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Three Types of Protagonists

Explores the strengths and weakness of the three types of protagonists found in games, starting with the Traditional Protagonist (found in traditional stories), then moving to the Blank Slate and the Customizable Protagonist (both invented for games).

Craig Ellsworth

March 5, 2012

6 Min Read

Most storytelling media, like movies, books, and the like, have a protagonist that is apart from the consumer; the protagonist has their own personality, acts according to his or her own will, and the consumer is just along for the ride.

But when games came along, suddenly the player was controlling the protagonist, reaching a new level of connection between the player and protagonist.

But with this, players were no longer just along for the ride, instead acting on the protagonist's behalf.  Players then wanted to insert themselves into the game, rather than just take over the body of another character.

So as the medium grew, a new form of protagonist was created: the Blank Slate.

The Blank Slate is a type of protagonist that can only really exist in games (or, in rare cases, books told in second person, which is usually the domain of choose-your-own-adventure books, which are games in themselves).

Basically, the Blank Slate is a silent, usually faceless, often nameless character that the player can project themselves onto.  First person shooters do this often, with the Doomguy and Gordon Freeman being prominent examples.  In genres where getting lost in the world and setting takes priority over the character, the Blank Slate will be used as well, such as in MYST.

One problem that arises from the Blank Slate is that there is quite often less interaction with the story, making the player less of a protagonist and more of a side character, observer, or sometime-agent.  Think of how, in MYST, the story is about Atrus and his sons, and the only impact the player has on the story is at the very end, when either the final blue or red page is used, or the green page is used.  Beyond that, the player is only an observer, learning backstory as he goes.

Thus began the debate about which is the better experience: the Traditional Protagonist or the Blank Slate.  Some argued that immersion is best when given a Blank Slate so the player can slide into the role more easily; others say the most engaging stories come from a Traditional Protagonist.

This all comes down to personal preference, and each person comes to the conclusion based on what they like best: the feeling of being oneself in the world, or having a more emotionally engaging story.

Now, we've been given a third option, which is most often found in MMOs, but has been known to exist in single-player games before them: the Customizable Protagonist.

This gives the best of both worlds, where the protagonist is visible on screen and displays a distinct personality, based on looks at least (although sometimes stance and voice are also options), but simultaneously acts as a Blank Slate for a player to slide into the role, without being quite so blank.

Growing up, whenever I played a game that allowed character customization--even when it wasn't necessary--I would immediately create my own character.  The Tony Hawk games, wrestling games, even Twisted Metal 4 (as bad as that was).

Usually my character would be modeled as closely after me as possible, and when not, I would create a character that I could get behind.  This kind of customization allowed me to roleplay much more easily than with Traditional Protagonists, which were the staple of the RPG--a genre defined in its name by the necessity to take a role.

However, a Customizable Protagonist still doesn't quite reach the emotional level of traditional storytelling as the Traditional Protagonist, simply because, despite the visual, they are still too Blank Slatey, so many single-player games don't offer much, if anything, in the way of customization.

To combat this, morality systems are in vogue, trying to give the player choices that allow them to roleplay their character better while delivering the biggest emotional punch.  This gives a new form of character customization, bringing a layer of personality to what was once purely visual.

Of course, morality systems are quite rudimentary and usually binary, so they don't provide the depth of physical customization yet.  Hopefully such systems will be revamped and upgraded to be on par with physical customization soon enough, because right now the morality systems we have are more a detriment to customization than a boon.

The Customizable Protagonist approach also carries the same marketing problem with the Blank Slate, because the developer loses a potential mascot or a recognizable face, forcing the mainstays to be the villains or NPCs.

The Customizable Protagonist doesn't just keep the problems from the Blank Slate, but has its own problems as well.

Mandatory character customization, for instance, is a turn-off for some players who would rather get in the game immediately.  I often find that, despite the desire to be able to control every facet of my character's body (how high up does the nose need to be, how wide, how long?), it also becomes a burden creating a character of that complexity for every MMO I get into.

A randomization button is a good first step, but it's not quite enough.  For MMOs where customization is necessary to prevent cloning, this is all that can be done at the moment.

But for games where customization does not need to be mandatory (such as... just about everything else), giving the option, while also having default characters allows players to choose what is best for them.  For instance, the previously mentioned Tony Hawk games, wrestling games, and Twisted Metal 4 allowed the player to pick from at least a dozen premade characters, but also gave the option for the player to make their own customized character.

While this helps solve some of its own problems, the problems that plague the Blank Slate still require fixing.

One option is to allow physical customization, but the protagonist still has a distinct personality.  Dragon Nest's characters, for instance, while being physically customizable, have a charming, sarcastic sense of humor.

This fixes the Blank Slate problem, but brings the Traditional Protagonist problem right back up:  it works if the player likes the given personality, but prevents the player from slipping into the role if they don't like it.

All three forms of protagonist are still used in videogames, and each achieves a different effect, trying to capitalize on the strengths while minimizing the weakness of the form.

But ultimately, as videogames increase in prominence as a storytelling form, the style of protagonist may become a bigger choice for a player's decision to purchase the game than it currently is.

Or perhaps the difference between the styles will be as irrelevant or as subconsciously preferential as the difference between a first- and third-person narrator in a book.

To read this article with pictures and jokes, or to read other articles, reviews, or development logs, take a peak at http://scattergamed.blogspot.com/ 

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