Protagonists with Attitude

SamuelKeller

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WARNING: The following discussion will almost certainly contain opinions, especially ones that may differ from your own. If you encounter such an opinion, proper procedure dictates a calm response to prevent an S-Class Moronic Arrogant Dumbie (or MAD) event.


This question is an equal mix of mechanics and concepts in its scope, so I hope to explain as good as I can. With the main characters of a game, from my experience, there are three types of main characters presented to the player.


The first, called the Mute Protagonist, is one that literally has no input into the story at all. Seen in the Half-Life series, the MP simply wanders around, listening in onto what he's supposed to be doing and following it. While this was extremely efficient back in the day due to the blossoming stage of game writing, it's often seen as dated and a cop-out.


The second, called the Tree Protagonist, has more presence in the story. As his name suggests, he is able to pick his dialogue through a dialogue tree, as seen in Dragon Age or Mass Effect. This allows the TP to be more varied in personality and integrates player choice into the mix, both a welcome addition, but suffers because no developer can think of every route a player could purse in his role-playing fantasies. 


The third, called the Human Protagonist, is exactly what it sounds it. The HP is a character whose personality has already been defined by the backstory, such as Final Fantasy. There is little character input into the HP and little room for role-playing, but has a benefit of always having a consistent personality for the sake of game writing or future games referencing this character. 


Now my game is a sandbox style RPG akin to an Elder Scrolls/Dragon Age type of game. The player can pick the main questline at the start of the game, but is mostly left to his/her devices once let loose into the world. Along the way, he/she gain gather colorful companions to supplement the weaknesses in his/her playstyle, making sure all the bases are covered so to speak. These companions have set personalities, and receive development through their quests independent of player choice.


So the question is very simple: Which type of protagonist fits for such an open-ended game? 


Mute Protagonist


Pros: Literal blank slate to work with


Cons: Can break the immersion


Tree Protagonist


Pros: Player choice!


Cons: Player choice!


Human Protagonist


Pros: Makes the game more story-driven.


Cons: Players may find the protagonist does not fit their personality. 
 

kovak

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If you play The Witcher series you will notice is that having a protagonist that's not mute and with player choice and a damn world that reacts towards what you do you will see that all of the options given can be mixed and that's my answer:

I choose all of them at the same time.
 

cecy

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I say it honestly depends, although with Silent Protagonists you can come up with some sort of imaginary dialogue. In example, if it's implied they said something I just pretend they used sign language. It also does kind of feel awkward if it's implied the protagonist talks, or if characters don't ever acknowledge them. When it comes to a Tree Protagonist, if all their dialogue is only the choices you make. It feels kind of lame. I prefer Human Protagonists, since I genuinely don't care about the self-insert immersion with most video games. It also makes me feel like there's an actual character there, but it depends. I wouldn't mind a Human/Tree Protagonist, or a protagonist who talks very little and talks through a lot of choices. It just depends on the games context and story.
 
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Over the years I've become less and less tolerant of MPs, unless there's a reason why like you creating them yourself or the world being so vast and detailed that the protagonist doesn't really matter anymore. See Stardew Valley, The Elder Scrolls, Pokemon and Dragon Age for the former and Chrono Trigger and Undertale for the latter.


If you put so much effort into the worldbuilding and the other characters, why NOT have the protagonist have a personality too? You shouldn't have to NEED to roleplay as them to experience their story and enjoy the game.
 

DarkBooDev

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I'd say it depends on the type of game your trying to develop. A game like Mass Effect/ Elder Scrolls with a "moral choice" style of story telling benefits from having a Tree Protagonist rather than a Silent or Character because it provides the player with the sense they're impacting the world they're playing in by the character's actions and doesn't make them feel disconnected since the avatar doesn't have any/ has very few predetermined traits about them.


Now if you want to tell a certain story that's somewhat linear, and direct attention to the plot of the game I'd go with the Character Protagonist, as that meshes more coherently with the narrative and prevents the story from becoming a complete mess (look at Shadow the Hedgehog on the GC/ PS2 for a reason why NOT to have a CP with a moral choice system).


As for the Silent Protagonist, it's fine if you want to draw more attention to the atmosphere and world of the game and if you're focusing more on an immersive experience such as an exploration or horror game, but otherwise I would generally prefer to avoid this type since it is so dated and cliched.
 

Oddball

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I like human protagonists because it's like your getting to know them through the game which makes you root for them i guess


There is no reason though that you can't have a mute one. You would probably have to work that into the story. I read a book a while back that had the heroine mute because of a curse, it was really well written. I suppose the little mermaid also has a mute protagonist because of a curse. Or maybe your main character is deaf for some weird reason. 


there's no reason why you can't mix and match. Something that really hasn't been done much is a mute-tree protagonist where the character develops through the actions you take and you learn more about them that way, there actions affecting the plot and there backstory
 

Frogboy

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They all work.  It simply depends on what type of game you want to create.  The game I'm working on has two HPs who have pretty much opposite personality types.
 

MisterBubbles

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Given your description of a the player being 'left to their own devices', having a character with a defined personality and background would streamline matters but if its the player being left to do as they will, why would the Protagonist gallivant around doing all these side quests, when there's the Main Quest to be done? If the Main Quest is important enough for the Protagonist to focus on it, this can and does often create a disconnect between player and narrative.These things would be easier to explain or handwave with a protagonist who either:

  • does not have dialogue.


    This allows the player a much easier time of ignoring the Main Quest if the player's character does not have dialogue that expresses or relates to the Main Quest or matters related to such.
  • I wouldn't use the term 'Mute Protagonist' as such, given a character can have a definite background or personality but simply does not interact with dialogue.

