Gotta Design the Right Protagonist

Okay, so you’ve got a game. Maybe it’s got a scrap of story, maybe it doesn’t, but if you’ve got a something that can maneuver around a screen and do crap, that’s a protagonist. Far as video games go, anyway.

A few types, and I’m just riffing on a few of the few.

The Blank

We know what Gordon Freeman looks like because everyone does, but you play a Half-Life, and you’re mostly well-acquainted with the gravity gun and a crow bar. That’s what matters, what’s in your hands. Motivation, who needs it? There’s those nasty skittering head-crabs jumping right in your face. Doesn’t mean the world isn’t deep or there can’t be a few scraps of backstory, but what’s important is where you’re going to walk and what you’re going to shoot. You’re sitting in Freeman’s brainpan. It’s cool he has glasses, but it’s not important. Not all these protagonists are in first person shooters, either. What does PacMan want. Why is he haunted. Does it matter?

The Customizable Blank

Lot of stuff falls in here, and we’re usually talking about stuff that’s third person or that you can switch to third person, because what’s the point of a chargen if you never see yourself and what. You see a ton of this in RPGs, and not just in your Bethesdas, but in your Fallouts, your Might and Magics, your anything with a scenario and some droog who’s dropped into the middle of it all. For the purpose of this arbitrary categorization, I’m not counting protagonists with a lot of voice acting, because “lots of voice acting” tends toward “establishing a character as a specific kind of person.” Some chargen systems are more granular than others, and some games offer much more “figure out who you are and what your karma does” than others, but protagonists in this category are largely who you want them to be.

The Silent Hero

Somewhere between or beyond The Blank or the Customizable Blank, but related, is the hero who has a little back story, who has a little motivation, a few shreds of unavoidable personality, a distinctive appearance. He or she may not have much to say, but you can tell by the slump of their shoulders, their fastidiousness of dress, the way every rare dialogue option tends a certain direction, that if you were to make a movie of the game, you’d cast so-and-so. Their development and/or story trends fairly linear, but may not be explicitly spelled out. You get some JRPGs here, heck, some adventure games (Amanita’s adventures, anyone?). We might stick Journey here. The silent hero can’t coexist with extensive voice acting. It’s like trying to film Drive, but having Ryan Gosling talk out all his feelings.

The Choose Your Own Adventure Hero

Now we can have voice-acting. The Choose Your Own Adventure Hero can be a pretty specific person. He can be the Witcher, she can be Commander Shepherd, he can be Lee from the Walking Dead. Yes, you can choose the gender / appearance / back story of Shepherd, but there are pretty distinct limits to your character. There can be choice and consequences and blocked off content all over the place, like in Witcher 2, but Geralt is still more or less a Geralt. If you try to play him as a celibate monk, the game narrative is not really going to support that. There are choices, routes, and different textures you can give to your protagonist’s actions, but blank slate, this isn’t.

The Novel Hero

Commentary, commentary, commentary. Many adventure game protagonists, for example, will provide descriptions of what they’re seeing. Everything they’re seeing. The feedback is continual and more or less verbal / written. Every piece of the game is delivered through a particular voice or voices. You play Monkey Island and you know what Guybrush Threepwood is like. It’s unavoidable. You know what he thinks about everything and everyone, because you went and clicked on all of it. The pace is more likely to be rather sedate, at least, compared to the Movie Hero games below.

The Movie Hero

Sometimes similar to the novel hero in that there may be running commentary, but you’re more likely to see cutscenes, here, and lots of them. Taken to its extreme, you may in fact be watching a movie with occasional gameplay bits, but it needn’t be an extreme to qualify. Anything by Naughty Dog is absolutely here, but so is anything by Rockstar. These heroes are very defined, the action is cinematic, you could run all the cutscenes together and have something fairly coherent. There may be differences in density, for certain — the gameplay in Uncharted exists to link story bit to story bit, while the gameplay in Grand Theft Auto is more robust, and allows for intertextual elements — but we’re talking protagonists, here.

Hybrids

Well, tons of these. I just classed a GTA protagonist as a “Movie Hero,” but when you’re actually playing him, fft, it doesn’t matter what he’s doing in the cutscenes, does it? Open-ended gameplay of any sort can muddy the waters a bit. Player freedom of any sort will always toss ’em into the protagonist seat and let them decide who they really want to play. That can mean you end up playing two games, and that’s where people like tossing around “ludonarrative dissonance,” but eh, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a game straddling two lines. In fact, please give me an Oregon Trail create-your-party-like with over-the-top space marine cutscenes. Bob the Doctor sheds his armor to cradle his love, dying, dying of alkali poisoning. Or whatever. There are no rules.

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Shin Megami Tensei IV

You know, I get it. No one really wants a mash-up of Shin Megami Tensei gameplay with the massively-textual visual novel / life sim format of a Persona. For one thing, it’d be 300 hours long, and for another, while there is some overlap between “Atlus crawler” fans and “Atlus life sim with crawler elements” fans, we’re probably looking at a majority that don’t overlap. And Persona is making more money.

