A protagonist is you
Many a time the statement the main character has no dept has been uttered since games have gotten more complex, and nearly every time I could not help but think someone was missing a point. While not always true in modern games (Final Fantasy ___ makes for a good set of exceptions), most protagonists are empty, hollow shells in need of something to fill them. Trouble is, many players these days are under the impression the protagonists’ characterization is predetermined by the designers and writers. Players have forgotten that in many cases that emptiness is put there to be filled by players.
While modern games to have methods of telling players “this character is you,” such as choice systems, dialog trees, or right out telling them they should be responsible for their actions, I would like to take a few steps back in gaming to a time before every other game had multiple endings and/or dialog trees. Games as a genre began to grow in complexity sometime late in the 90s. A lot of genres and series took the leap from pixels to polygons, and suddenly plot was more than a feature advertiseable on the back of the box. Games had to have clear, engaging stories, and with stories come main characters. While not something new to gaming, they had to change. A name with controls and a one-word motivation was not enough anymore, but games are played, not watched or read (ideally), so while having a fully developed character is nice and works for some series, it does not always fit.
The answer, though, was simple enough: have the player be the character. Let she who controls the protagonist through his journey be all of the complex human bits to the character, that way everyone can empathize. It was a brilliant idea, and one that Mr. Miyamoto had thought of when gaming first became available on consoles, when he named one of his most well known characters, Link, as in a link from the players lives and the world in game. In 1998, Ocarina of Time came out and the name had not changed.Players were handed an outcast kid with a likable face, green clothes, no lines, and until he grows up an androgynous voice and told to go forth on their journey. The game is still loved by all and is still regarded as a masterpiece that should never be forgotten, and probably will not be.
Back to the present: people are saying Link is too flat in Twilight Princess. Same series, same rules, and any more similar to its predecessor and it would be the same game altogether. The guy is still called Link and he still has no lines. Same as before, Link is a character meant to be filled in by the player, and unlike most player-defined characters today he does not have binary choices to make or dialog trees. Not that there is anything wrong with choices and dialog trees–if anything their use has made it easier for players to put themselves into the characters they play–but their increases frequency of use has changed the player-protagonist dynamic. Main characters used to be an extension of the player. Full of blanks and nothing explicit to fill them, players would insert aspects of themselves into the characters. Games were played as if we ourselves were the ones on screen.
However, games with choice systems are a little different. While players still tend to select the choices they personally would make, there is a limit to how much a player can be themselves in a game. Many games choices are entirely binary. You can be good, or you can be evil, to take a simple example, and if you do not go all the way to one side, you are not rewarded fully. Even when there are more than two options as to how the character acts, there are still hard-set limitations. You cannot truly be you if all you are given to work with are a set of options, especially if none of the options are what you would go with were you posed with the same situation. It has become easier and simpler for players to put themselves into their main characters, but only to a certain extent. The choice trees players are handed are more different ways the character can act and less a connection of player and character. Often times there are even right and wrong answers, which makes one side look unsavory. The more complex the web, the better, but the pure freedom of imagination is no longer required and not as prevalent.
If I had to name a game or franchise that has both choices and a sufficiently empty and player-shaped protagonist, it would be Persona. If I had to pick just one, it would be P3P. Persona’s protagonists are as blank-slate as they come, usually even their last name is player-decided. From a mechanical perspective, stats upon leveling are not pre-determined, but decided by the personas chosen. The protagonists also have real-world stats (academics, courage, determination, etc.) which only change when the players consciously decide to take the time to increase them. As for the choices made during dialog, the way to the perfect blank character is simple: there are no bad guy options. The protagonists of Persona are all good people. Maybe not perfect people, but good people, and as good people they would never say anything truly malicious. If someone cruel were to pick up Persona, perhaps he/she would be out of luck, but anyone else will be able to find an option at least close to his/her personal thoughts much of the time. It is partially a know your audience thing on the developers side of things, but until the majority of ATLUS fans are sociopaths, Persona will remain a series for good guys.