Quick note: there are spoilers for LA Noire, Planescape: Torment, Fallout 3.
I spend a lot of time on the character creation screen. A lot. Regardless if it is Morrowind with its really bad hair or GTA V Online, I love putting together an avatar that looks awesome. Then once I think that I am done I have to come up with a name. There are a couple go to names for my characters that I like, but I rarely use my real name. The only exception to that is the Pokémon games ever since I got my first on in elementary school I’ve always used my own name for that. Having an avatar that I like is very important to me as it helps place me in to the game.
But let’s back up a bit and talk about styles of protagonists. For the purpose of this article I’m going to divided them in to two main groups. The first is protagonists as characters, where although the player is in control of their actions, the protagonist has strong characterizations that lay outside of the player’s control. The game may even take steps to make the player act in a particular manner. Good examples of this is Rockstar’s LA Noire with Cole Phelps, or Planescape: Torments’ Nameless One. Characters that you control but have motivations that may or may not be the same as the player’s.
On the other hand, you have protagonist as avatars. Where the protagonist is merely an extension of the player. Most online games fall in to this area. Even though I can design my Guardian from Destiny in many different ways, and I get no choices throughout the story, she just doesn’t have that much of a narrative to herself. However, I do wish to be clear that I see this as a spectrum with different games falling across it rather than simply to large camps of games. Like with the Mass Effect series with Commander Shepard you still get to define her (or him, both gender, and sexual orientation are up for grabs. Though that’s a different topic) to a degree, but she will also be Commander Shepard in a way that the Dragon Born form Skyrim simply isn’t. This distinction is not to say that one is better or worse than the other but see how they can best fit in the game world that they inhabit.
How the protagonist is designed greatly influences how the player connects with them. If I see them as an avatar, I am much more likely to want an empowering narrative. As an example look at Fallout 3, although the player does have a mission, for the most part they are a blank slate for the character. Both being very good and very bad are choices that the game for the most part allows (the notable exception being the ending). With an open world and a lot of control over the character themselves when death is forced on the PC at the end, it feels very unsatisfying in a way that other games with PC’s that die at the end don’t. Because rather that seeing the protagonist as another person’s story that we are playing through, we see this as our story. Who really likes being forced in to a choice?
Let’s use Fallout 3 as a case study for this. The problem with Fallout 3 isn’t that the protagonist dies, rather it is the set up. Both the narrative (brief aside; Faux should have been able to handle that camber with no issues whatsoever) and the protagonist design were at odds with the resolution. Because of this the ending is kind of lackluster. Compare this to the game Planescape: Torment, where the protagonist, at the end of the game, does die as well (not only that he is explicitly sent to hell) but I remember it as one of most satisfying endings of any game I’ve played as it completes the story of the character protagonist. While in Fallout 3 the avatar protagonist’s death completes nothing from a narrative perspective. But beyond that they are a stand in for the player and no one wants to be reminded of their own mortality.
However some games call for an avatar style too. Most multiplayer games would start to fall apart if the protagonist that you played online was a narrative-driven character as they would be around other equally driven characters which would present a major narrative issue. For this case study let’s pick something more interesting – Overwatch.
At first the PC choices look to be more character than avatar. Mercy (who is my personal favorite, and scientifically the best ) for example has enough characterization that you can talk about her in terms other than game mechanics. Same goes with Mei (who has a great character video), or Reinheart. The key here is they exist as characters mainly outside of the game rather than in. In-game there is no real narrative reason for any given match. Nor does the game limit who can be played on a team together, which given the material on Overwatch that exists outside of the game, makes little sense. Lastly the game itself doesn’t change any of the PCs in any way. Mercy’s story at the beginning of the match is the same as Mercy’s story at the end of that match. In-game, this PC’s act as avatars for us rather than characters in their own right. But this is good, for this kind of game. I honestly enjoy Team Fortress 2 which is in the same boat as Overwatch. Both are fun, enjoyable games.
Having a game that doesn’t match the style of protagonist can hurt it in ways that minor and some moderate bugs simply can’t. Because if the sword I’ve equipped clips through the model or the hits don’t work quite right then that only affects part of the overall game. But if the protagonist is in conflict with the game, then that effects the entire play through. The game itself is lessened by it.