati’s adorable Monsieur Hulot, who never says a word, though he appears in five films, has more personality, and illustrates more about the films and about France’s social, political, and economic situation at the time, than all of video games’ silent protagonists combined ever said about themselves or about the worlds they inhabit. But I already mentioned that I can’t compare across mediums. D’oh.
The gaming version of the silent protagonist was less out-of-place in the days when six lines of dialogue were all that was necessary to set the stage for gamers. Today, many gamers want more complex, and emotional reasons to pick up the play their games. Contemporary game dialogue is often smart, engaging, and immersive; and, on the occasions when the acting is spot-on, effectively improved by voice acting. So, how has the protagonist question evolved with gaming technology? Awkwardly, I would argue.
On one end of the spectrum, there are the games who continue to roll with the silent protagonist model.
Atlus’ Persona 3 deftly skirts around the protagonist’s lack of personality and voice by infusing the other characters with loads of it. In this clip, Junpei, a pathetic excuse for a ladies’ man, challenges Akihiko, a shy star boxer, and the protagonist (whose name you choose) to pick up girls at the beach. The scene is great fun, but not because of the bland protagonist, who is barely involved.
Although Atlus is genius at creating likable characters and dialogue (as well as employing top tier translators, localization staff, and voice actors—Junpei is Edward Elric from Full Metal Alchemist), there are still many immersion-breaking moments. The voice actors call each other by name, but call the protagonist you or him, which quickly becomes confusing. Without spoiling anything, there was actually a crucial plot point when characters were referring to a him, and for the entire length of the scene I had no idea they were actually talking about my character.
The argument for the silent protagonist seems to still be that we’re more immersed when we play them. But are we more immersed? In my opinion, these ineffective characters often break immersion far more than they add to it.
Gamers aren’t blind. We can see that even the silent heroes have character. Just because they’re silent, doesn’t mean they’re not communicating. After all, most have at least an appearance. How much does being male, fifteen, spikey-haired, and white skinned say about you? What about willing and able to save the world? What about kind to old ladies and good to their friends and expert swordsmen? Just because these traits are almost universal in silent protagonists doesn’t mean they are universal in humans.
But when the poor protagonist pendulum swings too far in the other direction, we end up with a hero who has far too much personality—the nails-on-a-chalkboard main character. These games are painful to play. And it’s understandable why developers don’t want to deal with the backlash from a bad protagonist.
But if they just took a chance! A hero with great dialogue and a complex character can take a game to the next level.
Bioware has had an interesting response to this dilemma. While most heroes have a predetermined appearance, what is static about Bioware protagonists is not appearance (because you can customize it) but the voice actor. Renegade Commander Shepard is nasty, but even paragon Shepard is a war-hardened individual, and the voice actor was well selected to represent both ends of that spectrum. As I’ve been playing Mass Effect (as female Shepard who is, by the way, voiced impeccably by Jennifer Hale) I’ve found myself tailoring my moral choices based on what I believe the Shepard I hear in Jennifer Hale would do, not what I personally would do.
Although I’m not sold on Bioware’s limited moral spectrum as a replacement for either an effective silent protagonist (think Limbo or Okami) or a compelling whole character (Nathan Drake or Ezio Auditore), I applaud their attempts to experiment with the connection between us gamers and the characters we inhabit.
Who are some of your favorite protagonists? Which games have gotten things just right? Which ones went wrong? Leave a comment and let us know, after all I can’t play everything! (If only.)