The Three Types of Video Game Protagonists

September 17, 2015
video game, gaming, playstation, xbox

Today is when your favorite Lost Caws program, Studying Storytelling, is supposed to drop it’s next episode, but I’m interrupting our regularly scheduled programming with a post that helps set up my next segment in that seriesI think it might set up the next few, actually. We’ll see. I’m fickle that way.

I’ve thought about including video games since I started the Studying Storytelling series, but it was my brother who gave me a nudge back in that direction and made me start thinking about it now. It seems he’s capable of some good ideas now and again, even if I assume it’s only by happenstance.

When I talk about video games and storytelling, I’m talking about games that are story and/or character-driven. I suppose this should seem obvious, but there are a gazillion different kinds of games and not all of them really qualify for what I’m doing here. Tetris is a video game and a great one, but I don’t think there’s much to learn about storytelling from it. Having said that, there are a lot more games that do have something to say about storytelling than a lot of people probably realize, which is something I hope to touch on in the future.

My original intention for today was to publish the first Studying Storytelling that actually looks at a video game, but I kept coming back to something that I think needed too much space to be included in that post: the types of protagonists you encounter in a game. I’m not talking about character tropes or prototypes, whether you’re controlling men, women, aliens or all of the above. Instead, I want to present what I see as the three fundamental types of protagonist control and interaction common to gaming. Games are interactive experiences (obvious statement is obvious), and the type of interaction a game chooses partly dictates the type of story you’ll likely get.

The key variable here is influence. How much control does a game give you over the characters? What follows serves as sort of a heuristic for analyzing the story and characters in a game. These are ordered from the type offering the least control to the one offering the most. Lets also keep in mind the piles of games I have not played and know little about could fill a warehouse, so there’s a lot that could be missing from the actual examples I provide.

The Strong, Silent Type

The first type of game protagonist is sort of a mystery. It’s one that does not speak, or at least does so very little. This character probably demonstrates little in the way of personality, and who you may not even really see. When you don’t even see the character, they implication,of course, is that this is all happening to you, which is sort of its own special subset in this category. In this type of game, you control a mostly generic character and probably have limited ability to influence the world and story other than to proceed through it by zapping bad guys or solving puzzles. You might say the story happens around this type of protagonist just as much or more than it happens to or with the character. By anonymizing the protagonist, you might make it easier to suspend disbelief and become the character. There may still be some decision-making, and this does not necessarily require the game to have a single ending, but it’s more likely to be the case.

None of this is to suggest that this kind of protagonist has to be completely bland or without any defining characteristics. You probably even know their names! And some examples might lead to twists where you learn more about the character or reveal something important about who exactly you’ve been the whole time. But as a general rule, this protagonist drives the plot almost exclusively through action and much less through any morality-influenced decision-making.

This type of protagonist is less common nowadays because games are capable of being much more complex than they once were. As a result, developers can simply include more stuff, and that includes more storyline and more personality. Some of the characters in these games are pretty recognizable, but ask yourself, how often do you actually hear from them? How much does who they are push the story? Their personalities are defined mostly by context clues to the extent they’re defined at all, and in the more popular cases sheer longevity has sometimes led us to culturally impart personality onto them. Some of them have also been given a lot more backstory over time as sequels made such detail desirable.

Examples

Chell from Portal

Doom guy in the Doom games

Samus Aran in Metroid

Link in The Legend of Zelda

Mario from, you know, the Mario games

The Hero We Need

This is a common type today. With this type of protagonist, what you get is a well-defined character with clear tastes, traits, abilities, etc. You probably make some decisions, maybe even ones with critical impact on the outcome, but there’s no mistaking whether this character is a badass or goofy or whatever. In this type of game, you’re inheriting a fully-formed person and you take responsibility for navigating that person through whatever crisis they’re facing.

Characters that fall into this pool sometimes began in the group above. You’re given a generic hero where you knew a little backstory but not much more. Something like, “the princess must be saved, and you are the chosen one who will do it.” Well okay, guess I better get to saving that princess.

Then the game became a huge hit, and sequels were commissioned. What’s a developer to do? Add more backstory, elucidate just who this character really is, and create justification for giving a crap beyond the first game? Pretty much. Sometimes this works well; sometimes you wish the character would shut up and stay that way.

Examples

Nathan Drake from the Uncharted series

Lara Croft from Tomb Raider

Earthworm Jim from Earthworm Jim

Geralt of Rivia in The Witcher series

Really any game based on existing intellectual property. You’re not gonna get to define Batman’s personality, and they’re not about to hide who you’re controlling in a Batman game.

Tabula Rasa

What if you got to truly determine what type of person your character is and/or heavily influence the outcome of the story? Of course, there are limitations because the game can’t possibly handle infinite variability, but compared to the other styles you have much broader control here. Your decisions throughout the game can have a heavy impact on who lives or dies, whether you save the day completely or partially or not really at all, and even the type of world that exists beyond the scope of your story.

Games that fall into this bucket are pretty much by definition part of the role-playing game genre. It’s kind of a funny moniker when you think about it. Even the “Strong, Silent Type” games have you playing a role of sorts. The implication here is that you have responsibility for determining a character’s role rather than inheriting it.

Sometimes this protagonist is such a blank slate that you can define things like their age, gender, race, species, skills, and more. You might get to choose amongst different types of backstories even, and then, during gameplay, you’re most likely of all of these types of games to make true moral evaluations of a scenario. Do you save the person you love and let a bunch of others perish or do you sacrifice one in favor of many? Through the course of the game, you shape what type of person your character is through dialogue choices, which shapes how that character evolves. Will you choose to be a kind and generous leader or a take-no-prisoners hardass? Are you a team player or a loner?

Other times, a fair amount of the character is pre-defined, but you get to make so many decisions about what happens in the game that I still think it counts. The Final Fantasy series comes to mind as an example. These games have elements of the first category–you don’t really get to decide much about who main character is and they often speak very little or not at all, for example. But the key difference is that you spend a lot of time in the game shaping outcomes by what you decide to say and do in different scenarios. And by “say,” I mostly mean which dialogue options you choose as these characters often don’t have an actual voice. As with the first category, this version of the blank slate is less common today now that technology makes it way easier to give characters actual voices.

Examples

Commander Shepard from Mass Effect

Whatever protagonist you create in the Elder Scrolls games

Many of the Final Fantasy games and lots of other RPGs

Disregard Everything You Read About Video Game Protagonists, Sort Of

You can break your brain trying to force games to fit into these buckets. For example, in the The Witcher you spend a lot of time making moral decisions that determine how and to whom your character is aligned. Couldn’t that easily mean he should be in the third group? I think his underlying personality is too strongly defined for that, personally. By contrast, Commander Shepard has some identifiable traits, but I’d argue you spend so much of the story determining the fundamentals of the character that the third group is the best fit. I admitted that the characters in Final Fantasy have much in common with the first group, at least in the earlier games in that series. Does that undermine the third category?

As I said at the top, I wanted to use this post to set up how I’ll talk about video game storytelling in the future. I find the overall groupings help me think about the way a game tells its story, but it’s clear that all of this stuff exists on something of a sliding scale. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say it’s something like a color palette where you can have elements of each category that blend to create their own, unique thing. I’m sure I’ll contradict myself a dozen times about this going forward, but I think it’ll still be a useful reference point.

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