Friday, January 25, 2013

Protagonistas: a few styles, briefly

at 4:07 PM
What does it mean when "ista" is added to the end of a word? Spaniards? Can I get a ruling?

Game protagonists suck. I'm sorry to say it, because I love the medium and respect its burgeoning maturity, but it is highly troubled in this regard. The vast majority of games just don't know what to do with protagonists. Should the protagonist be the player-avatar or an NPC? Should they spout their own dialogue or rely on the player to choose it, or should they be altogether silent? We want to be taken into a character's story, but we also want it to be our story. There's a real have your cake and eat it too problem. It's one of the reasons games are so hard to adapt to other media (and vice versa) - there just tends to be this huge question of who the game is about.
Tricked you - it's about Raziel AND Kain!
America's most popular 'tag's seem to fall into one of two groups: dialogue tree guys and Introspection d00ds. By dialogue tree guys, I mean characters that only say exactly what you tell them to say, but whose role in the story is otherwise fixed. A Commander Shepherd, if you will. The problem I have with these types is that they are very much a role, not a character. They are defined by their function, by the fact that they knock the story into place. They don't have flaws or personalities or arcs, they just chime in at mission-critical moments to keep things underway.

On the other end of the spectrum we have heartily defined protags like Max Payne and Ezio Auditore, whom I would call Introspection guys. They get enough exposition to drive me to suicide, but the actual action of the game is completely disconnected from their internal monologue. Max is totally fucked as a character because his search for purpose has nothing to do with cover-shooting in a graveyard, and his wanton murder streak goes a long way toward rendering the character a joke. Now we have a case where the protagonist has a persona, but is undercut by his status as an avatar. The player's love for killing things is making it impossible to connect with a character who shouldn't.

An alternative approach that pops up from time to time is Ishmael. You've read Moby Dick, right? You've got the famous first line tattooed across your shoulder-blades? "Call me Ishmael, but don't call me late for dinner!" Etc. To recap, Ishmael serves solely as a lens through which the audience views the drama. He himself is sidelined by the story arc. FFXII does this with ol' whatever-his-name is, Vahn, right? That's a weird name. Anyway, you play as Vahn, but he doesn't have anything to do with the story. It's about some losers named Bosch or Blathers or something. Don't think I liked the plot of that one. Too many evil bad-guy ghosts and secret twin brothers.

Anyway, it's silent protagonists that are the proper incarnation of Ishmael in gaming. Beyond all the mindless fan-adoration, Link has never been much of a hero at all. Sure, he usually brings together all the macguffins that draw the story towards its climax, but the true stories within each Zelda game are those of the non-player characters we meets along the way: Medli overcoming her timidity, Midna's exile, Makar doing whatever the fuck was the deal with him but god I loved that character, Groose accpting his own insignificance, etc. The greatest example, of course, is Majora's Mask, in which nearly every character has their own developing storyline encapsulated by the quest for the associated mask. Beyond Zelda, we could also have a look at Half-Life 2 and its narrative, viewed through Gordon Freeman but actually about Alyx and Eli Vance.
Remember the time in high school English when I filmed myself playing Wind Waker while one of my friends read from Moby Dick, and we called it a "re-enactment"?
I'm not saying "silent protagonists are the only good protagonists", even though it sounds like that's exactly what I said, because they were the only ones I discussed using a positive tone. There are plenty of good player characters that are correctly matched to the experience, like RE4's Leon Kennedy, quipmaster extraordinaire with just enough heart and charm to melt a young girl's icy heart. That said, young girls probably have the most meltable hearts out there. Legacy of Kain's Kain and Raziel are probably my all-time favorite leading men, thanks not only to stellar voice-acting, but in particular to their carefully drawn out and interweaving plot. Kain is developed through Raziel and vice versa. Jumping across chasms and solving switch-puzzles may not lend much to their characters, but their insatiable appetite and wanton destruction need to be witnessed to truly understand their roles as gods.

The end. Boy I'm tired of this post.


  1. yeah yeah blah blah, but tell us more about the font change!

    1. It's called "selling out", in which one compromises his own artistic vision in order to make his work more widely marketable. You should try it sometime!