A Game's Protagonist: A Vague Blank Slate, Or A Strongly Pre-Formed Character?

A Game's Protagonist: A Vague Blank Slate, Or A Strongly Pre-Formed Character?

  • I want to shape the personality of my character myself - like in Skyrim.

    Votes: 3 14.3%
  • I want to play a well-defined, pre-existing character - like Geralt from The Witcher.

    Votes: 18 85.7%

  • Total voters
    21

Ravenith

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Hello everyone.

I seem to be in quite a pickle, so I figured I'd ask y'all what you think.

I'm in the process of writing a the story for an RPG I'm making, and I can't quite make up my mind about what type of protagonist people enjoy the most (at least in an RPG Maker game!).

So, without further ado, here's the two options:

A ) Blank Slate / Voiceless Characters: Ever played an Elder Scrolls game? Or, even better, a BioWare one, like Knights of the Old Republic, or Dragon Age: Origins? Baldur's Gate, maybe? That's what we're talking about: a character that's little more than a stand-in for you, the player, allowing you to shape them exactly how you want (well, within the limits of the game, of course).
You get to choose their class, race, and gender, what lines your character speaks, whether they are the strong, silent type, or a social butterfly, and pretty much anything else.

B ) Pre-existing, Well-Developed Characters: Ever played The Witcher, or a Deus Ex game? That's the other option. No matter how many choices the game offers you, you're still playing Geralt of Rivia, Adam Jensen, JC Denton, etc. In short, an already fully formed and well-developed character. You still get to make meaningful choices throughout the game, but hey, no matter what you do, Geralt's still going to be Geralt, right?

Assume that I can write both in at least a semi-professional, halfway decent way, and please let me know what you think!

Thanks!
 

Jules98

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I'd prefer a well-defined character, if not in words, then in personality. I feel that having a completely blank slate as a protagonist often has a negative impact on the story, especially if the story is supposed to be about said protagonist.
 

Philosophus Vagus

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I prefer a well-defined character most of the time but can see a value in each. It really depends on the kind of game you are trying to make, are you designing a mere playground for your players with little to no real thought put forth for the overarching narrative (like Skyrim) or does the narrative take center stage in your game and require a protagonist who more or less knows what they are about (such as the Witcher) to progress it properly?

True there are middle grounds like dragon age: origins (only origins sadly) where the narrative is both fairly fleshed out and you have a blank slate, which usually accomplish both by having protagonist stand-ins (Logain or Alastair kill the archdemon and thus become the 'true' protagonist if you decide your dude doesn't want to be the hero) or sudden last minute miracles (have a baby with Morrigan and that baby somehow steals the archdemon's powers instead of it killing you) in order to allow the protagonist to both stray from the narrative and have the end result still remain essentially the same. Though I'm clearly a fan of DA:0 in general this option is my least favorite form, as it is inevitably mired in inconsistencies and plot holes simply by being.

At the end of the day if your narrative is important, unless you have a definitive plan for pulling off something like DA:0 (which is almost impossible to do without invalidating the need for the protagonist to be a part of the story entirely) I'd stick with a pre-defined character with their own goals and flaws, as those can play into the overall narrative in a positive way that is lacking in the ES/Fallout style "choose your own adventure" structure to the protagonist. On the other hand, if your game is more focused on gameplay and player freedom within the game then the blank slate protagonist is essentially the exemplar of that, so if it's your goal to do so I'd argue the blank slate is better (because no matter how awesome I thought the witcher series was, I know several people who will say they couldn't get into it specifically because they wanted elder scrolls style open world, and found Geralt's personality grating and his goals unrelatable).

I personally prefer a good solid narrative most of the time, but enjoy both styles of game fairly well. Don't really believe there is a right or wrong, just think that the best course is determined by what's most important to you as you design the game, and that the protagonist should best fit the world they live in whenever possible.
 
