Videogames are intimately familiar with the concept of the hero; Games seem built for protagonists, with worlds pieced together and relationships formed to benefit the hero's journey. Yet a strange thing occurred to me recently: many of the gaming world's best protagonists are actually terrible protagonists, at least from a storytelling standpoint. Many lack the depth and dimension of those leading men and women found in film, stage, and literature, while others simply fail to develop a personality at all.
If we look to literature for inspiration, we might stumble upon one Hiro Protagonist. He's the hero (and the protagonist, wouldn't ya know) of the Neal Stephenson novel Snow Crash, a brilliant science fiction novel from a man that many consider one of the fathers of steampunk. Snow Crash is one hell of an influential novel...yet there's still that ridiculous name staring back at you: Hiro Protagonist.
Stupid? At first glance, sure, but if you know Stephenson, you'll recognize this as an obvious bit of absurdist humor aimed at poking fun at our conceptions of the leading man in literature. After all, Hiro begins the novel as a pizza delivery man for the mafia, which is neither heroic nor protagonist-like. Many pieces of criticism have suggested that Hiro isn't even the real hero of the novel.
When we look back to games, the essence of the problem is that narratives have become filled with real Hiro Protagonists, but in this case, no one's laughing, and game worlds and narratives are paying a high price.
Problem 1: Protagonists are too protagonisty.
In the weeks after the first Uncharted was released, people were praising Drake as a very different brand of videogame action hero; those compliments resurfaced after the release of Uncharted 2. Drake wasn't the hard ass, straight-laced hero, but rather the kind of protagonist that gets knocked down by an explosion, gets up, and says "Damn that hurt." As basic and even silly this sounds on paper, especially when you consider how common Drake-like protagonists are in other media, these are quite common sentiments.
The reason for this may be directly related to the fact that action-game protagonists follow an even narrower personality path than those of film action heroes. We've all heard the complaints: generic space marine, silent, blue haired JRPG hero, etc. And when an action hero made to parody action heroes (I'm speaking of Matt Hazard here) even fails to be unique and interesting, you know we really have a problem. Hell, even games that revolve around groups of heroes can often suffer the same issues: we have the straightforward hero, the comic relief, the innocent girl, the badass sidekick, etc. There's nothing saying that character archetypes cannot be successful, but the problem is that they rarely stray from our expectations of their behavior.
So, in a narrative-driven game, especially one in which the player is not given choice over the actions of the protagonist, the programmed actions of the main character absolutely need to be unpredictable, shocking, and uncharacteristic. There's a tendancy when creating characters to give them a personality and make them act according to that personality every time, but the reality of the human condition is such that we do not always act as we are expected to, or even as we intend to. Videogame protagonists need to reflect this. They should shock us, not because shocking behavior is in their personality, but because they don't follow a predictable path through the game's events.
But this is even applicable in a game like Mass Effect 2, where the player is given a certain amount of control over the protagonist's actions. The problem, however, is that in most cases, the choices are predictable: either it will be what you will expect from a "paragon" or a "renegade." A citizen rambles, so the renegade punches him in the face to shut him up. A teammate is about to shoot an unarmed man, so the paragon grabs the gun at the last minute and saves the man. Yep, all taken straight from the protagonist handbook: a book that we've been repeatedly flogged with since the dawn of the RPG.
And the solution? Well, we can't take away protagonists, because games do need that central focal point. But each protagonist can be made more like a human and less like a protagonist. In the end, the only thing that a protagonist truly needs to be is the "main" character of a work of fiction, and storytellers need to feel more freedom in their interpretations of what a main character should do, especially if they happen to be a teenage boy from a small village, a hardened marine, or a a wise-ass firearm expert.
Problem 2: Protagonists live in a bubble.
I'm not one to openly praise Gears of War as a franchise, especially for anything related to story. But there's one thing that the game does extremely well: it shows, in great detail, a relationship between a man and a woman that does not involve the protagonist.
The rarity of these sorts of relationships in videogames is stunning. Nearly every developed relationship in videogames, whether it is romantic or platonic, is centered entirely on the hero, with all the attention being focused squarely there and really nowhere else.
As a player, it's easy to shake this off as a non-issue. After all, as players, shouldn't we expect the game to revolve around the character who we control and, by proxy, us? But the simple fact is that a world that revolves around a single person is not a world at all; it's a fishbowl. It's a place that's given the illusion of depth from the inside, but from the outside is nothing more than a bunch of plastic structures and falling flakes of fish food that provide little to nothing to truly satisfy us. We allow this when we're the fish swimming inside, but if we step outside for a moment, and look at the world in its disappointing entirety, we see it for what it is: fake.
But if a game world is built not for one fish but for many, it becomes something far more profound than a fish bowl. It becomes an ocean, teeming with richness. Imagine, for instance, a videogame like Mass Effect 2, one in which the vast majority of character relationships are developed in the claustrophobic quarters of a spaceship. The game allows exactly one romantic relationship to come to fruition: that between the protagonist and his or her chosen partner. Why not between any other characters? Why should the protagonist--the commander--be the only one interested in pursuing any sort of relationship?
While it may make sense from a gameplay standpoint, it seriously impedes the creation of a living, breathing set of characters. Instead, the characters stand around in their separate areas, waiting for the ship's commander to come along in a flirty mood. And, no, a couple of tense arguments isn't enough. Give us a dynamic world full of endless possibilities: perhaps on one playthrough, Shepard has to compete with Jacob for Miranda's affection, while Grunt and Jack try to keep their incredibly creepy friends-with-benefits arrangement a secret.
It may sound like I'm ripping on Mass Effect 2, but I do it because the game is fantastic, and it deserves all the scrutiny and criticism we can give it. But the truth is that this is a cancer that has infected protagonists in almost any given narrative-driven game, and there quite frankly must be a shift in how protagonists are perceived in relation to the overall world and story. Give us a fully developed world, not a background and props for the protagonist to act in front of.