RPG Grind Time – Yearning For Stronger Protagonists

by Kimberley Wallace on Mar 15, 2017 at 10:00 AM

I had an interesting discussion with my fiancé, a fellow RPG fan, the other day. I was telling him how I had grown tired of the player character in RPGs often being the least interesting person in the whole game. These characters all tend to fit a similar mode: a good-doer hellbent on saving the world. To say it mildly, most protagonists are usually very vanilla and predictable. This isn’t new to RPGs. Cliché characters are often one of their biggest criticisms, but I wondered why in my 20+ years of playing, there were so many characters I embodied that I just didn’t care much about. Isn’t part of the thrill of gaming stepping into the shoes of somebody who’s just cool to play as? Instead of thinking that, I’m often finding myself just feeling “meh” about the player character. 

For some examples, I think of characters like Rean from Trails of Cold Steel, Jude from Tales of Xillia, and just about every lead protagonist in a Star Ocean game. Even in Final Fantasy XV, I spent a chunk of the game not caring for Noctis, but instead about the people around him. Only later in the game, did I grow an appreciation for the character. I expected my fiancé to agree. I want to play as someone I find cool and intriguing, and it didn’t seem like an odd request. Instead he responded, “I feel like that’s done for a reason. Developers purposely dial back on their personality because you’re supposed to be making the decisions and playing through the character.”

This was the start of a fascinating discussion. I quickly shot back that I didn’t think playing as a character meant that they couldn’t have a strong personality. I pointed at the Mass Effect and The Witcher as games that I felt let you make your own decisions, but put you in the shoes of interesting characters. Yes, maybe Shepard fit the hero bill, but BioWare did an excellent job of adding little quirks to her personality, like heroic speeches and bad dancing that just made her feel fun to play. I felt like a badass calling the shots as Commander Shepard. 

Geralt of Rivia from the Witcher is another character who’s just fun to control. As an outcast for being a Witcher, Geralt doesn’t feel the need to prove anything to anyone. He’s a skilled and intelligent professional, just set on getting any job he takes done, and he doesn’t care to get involved in petty disputes or politics. There was always something empowering about playing as Geralt and making a tough choice through him. He had a confidence and nonchalant attitude I loved. In The Witcher 3, CD Projekt Red took the character to a new level, showing his love for Ciri and what he’d do to protect her. Another favorite antihero of mine is Yuri from Shadow Hearts. He had a sarcastic wit that made every encounter a blast. Still, leads like these are far and few between. 

Your party is of the utmost important in RPGs, in my opinion. I can list a ton of party members I really grew attached to during my journeys, from Dragon Age’s consummate storyteller Varric to Persona 4’s fierce glutton Chie. Your main character always needs interesting personalities to play off of, but it’s still disappointing when a lead just lands in that bland, safe territory. I don’t like that when I think back on my time with RPGs, not many player characters stand out to me. Most are just adequate at best; they serve their role, but not much else. 

I share this topic because I don’t think my fiancé or I are wrong in the way we look at RPG leads. Everyone has certain things that intrigue them in games. Part of what I wanted to do with RPG Grind Time was open up discussions about the genre and hear other opinions. So, I leave you with the question of how important is it to you that the player character is interesting? Do you wish games provided more intriguing individuals and roles for you to step into? Do you think a strong personality is off-putting or breaks your immersion with placing yourself in the world? 

I’m always thinking about the future of the genre, and I really believe as video games grow with storytelling, we need to have strong leads to show for it. You’re spending so much time as a character, they might as well have something intriguing about them and leave a strong impression on you.