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Game Writing From The Inside Out


March 18, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next
 

What if the player were the hero, but not the protagonist?

Once we've separated the idea of the player's narrative from the game's story, it becomes easier to look at the mechanics of story structure -- and how to apply them to a game.

In other forms of media, like movies, the main character is the protagonist. This is a widely accepted concept, rarely questioned. George Clooney is never cast as the third waiter from the left. But does this construct work for games? Let's take a closer look, starting with terms.

One way to define a protagonist is by his desire. He wants something, badly -- so badly he's willing to fight all odds in order to get it.

This simple definition highlights the problems inherent in casting the player as the protagonist. The player wants what he wants -- and rarely is it the same thing that his avatar wants.

The player is operating on a higher plane than his avatar. The avatar thinks he is a prince that lives in a kingdom; the player knows he is a blip on a screen.

The player's desires are usually tied to gameplay, not story. The avatar says, "I want to save the princess"; the player says, "I want to kill as many dragons as I can."

A protagonist with a strong desire can create production problems for both the writer and the designer. Desire clashes with agency.

How do developers resolve this dilemma?

Some studios create a main character that has a very passive desire -- or no desire at all. "I am a soldier, I fight." This approach results in an avatar that supports gameplay, but it can also leave us with dull characters and a pointless plot.

Other studios create a main character that is driven by a strong, overpowering desire. "I'll kill the king and end this war if it's the last thing I do."

Then the writer and designer must show the player the impact of this desire -- and this is the avatar's desire, not the player's desire -- so we are left watching cutscenes, and in effect watching someone else's story. This can work, but it has its obvious limitations.

Here is another option: cast an NPC as the protagonist, build a story arc around his desire -- and design gameplay as a counterpunch to that arc.

Some games are already employing this concept. To figure out who is the protagonist of a story, you can ask: Who is the person who's got the most on the line, the most to lose and the most to gain?

Who wants, more than any other character? Both Fontaine in BioShock and the Jackal in Far Cry 2 want something, badly.

You can map their desire lines and see how those desires ignite the game's -- and story's -- conflict.

With this approach, the player is still the hero -- of his own story, which he creates dynamically through gameplay. The designer builds the hero's path; the writer crafts the protagonist's journey.

Then, together, they can look for ways to integrate the story and the game. The team can cast the player character in a new role -- ally, for example, or antagonist -- and then allow the story to unfold in unpredictable ways.


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