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The Mighty Palm

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I mean, are we assuming that a pre-formed character is always going to be as good as Geralt? Cuz Geralt's the best.
You're just as likely to end up with a pre-formed character that isn't as well-written or enjoyable like Corrin from FE: Fates. A bad MC can ruin a narrative.

Like most things it depends on your player-market and your game. I wouldn't want Link, the Dragonborn, the Arisen, my Dragon Age MC, or any other player-avatar to have a developed personality because in those kind of games replayability and roleplayability go hand in hand.

If you're making a story: Pre-written character.
If you're making a world: Player Avatar.
 

Kes

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@Ravenith 'General Discussion' isn't for feedback on individual, specific games. At the moment the replies are pretty general, so that's fine. I'm just mentioning this because sometimes in these situations, the OP comes back and says something like "oh, that's no good, it wouldn't fit in my game." Replies can be on topic, but irrelevant to you, and that should be fine.

To the question at hand - as others have said, it depends on the story. As a developer you have 2 paths. In the first you decide what sort of structure you are going to have (linear/open world/whatever), what the narrative hook for the game is, what style of gameplay you want and then you pick the type of protagonist which best serves that. The second is the reverse: You have your story (which dictates what type of protagonist you have) and everything else is chosen to support that.

Now, in practice, it's more fuzzy at the edges than that simple (simplistic) choice suggests. But I think there is enough truth there to get the point across. I personally tend to start from the story end, and build my game around the characters I have created (no blank slates for me), others start at the other end of the spectrum. It depends where you get your creative spark from.

I also am somewhat sceptical about the idea that I can shape the 'personality' of the character (your option one in the poll). No, usually I can't. I can perhaps choose the class, the skills, which quests to accept or reject, which faction to join, stuff like that. But the resulting character has very little 'personality' in the way that a well-written fleshed out character has. The branching dialogue options needed for 'personality' would become a complete nightmare to develop, which is why most dialogue options have at most 2 or 3 possibilities, none of which might appeal to me. So I'm not shaping anything.
 

Ravenith

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@Kes Pardon my initial phrasing, I see your point, and I'm sorry for any inconvenience. I deliberately shied away from including any specific information, to keep the discussion as open-ended as possible.

My intent was getting a general feel of how people feel about the whole design dichotomy issue, as well as excellent personal views like yours, and the ones already mentioned above - kudos to @Jules98 , @Philosophus Vagus , and @The Mighty Palm, btw. Thank you all for your participation!

On the subject of whether the player can shape the "personality" of the character, you're quite right - in practical terms, that option is very, very limited at best. When it comes to player experience, however, I personally feel like things are a bit more fuzzy - especially when roleplaying comes into the equation.

In Baldur's Gate, for example, the player can easily roll an Elf Wizard, and fantasize about playing an aloof, sneering elitist who takes pleasure on looking down on enemies. In terms of cold, hard facts, that character is only marginally different than, say, an axe-wielding Orc Barbarian bully, or an honest-to-god Human Paladin. The way the player regards their character and feels about them changes, however, because the game's design allows it.

In the Witcher series, on the other hand, the player HAS to be Geralt. Mechanically, a swordplay-focused and and a signs-focused iteration of Geralt can differ as much as the aforementioned characters, but in the player's mind, Geralt is still Geralt - regardless of whether he side with Roach or Iorveth, or whether he romances Triss or Yennefer.

Not that this is a bad thing - mind you. It's just how the player perceives their experience, and a matter of preference.

From a designer standpoint, when it comes down to it, the point both you and others have raised indeed stands: it depends on the story.
 

TheoAllen

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In RPG Maker games context though, I prefer pre-defined character. As I usually sit down to watch how the story unfolds. Hardly can tell how a blank protag would fit into 2d top down games like RM. Let alone how to make it open world or even character generation. Nothing much I can say, but RM imo is suitable for telling a story than a world
 

XIIIthHarbinger

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When it comes to predefined character versus a tabula rasa vehicle, there really isn't a "right answer" perse, but rather it is very situationally dependent.