    EX. Gordon Freeman has a definite background and a direct motive.

    Samus, from Metroid fame, and the protagonists of the first two Bioshock Games, are both good examples.

[*]a 'Mute Protagonist' exists when Protagonist-to-Character dialogue is not important, but does not mean they have no input in the story at all; it is simply expressed through the dialogue of other characters and/or through the actions of the player.

  • EX. "That Scene" from Bioshock One.


[*]The 'Silent Protagonist', to use such a term instead, is best used for linear1 or quasi-branching2 narratives and games, as expressed in the examples given by myself and yourself. They can, however, be used in more open games if dialogue and player-to-NPC interaction is not important...but no examples come to mind at the moment.

  • Can or cannot be lampshaded per the writer's choices (EX. in-game comments about Dr. Freeman's Stoicism.). You could keep it as a narrative-saving tool or incorporate it into the character depending on your preferences and interests.



Or:

  • does not have a set morality or personality.


    As mentioned by yourself and others, games that put you in the shoes of a semi-solid character are better for games that 'set the player loose' into the world.


    This allows the player to have an easier time ignoring the Main Quest of pressing issue if they choose to.

    This applies best to 'open' and quasi-branching narratives and games.


[*]Prominent examples of this type of protagonist include Shepard from Mass Effect, all four Protagonists of the Dragon Age series (This includes the Orelesian Warden option for Dragon Age: Awakening.), and any custom protagonist of a Bethesda game.

  • Noted here is that not all characters need to have expressed dialogue.

    Some characters can have dialogue choices that infer a response, give the whole response, or let you select the 'attitude' you are going for before getting the full dialogue.

    Each of these has notable advantages and disadvantages related to them.
  • Given the RPG Maker system for branching choices, you'll likely go for the 'Dragon Age: Inquisition' approach to dialogue presentation unless you use a plugin to make the choice window easier to view when displaying longer lines of text.





I'd gravitate towards the later if Player-to-NPC interactions and Protagonist-to-NPC interactions are important to your game, especially if the Protagonist has no prior relations to the companions they will be travelling with. Often times, Protagonist-to-NPC relations already exist with a 'Silent Protagonist' which allows the character to be interacted with by the supporting cast and show more of the protagonist's backstory to the player. While such bonds can be formed during gameplay, past interaction allows for a better springboard for Player-to-NPC relations, especially when the overall narrative is supportive to the protagonist having no dialogue at all.


------------------


1. Linear meaning the player has no story input or 'choice' outside of playing the game or not. The -way- the player chooses to play with the game's mechanics may differ, but the overall narrative is never affected by the player's input. See most games.


2. Quasi-Branching essentially means 'Illusion of Choice' type games, where you inevitably get to the same destination (EX. no matter what, you eventually beat Coffee-Face and save the world from certain doom despite being a complete and utter ass the whole time.), though some or many critical points in the game have different ways to solve them. See Bioshock: Infinite, Dragon Age: Inquisition, and Mass Effect (Game).
 
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Simon D. Aelsi

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It truly depends on what you're trying to accomplish, IMO. Nobody can say for sure "This one type of protagonist is good, everything else is wrong". 
If you can make it work without ruining your game's story, then work it! If not, then find another approach...
 

LaFlibuste

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In my opinion it really boils down to whether or not you want the player to have the freedom to create his character himself to be able to fit various playstyles. Will the player have control over race, sex, appearance, class, stats, etc.?

If, as I understood it, you are creating an elder scroll-like open world RPG where the player has a lot of freedom on how he goes about which quests he does and how he does them, it would make sense to also give him control on what his character is, exactly. In such a case, I honestly don't think a "human" protagonist would fit. Imagine you designed your game around the protagonist being a shy male scholar and the player created an orcish pirate wench as his character. It would be chaos. And if you tried creating a "human" protagonist that could fit any class, stat, race and sex, it would likely end up being so bland that it might as well have been a "mute" one.


So I think you have to take your pick between the silent and the tree protagonist, the differences being 1) how much work you are willing to put into dialogues and 2) the influence you want dialogues, diplomacy and such things to have on your game. If you really want to have a human protagonist, I think you only have two choices (and they kinda are similar): 1) Do not let the player create his own character at all, the protagonist is a fixed character or 2) Design a few different protagonists, with different personalities, classes, races, etc. and let the player choose one. You could leave him some level of customization, like maybe letting him choose the sex and maybe clothes colour could still work. If you pick that second option, having the unchoosen protagonists still appear in the world, maybe even being eligible companions, could be a nice touch.
 

Dr. Delibird

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I am quite partially to a human-tree combination. Having a character whom of which is predefined in their base character but the player is still given dialog choices. Like maybe you have a character who is on a journey and tough descions that need to be made are made by the player and those choices become very telling of how the character is percieved by the other characters in your world as things change and progress. Like a knight who has been told by a trusted childhood friend that the knight of 1 is after the kings title but the knight has also been told by the knight of 3 that the knight of 1 is actually the kings secret lover. Now the player has to decide who to trust, their childhood friend or the fellow knight. Either way the PC knight is still going to be that pre-defined knight but the way the resolve the situation could be telling to what kind of knight they are. Maybe you believe neither and decide to take the throne for yourself as nobody else can be trusted in your eyes or maybe the knight believes both and deicides to step back and let things resolve without them medling. 


I like choice but I want those choices to feel like they are the choices of the character and not the player. This is all only my opinions on plot heavy super story type games.
 

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