Interactive Stories and the Death of “The Protagonist”

by Meghan Watt

Meet Commander Shepard. He’s a badass. And not a one-dimensional badass like Marcus “my voice is deep and gruff so I must be awesome” Fenix. He’s a natural leader, inspiring loyalty in the most unlikely characters. And no matter the odds, he never backs down.

What’s especially cool about Commander Shepard is that, as gamers, we can all play the same character while also to making the experience our own. In other words, his governing traits remain the same, whether you make him a woman, a xenophobic prick, a hero defending the weak or a loose cannon that punches reporters.

Now meet [insert Dragon Age character here]. In my case, she’s a human rogue and the last of the Couslands. When her parents are betrayed and murdered, she departs on a journey to slay Darkspawn as a Grey Warden. But this is all just background information. What is my version of the protagonist really like? What are her defining characteristics?

I’m not sure. One moment, she’s badmouthing a dwarf, and the next she is exchanging cheesy lines with Alistair. It really depends how I want the situation to turn out.

Comparing these two games, I see two major differences.

First, and more obviously, is that Mass Effect has a well-defined, strongly developed character that is consistently him or herself, despite the choices the player makes. Dragon Age, on the other hand, structures its dialogue in a way that makes it impossible for the protagonist to A) remain consistent and B) develop defining character traits.

Second (and this may be more debatable than the first point), the choices you make in Mass Effect feel like they’re Commander Shepard’s decisions. For example, I didn’t force Shepard to punch out that reporter. She did. And I didn’t make her fall in love with Garrus. They just seemed to be getting along and the rest is history.

However, looking at Dragon Age, your character isn’t its own sentient being. Essentially, it’s you and your decisions manifested in an avatar. You are always there, making the protagonist choose certain routes and take particular actions.

The benefit to the latter is that it allows you to create an experience that truly becomes your own. For instance, although I didn’t write the lines or create the customizable features, I feel like I molded Shiara Cousland from scratch and led her through the game in a way that only I could. But if you ask me who Shiara Cousland really is, I’ve got nothing beyond her background. This is the disadvantage to the way Dragon Age constructed its interactive story.  And honestly, I don’t think you can create a satisfying story without a rich protagonist.

In regards to this mess of a post, I have two 2-part questions:

1. Were you satisfied with Dragon Age‘s treatment of the protagonist and would you be happy to see future games use this dialogue structure?

2. Is it possible to give the player as much freedom as Dragon Age allows while developing a solid, definable character like Shepard? Or, taking it one step further, could the player use the freedom of choice to create a solid, definable character that remains unique to his or her experience?