The question is really one of in the story are you exploring the world, or are you exploring the character? For example the Arkham series of games is very open world, but has virtually no player choice, because you aren't exploring Batman, you are exploring Arkham Asylum & later Gotham City. Batman is merely the vehicle with which we explore the world, & his own exposition & inner monologue are focused not upon him, but upon the world.

Whereas the Mass Effect trilogy, despite being an open world game about intergalactic war, is exploring Shepard. Shepard's past, Shepard's relationships, the consequences of Shepard's actions, Shepard's perspectives on people & events, etcetera, etcetera.

Which is why Batman remains relatively unchanged throughout the Arkham games, while Shepard is profoundly altered through the events that happen to them. The same can be said of two of the examples you used KOTOR versus Deus Ex; in KOTOR Revan is profoundly altered by what they experience, in Deus Ex Adam remains largely unchanged.

Because in KOTOR & Mass Effect we are exploring HOW our protagonist reacts to in their world, while in Arkham & Deus Ex we are exploring WHAT our protagonist reacts to in their world. An introverted outlook versus an extroverted outlook if you will.

So the question is, what is the focus of the story? WHAT is over the next hill, or HOW what is over the next hill will effect them?
 

Frogboy

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Depends on the game. If it's story focused then you need a well defined character with a personality. If it's mechanically focused then the blank slate works best as you'll be shaping your character however you choose.
 

Ravenith

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@XIIIthHarbinger I'm glad that you mentioned Mass Effect's Shepard. I haven't played the games yet - I just got started with ME1 to see he BioWare handles Shepard compared to the player characters in, say, KotOR.

Correct me if I'm misunderstood, but I've been told that Shepard is an interesting middle ground between the 2 concepts discussed here, being both a somewhat predefined character, and letting the player shape him how they want.

To me this sounds like the sweet spot, both as a player and as a designer, and I'm eager to see how BioWare did it.
 

XIIIthHarbinger

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The character has very little about them that is predefined, about the only thing being that they are N7, a commander in the Alliance, whose name is Shepard.

Aside from the character creation suite, where one chooses the character's sex & appearance; the background choices influence various NPC interactions & numerous background dialogues. Far more so than the background choices in KOTOR. & with each successive entry in the series the player's choices alter events around them even more.

Honestly, Shepard is far less of a predefined character than either entry from KOTOR.
 

Requiem

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In RPG Maker games context though, I prefer pre-defined character. As I usually sit down to watch how the story unfolds. Hardly can tell how a blank protag would fit into 2d top down games like RM. Let alone how to make it open world or even character generation. Nothing much I can say, but RM imo is suitable for telling a story than a world
Suikoden wasn't so bad at having a relatively blank character.

Granted, it's an illusion... the story is absolutly linear and the choices don't really matter but the player can ascribe different if subtle motivations to the protagonist based on the choice. The devs could have added customization and it wouldn't have made a big difference as the protagonist lacked much of a personality.
 
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Requiem

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The OP seems to assume RPG with branching narrative/choice and consequences in which case I tend to prefer a blank slate.

Why? Because usually the main character is badly written. Branching narrative is at odds with character development... you kind of have to have a non-descript character to start with else their personality clash with the choices offered to them. Also, the choices presented to them are usually not subtle, and so the characters tend not to be subtle.


E.g. Adam and JC Jenson. Adam in particular is really boring. He barely reacts to the stuff around him. And Shepard --- man shepard. That guy speaks like a monotone teacher. He's about as non-descript and boring as you can make him. He's like a cardboard soldier.

I did like the Witcher 2 (I didn't finish it) but that's the only experience that really stands out. And Geralt has tons of backstory from the novels...I speculate you don't get to deviate as much in Witcher then you do in other Western RPGs.

so lemme just screw around with my character as a see it. I had tons of fun in Way of the Samurai 4. I would say either go 95% linear (Final Fantasy) or go full blank (Way of the Samurai, Morrowind,etc).
 

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