My friends are manipulable. They are easily duped, predictable, largely unquestioning and mostly acquiescent. When they dissent, they sell their favor for cheap gifts and memorabilia. Despite these tendencies, my allies in Dragon Age: Origins are the most realistic companions I have ever had. But this post is not about them. This post is about the hero who will never be like them, the protagonist of this world and many others.
Two weeks ago I criticized a few pet peeves I hoped the industry would abandon. One of these, the "Blank Slate" problem, I defined as the tendency for developers to create emotionally vapid non-characters with little or no personality. These beings attempt to encapsulate normative players by aiming for averages. The short-haired white male with no internal monologue tries so hard to satisfy everyone that he relates to no one. This might be an extreme example. All videogame heroes, however, Arkania included (my heroine of Dragon Age), show symptoms of the blank slate. They are all victims of player agency.
There came a moment in Dragon Age, after a touching scene with Alistair and Leliana, that I realized I genuinely cared for these characters - all but Sten to be exact. I have yet to finish the game and I am actually nervous about where the story will lead. The cast is so well realized, each with a rich personal history, that I am concerned one of them will die. My protagonist, however, stands out from the group. Her death would be upsetting, but also natural.
There are many little touches that add depth and realism to the cast of Dragon Age. While exploring the world, party members will share idle banter, discussing their experiences, opinions, and generally joking around. Mementos found scattered about Ferelden can be given as gifts. Alistair shares remorseful memories when given an old locket. Leliana shows similar gratitude upon receiving a particular flower. I can also probe my cohorts for more information. I can learn about their personal lives, past tribulations, and aspirations by asking questions. Arkania, however, cannot play a similar role for them. She is detached from reality.
All the party conversations are between fellow supporting characters. My protagonist never has a quick background chat with others. She is never given gifts, and therefor never shares personal details to her friends. Occasionally, someone will ask my protagonist a question, but it is very rare. When the opportunity is given, answers are often short and limited in scope. I chose to play as a Dalish Elf, and many of my available responses revolve around this particular aspect of my character. Wynn, the party member who is most proactive towards Arkania, seems satisfied with curt answers to genuinely intriguing questions. The opportunity to tell a compelling personal history, one I did not experience in-game, is squandered.
Countless videogame heroes and heroines suffer the fate of the playable character. Story elements that players do not actually interact with are largely abandoned. The role of the videogame hero is to enact their agency upon the environment, not immerse themselves within it. Games with silent protagonists succeed not because the lead characters are so compelling, but because support characters and the worlds they inhabit are emphasized instead.
Our protagonists are different because we play them. Although I can control my entire party in Dragon Age, there is no doubt Arkania is my medium into this world. Accordingly, she is altered to suit my needs. Her dialogue decisions, for example, are not affected by past choices. They always offer uncharacteristically radical options, in case my gaming whims change suddenly and I want to become an evil character. She cannot inhabit the world the way all her friends can.
In this way, videogame heroes are very much like the tragic heroes of Western cinema, unable to live in the world they fight to protect. Admittedly, this is a drastic reading of the avatar within narrative games, but I think it works. As players, enacting our agency within a system of rules, we will never see the protagonist the way we see the supporting cast. Thus, our heroes and heroines are forever outsiders. They are different because they are player-controlled, and we design them intentionally to enact player will. Even a game like Dragon Age, with commendable writing and voice work, inherently shows the symptoms of blank slate character design.
All games that seek to tell a story must deal with this narrative chasm in some way. Interestingly, the protagonist of Braid is a hero who becomes villainous, forever separated from his goal by his blind pursuit. The game unwittingly exploits this narrative conundrum. Other games may cleverly circumvent the tragedy of videogame heroism, but they are rare. For most of our champion protagonists, past and present, their fate is sealed. Even the most realized world they will never call home.