Still, still. Can’t most of us agree that Persona 3 and 4 dungeons are mostly pretty dull affairs, and that Persona side quests (outside of the social link wrangling, which is really more the primary gameplay) are nothing but an excuse for more grinding? And there’s the personas themselves. Sure, it’s fun to fuse Satan from the depths of your soul, but picking persona raw material from a list of cards post-battle isn’t only kind of easy, it lacks personality. And personality is the whole point! Or something.

Shin Megami Tensei IV doesn’t have a lot of talking, and I’m not yet sure that’s actually to its detriment. Heaven knows all the talking in the Atelier games exists to keep me from making potions. It’s also not quite as tough as its reputation. The first bit, yes, because you have few resources and a less-than-optimal stable of demons, and also you don’t really know what you’re doing. But once you get the hang of SMT, it doesn’t become a cakewalk so much as manageable if you don’t get careless – and save often, because you will still get utterly wiped once in a while.

Anyway, once you’ve stopped weeping through every encounter, random, boss, or otherwise, Shin Megami Tensei IV really shines in a few areas, especially in contrast to popular Persona. First off, demon and demon negotiation. You ever played Persona 1, 2 IS, 2 EP, you’ll recognize demon negotiation, and even if you haven’t, you’ll still notice that some demons look an awful lot like personas you’ve fused in the past. All one and the same, baby, except there’s a lot more demons than personas, and the demons are, in fact, your party.

Yes. It’s a little like Pokemon.

Except you have to talk to all these guys. You run into a pixie in a dungeon, you can sweet-talk her and give her gifts until she agrees to fight on your side. You run into a griffon, you have to impress it with your toughness. Negotiations aren’t always easy, and failing one leads to the demon party taking the initiative and kicking the crap out of you. But personality? Demons got personality, that’s for sure, and when you get that powerful critter finally on your side, hey, it’s a sense of accomplishment.

Just like in Persona, you can fuse demons into other more powerful demons, etc., and you can force your favorite skills to transfer. In the meantime, you get delightful bits of weirdness. You might be sweet-talking that pixie, and she complains you only want her as a fusion ingredient (and as you get higher level, you will in fact be revisiting low-level demons for just that). Or you might be talking to an “old” demon, who’s thrilled about the idea of fusing young again. The negotiations paint this wide, bizarre world where there are no (or few) mindless monsters, just entities with their own motivations. And since you’re wandering around murdering things, well, demons are good at that.

This idea of a “wide world” also benefits from actual places to explore. Most dungeons, per se, aren’t very large. Unlike Persona 4’s 10ish+ level dungeons or Persona 3’s single five billion level dungeon, most SMT dungeons are a handful of levels, if that. Or they aren’t levels so much as open city areas. And while there isn’t a lot of “oh, here’s a journal, let’s find out what happened here,” and you may be visiting the same places for different reasons, quests are often more substantial than “gather stuff,” and you have to actually pay attention to see all of a given area. You might return to a well-mapped dungeon to chase down the Monkey King, or help Isis with an Osirus-being-dead-again problem. If maybe a Bethesda-infinity of dungeons might be fun, these modestly narrative-driven quests are much more of a draw than “kill another set of mobs.”

Over-world navigation is tricky, though, because it’s honestly hard to see what routes you can take, what a given node is, and so forth. On the other hand, getting completely lost and ending up in a high level area has its benefits. SMT IV is not the kind of difficult game where it’s impossible for a level 20 party to take on a level 30 demon party, or a level 30 party a level 75 boss. If you understand how to exploit weaknesses, if you have a party optimized for a particular set of weaknesses (or against them), and if you use buffs and debuffs when you need ‘em, level matters much less than initiative and tactics. (And vice versa. You can get wrecked by a party much lower level than yours if you mess up.) This means both that battles tend to be quite quick, and that playing in a higher-level playground earns you XP hand over foot. Whenever you level up, your HP and SP refresh, so there’s incentive not to play to conserve resources. Burn them to earn more. Too much caution will leave you weak.

And I guess there’s also a plot. It’s just – there are different kinds of video game plots. Sometimes, the plot is why you’re playing, and Persona 4 is definitely one of those games. As in, hi, I’m a modestly interactive narrative with some gameplay grist. Sometimes, the plot exists to add structure to the world’s texture, to tempt you outside, to get you talking to people and demons, and thinking whatever you like. Shin Megami Tensei IV has more of the latter kind of plot. Unlike Persona, the story beats aren’t rewards for doing your fighting set-piece as required. The gameplay is the reward and, oh, I guess I advanced the plot incidentally. That doesn’t mean I won’t think it’s cool if the story shapes up to more, or if I actually care if a so-and-so lives or dies. It just seems a little beside the point.

We’ll see. But so far, I am enjoying the on-your-toes fighting and negotiating and the bizarre everything immensely. And really, much as I like Persona, I would love to see one with the flexibility of a mainline SMT. It’s just hard to have textual density, gameplay density, length, and flexibility all in the same title.