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.
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.
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.