A protagonist is NOT you
Most protagonists are empty, hollow shells in need of something to fill them. Thus was our verdict, as handled by our own Stefan Samurai (this is the link to which this article is a response, by the way… CLICK IT!).
What followed, however, was an intriguing proposition, one that put the blame on us rather than on the developers. If protagonists are empty, that’s only because we, the players, failed to fill in this void with our imagination. In other words, all protagonists that lack development are not actually characters per se, but rather avatars.
It does make sense to some degree. For example, those of us who played the original Mario and Zelda without reading any of the stories in their respective manuals would indeed take these two guys fighting lizards to rescue their beloved as mere avatars. In fact, most of the narrative in those two games came from outside the game. Back in the day, only the ones who have either read the game’s instructions or finished Super Mario Bros. would actually know that Mario was trying to save a Princess named Toadstool.
It’s natural that we let our imagination try to fill voids ignored by narrative. Many current games, like Canabalt, still work like this.
Things are different, however, when we have protagonists living in a world filled with narrative. In those cases there will always be a context against which a protagonist will be judged.
Why would he be judged in the first place? Because we are assuming something called emergent narrative is always, ALWAYS! at play whenever a game is played.
And how can an avatar be judged? By his looks? He may not have any. By his thoughts? Protagonists without proper characterization might not even give the impression to think in the first place. The remaining answer? His actions.
Now this is troubling, because now we are dealing with player agency. How much agency should we give the player? Give the player too much agency and he becomes The World’s Biggest Asshole. The World’s Biggest Asshole is that guy who invades your home and breaks your pots, casually kills people in Jerusalem, steals your car and ram it into a helicopter for no reason whatsoever. Too much freedom and not many clear and convincing goals cause this.
A clever design will take this into account when making the game. If the gamer makes act a law-breaking dick, that’s because Tommy is a dick to begin with. This won’t change no matter how much you try to infuse your own imagination to fill the void of an empty character. A not so clever design will make people scratch their heads: why would Cole Phelps drive like a maniac when he is serious about the law?
Give the player with too little agency and he becomes The Village Idiot. Too many goals and too little freedom to do anything else cause this. In games, the Village Idiot is not retarded or crazy per se, but of such an incredible naiveté and intransigent narcissism that he truly believes he is the Chosen One and that the world would fall apart without him. People easily recognize his weakness and ask him favors they could perfectly do it themselves.
The prime example for The Village Idiot are, again, the Zelda games – or rather what the Zelda games have become. In them, Link is a man of obvious emotions because he should only be reflecting what the gamer was obviously supposed to feel. After all, as Stefan has correctly stated, Link is always designed to work as an avatar. But that never works! Because our protagonist is only a reactor, this will place the burden of the entire game on the NPCs’ shoulders – and thus we judge Link by the very problematic relationship he was with them.
Character development happens when change in involved. Basically, when you start the game playing one person and, by the end of the game, this person has changed. It is another person. Sure, you can still interpret Link’s actions any way you want, but that still won’t make him a developed character, for Link’s actions never changed: he will still be running fetch quests for Gorons or whatever.
There is one game, however, that manages to marry narration with the idea of an avatar most intriguingly. In Half-Life 2, we play as Gordon Freeman. Like Link, he is designed as a blank slate – one that games can project themselves and relate to. But unlike Link, we don’t complain about Gordon lacking in characterization.
And that’s because Gordon Freeman was written as an avatar. The only times Gordon Freeman, the character, is awake is when the game is on. There is nothing Gordon knows but you don’t, and vice-versa. In fact, Gordon doesn’t even age when you are not playing the game. In between games he is always either knocked out or placed in a mandatory form of stasis by the G-Man. That is the genius of the G-Man figure. The G-Man embodies the game contract. He is also an entity of whom other characters are fully aware. There is a most revealing piece of information that is revealed by Dr. Breen near the end of Half-Life 2. Supposedly, Gordon’s “contract was open to the highest bidder”. This is most likely the contract which Gordon has with the G-man and, therefore, us. After all, we bought the game. We were the ones that gave the winning bid… at Gamestop!
Gordon Freeman is the one free exception to the rule. He truly is an avatar living in a narrative-filled world – because he was written to be one! The other protagonists are not avatars. You are not them. They are not you.