The potential of less powerful protagonists

[highlight ]This article contains minor spoilers for The Last of Us and BioShock Infinite[/highlight]

One of the things I enjoy doing after playing a game is to search around online for reviews in order to see see how my opinion stacks up against my peers. It was while reading Kirk Hamilton’s well-written review of BioShock Infinite: Burial at Sea – Episode 2 that I stumbled across an interesting observation Hamilton made which in turn led me to re-evaluate my understanding of power and vulnerability in video games. As someone who has frequently taken the “power fantasy” element of most games for granted, Hamilton’s analysis helped me to realize why I found Burial at Sea – Episode 2, and certain other games, to be so compelling: power and player agency don’t necessarily have to go hand in hand.

During the last third of his Burial at Sea – Episode 2 review, Hamilton brings to light a trend many gamers have likely already experienced yet might not have immediately caught on to:

“It has been interesting watching so many big-budget series’ experiment with letting players assume the role of their less empowered supporting characters. Burial at Sea, Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry, The Last of Us: Left Behind and the second season of The Walking Dead have all shifted focus from their traditionally empowered male protagonists to comparatively disempowered sidekick characters. (Even Adewale from Freedom Cry qualifies, given that he’s under suspicion and attack at all times due to his skin color.) Every time a game has done this, we’ve gotten a more interesting story, a more interesting protagonist, and a more interesting game. There is a lesson here: Good games don’t need to have powerful protagonists, and in fact, many games benefit from putting the player in the role of the disempowered.”

The very last sentence of that paragraph is a lesson I feel needs to be printed on a motivational poster and framed in the lobby of every game developer’s studio, be they triple-A or indie, simply because of how much sense it makes. The standard male protagonist power fantasy still holds a lot of sway when it comes to moving copies of a new game (it’s frightening to think of how many games still don’t feature playable female characters) but Hamilton’s observation has brought to light the fact that it is far from necessary to make a compelling game experience; often the exact opposite ends up being the case.

the last of us joel and ellie

Take Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us for instance. While the game’s concept and setting were both fairly original, the main gameplay premise in which players had to guide male protagonist Joel through a hostile world using combat, stealth, and survival skills in order to keep his younger female companion Ellie safe was a little more by-the-numbers. However, players were in for quite a surprise when, during a later segment in the game, Joel became incapacitated. Players were placed into Ellie’s shoes as she struggled to find medicine for Joel while also surviving on her own. While Ellie could manage well enough in combat thanks to her experience assisting Joel throughout the game, Naughty Dog did an excellent job making her feel like a less physically capable (yet no-less deadly) playable character than Joel, forcing players to rethink their typical combat strategies without handicapping them too much both in the later parts of the game and the Left Behind prequel DLC.

elizabeth burial at sea crop

Developer Telltale Games took a similar approach for the second season of its hit episodic game The Walking Dead. While the first season had players controlling adult male protagonist Lee Everett as he befriended a young girl named Clementine, season two casts Clementine in the starring role, showing first-hand what Clementine is forced to do as a child growing up in a world overrun by zombies and distrustful survivors. When playing as Lee, the horrors of what must be done in order to survive are often tempered by his adult perspective — but by shifting that perspective over to the eyes of a child, Telltale adds in a much deeper layer of emotional investment and consideration without disrupting the narrative-driven core of the series.

Even older, more mature secondary protagonists, such as Elizabeth from Burial at Sea – Episode 2 and Adewale from Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry, added new wrinkles to the standard gameplay formula established in their respective games. While Elizabeth functioned mainly as a plot device in BioShock Infinite’s standard story campaign, Burial at Sea – Episode 2 explored in vivid detail just how much mental strain Elizabeth had suffered throughout her reality-jumping journey, while also showcasing a brand new stealth-oriented gameplay approach that suited her perfectly. While Adewale in Freedom Cry was just as physically capable as his old shipmate Edward Kenway, the mere color of his skin meant he was denied the same level of unfettered freedom and was forced to rely on stealth and patience far more than Kenway was.

As Hamilton noted in his Burial at Sea review, playing as a disempowered protagonist not only helps introduce fresh story ideas, it also offers unique new gameplay opportunities that simply wouldn’t be possible by sticking with the same old power fantasy formula. Here’s hoping the trend continues as more and more developers see the merit in making less-powerful side characters into compelling protagonists.