My impression is that there are fewer iconic protagonists in IF than in comparison to novels, films and also in relation to other games (e.g. point and click games).
How do you see this?
- Is this a matter of history?
- Are there simply good reasons for this? After all, unlike graphic games, IF can use the imagination of the players.
- Are iconic NPCs more important than iconic PCs? (e.g. Floyd)
- Is my impression wrong? Do I just not know the standout characters (yet)?
One factor is that often the PC in IF is not named and “is” the player. There are exceptions such as AlexAndra in Counterfeit Monkey.
There is a long tradition of player-insert protags. This was a deliberate choice of Infocom’s, though of course it had its limits. If you dig deep enough, you’ll find that lots of them were male. The blank slate only went so far.
That isn’t true today, and I think there is a much broader concept of player-audience now. There are also many examples of post-commercial authors specifying elements of the player’s identify. Some notable, successful examples include Anchorhead and Make it Good.
As to this question, I’d say yes, in many cases! Zork’s thief strikes me as much more vivid and interesting than its protagonist.
I’d agree with this. One of the strengths of good IF is that it makes YOU the protagonist. Of course, there are the AlexAndras and the Grunks, but I think often authors leave the PC to be filled in by you. My last game was semi-autobiographical, so in a real sense I was the PC, but I didn’t flesh that character out at all since I wanted the player to put themselves in those shoes. Not going to win any XYZZY awards for best PC, but that wasn’t the point of the game.
Lydia’s Heart - Details (ifdb.org)
One of the few games YOU was not I.
There’s also the in-between of games that specify the protagonist in broad strokes, but leave a couple things (such as gender) undefined so the player can project onto them. Graham Nelson’s Curses takes this approach: you’re a member of the Meldrew family living at your ancient estate and trying to prepare for a holiday to Paris, but the game never specifies your first name or gender. So one player could imagine the protagonist as Mr Archibald Meldrew and another as Ms Amelia Meldrew or what have you.
This has become somewhat of a tradition in games where only a few specific details of the protagonist are important to the story and the rest are not. The player character in Hadean Lands by Andrew Plotkin is “Ensign J. Forsythe” (or are they?) and the whole plot of the game depends on them being an ensign on the ship, but any details beyond their rank aren’t relevant to the story, so they’re left to the imagination.
Jigsaw, also by Graham Nelson, deserves a special mention for including a romance story without ever mentioning the player character’s gender (or their partner’s). There’s one (inadvertent?) slip where the game assumes the two are of opposite gender but apart from that the writing is structured very carefully to avoid ever needing to refer to those characters with gendered pronouns.
I think it is a balancing act between giving the player agency and telling them what their character is like.
Not only is it boring to be told who you are, it is also distracting to be explicitly told who you are when you are also trying to work with necessary in-game info and context clues.
My preferred way of characterizing PCs is to have NPCs be a reflection of the PC in some way, either through an actual shared identity or just implicitly sharing characteristics. From my reviews and testers, I think most people pick up on this so I guess I am not being too obscure.
I think a lot of people like to do something similar with setting. In IF, Shade and Ecdysis would be pretty much pure examples of this, where the characters don’t have many absolute qualities or active wants, but where re-contextualizing the setting tells you a lot about their state of mind.
I would count those characters as memorable even though it is the setting I am technically remembering.
It’s been a long time since I played it but the protagonist of Savoir-Faire was a) not the player and b) somewhat memorable. I definitely felt like I was embodying another person rather than playing as myself. It’s interesting because for the most part, that game was built around puzzle-solving, but the way the PC looked at things (like room and object descriptions) was very vivid and showed a distinct point of view. There was a backstory for the PC. All this would be possible in more games, but I think a lot of authors are going more for the everyman approach. The less you characterize your PC, the easier it is for the player to slot themselves right in. Authors are taking a risk when they have a more definitive characterization. I think of something like Infidel where the protagonist could be seen as pretty unlikable.
Thank you for all the fine feedback! I have to admit, I think I had a bit of a knot in my brain, which I hope has now been worked out. Thank you also for the interesting examples - many of which I haven’t heard before and am very excited to play!
Sparked by what was written here, one thing struck me: Exceptional and well-defined PCs are much more common than I realised (the front places at IFComp are full of them, the Magpie is a fine example).
And I think my biggest takeaway is that the other characters (or maybe even things) are more important and tell more about the story and the PC than the PC itself. Like @ pbparjeter put it:
I’d like to go into more detail about the individual things you’ve written, but I’m not getting it down as well as I’d like right now… I’ll try to make up for it!
The player character in my games always has a personality, but I don’t make a big issue of it. Examining yourself gives a hint, but most of the character’s traits are revealed by what he or she can or can’t do and how other characters respond. Some of my player characters include Susan the young witch in ‘The Witch’s Apprentice’, Charlie the chimpanzee in ‘Charlie the Chimp’, Igor the dimwitted hunchback in ‘Igor’s Quest’, Danny the nerd in ‘Danny Dipstick’ and so on.
Personally, I think the best implementation of a player character in the games I’ve played is probably Grunk in ‘Lost Pig’.
Similarly, the PC of Varicella is an awful person and does horrible things, but the player role-plays as that character.
I consider three categories of PC character:
- AFGNCAAP (Ageless , Faceless , Gender-Neutral, Culturally-Ambiguous Adventure Person) - which is a complete player-insert with very little if no characterization to break the fiction that it is “you” the player interacting with the world. If there are characters in these games, they usually do not know much of the PC either - the player is an unexpected “intruder” into this world or are an unknown minion of another character sent on a mission as in Enchanter.
- Complete Character - the opposite. The PC often has a name, a backstory, history in the world that’s important to the plot. The player role-plays someone often quite different than they are and can “play the character” or attempt to change them if the plot allows. Sometimes these will justify this by setting the prose in third-person to make it clear that you might not necessarily be the character even if you are controlling or roleplaying them, but many are still in classic second-person adventure viewpoint. Sometimes actions and choices made by the player can be denied by set traits, such as an arachnophobe will refuse to interact with a spider-web, or a pacifist character refuses to argue, or a depressive character refuses to socialize. Example Rameses.
- There is a quasi-version of the above two where the PC may be an actual full character but have amnesia and the game hinges on the player learning who they are. Or the PC may be an unreliable narrator where the player initially believes they are AFGNCAAP or another character and their actual identity switches or is revealed as part of the plot/mystery. Example: De Baron.
- Customizable Character - Common in Choice of Games and IF that leans toward RPG. The player literally sets up who the PC is from an out-of-world menu or in-game choices, such as name and character and backstory elements like gender, preferences, physical and mental traits, where they are from, sometimes aspirations. Often this means the entire plot can’t completely hinge on the player’s identity but there can be real-time variation and branching of some plot elements to take character choices into account to coincide and flavor the experience differently, usually how the player completes the game. Example: Any CoG, Choice of Whatever where character creation is a major feature of the story.
Yeah! I think Violet also does both of these really well.
I think part of the problem with strongly determined protagonist characters in IF is that the authors don’t always force the player to make choices that would be “in character”. This makes the immersion only partial. In a tabletop RPG game, other players would surely call out if you tried behaviors that were not in character. I like it when IF makes me do this, like in Plundered Hearts where you really feel like you are playing the part of the character.