Welcome back, Commander.
A specific case of Featureless Protagonist that applies to Strategy Games. Often it is unclear whether the Player Character is even a player character at all, as even if he has a specific role, he might have absolutely no development at all. He may be referred to only by a rank or title, or even never referred to at all if the game gives mission objectives in third person.
He isn't present in any combat location. Even if the game covers the entire world or even universe, there is generally nowhere the enemy could attack to kill him. As long as any friendly units are alive, the player is assumed to be among them.
Additionally, even in low-tech settings, troops have absolutely no hurdles in receiving or understanding your orders and will often not do anything at all without them.
All in all, it's almost as if the player was a Hive Mind made up of his troops rather than their commander.
Contrast <Hero> Must Survive, which might be what happens when you invert this trope. See also Protection Mission, for when it's implied that a location you're protecting happens to house you as well.
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In Dune II and its sequels the player is an unnamed "strategist" employed by one of the three houses, in the cutscenes the house leaders and mentats will sometimes address the camera to give you instructions or threats.
Warcraft I and II used these, though it was subverted in the backstory of Warcraft II, where we find out that the Orc commander of the first game, who is given the name Orgrim Doomhammer, became the warchief and is the boss of that game's orc commander. The human commander was likely Lothar; in the novels, he was the one with the high rank, but the protagonist was his second-in-command, Turalyon (also a hero in Beyond the Dark Portal).
According to Blizzard, the player in Warcraft II is none other than Memetic Badass Varok Saurfang (going by his role as Orgrim's second-in-command), though in the novelization Orgrim's second-in-command is named Tharbek (never seen before or since).
Unlike StarCraft, which adds snippets of backstory to the players' roles, the retconned identities of the Warcraft ones are the subject of fan speculation.
Warcraft III on the other hand never refers to the player commander in-story, and canonically the hero units led their armies on their own.
In the first game, you were supposed to be a "telegeneral", looking over the battlefield and ordering your forces from a computer screen - just like playing a real-time strategy game. All the cutscenes, where GDI command, Nod, or Kane hacking GDI videolinks were video communication shown on your screen. Later games moved away from this, and the Commander was actually in the scene.
This is actually explicitly shown in Command & Conquer: Renegade, the FPS. At one point we see a screen displaying a base as seen in-game with a commando, whereupon you cut to being said commando and the screen goes to full 3D as you actually get onto the battlefield. Throughout the game, you get orders to kill a certain unit or blow up a building, just as you (a player) might do by right-clicking in the RTS.
However, in Tiberian Sun, you are implied to be either Michael MacNeal or Anton Slavik.
Tiberian Sun's expansion Firestorm goes back to the non-entity roots: In the GDI campaign, MacNeal is disposed of by way of his aircraft crashing, while in the Nod campaign the player gets his order from Slavik.
Command & Conquer: Red Alert Series: In general, the Red Alert commanders have an unusual amount of interactions and developments for a character that never appears on screen or gets a name — the Soviet Commander in the first Red Alert nearly gets executed, and may or may not have gotten a promotion to Chairman in the Soviet ending, the Allied Commander in Yuri's Revenge hooks up with Mission Control for the victory ball...
The FMVs from Red Alert are seen from the point of view of a specific character, who was infrequently addressed by the others. You are simply referred to as "Commander" (or your current rank, as you get promoted several times in the Soviet campaign) and not given any characterization beyond that and sometimes being referred as male.
In Red Alert 2, however, the Soviet Commander makes a brief appearance in person when he confronts General Vladimir in the White House.
When playing Yuri's faction in the Red Alert 2 expansion, Yuri usually reacts to commands given to him, as issued by himself. He even refers to the player as his "exquisite mind". You are, essentially, Yuri's Ghost in the Machine.
Red Alert 3Lampshades it: at the end of the Soviet campaign, your co-commander suggests that they'll rename New York City in your honour: "Commandergrad", suggesting that your non-entity-Commander is actually namedCommander".
While you never get a name, you, as each different commander, are addressed personally by your aides in all three of the campaigns of Generals; you are also personally given promotions to higher rankings.
StarCraft's canon is very confusing in this aspect:
The Terran commanders from both the vanilla and expansion set campaigns are never shown or referred to outside their playable appearances. It would have made a lot of sense for it to be StarCraft IIs Matt Horner, but that's Jossed by his backstory. It's possible that the first commander is killed during the Zerg campaign.
According to the developers the Commander from the first Terran campaign left Raynor's Raiders about six weeks after the final mission. Whether this was out of guilt at helping Mengsk, irritation at now being a fugitive, or just being tired of fighting is unknown. The commander from Brood War was likely Killed along with the rest of the UED forces at the end of the expansion, though it you're optimistic, there's still Spartan Company, the goliath mercenaries.
The Protoss executor from the vanilla campaign is made into an NPC named Artanis in the expansion set, whose executor on the other hand appears as an NPC, Selendis, in StarCraft II.
The Zerg cerebrate from the vanilla missions is never shown or referred to, although one might speculate that it's among the cerebrates that Zeratul assassinates during the Protoss campaign. It is also speculated that the Cerebrate from the expansion was still bound to the Overmind and eventually died without the Overmind there to sustain it.
StarCraft II takes the Warcraft III route: the player is never referred to and instead simply commands Jim Raynor through his story.
Inverted in Fire Emblem 7 (just Fire Emblem in the US) for the Game Boy Advance. You did in fact have a character represented, a novice tactician who commanded the units and was actually spoken to often. However, your sprite was just a person in a robe, with nothing visible, and you never said anything. You could set your gender, which slightly altered some text (Primarily with Chivalrous Pervert Sain and Does Not Like Men Florina) but didn't change the sprite, which was of indeterminate gender. Second playthoughs even give the option of getting rid of this entirely.
Similarly, in the other Intelligent Systems series that released its first US installment at around the same time, Advance Wars cast the player as an advisor that the COs would speak to on occasion. The advisor didn't appear on screen, however. Interestingly, all the factions treat Orange Star's hiring of you as an advisor as some sort of impressive tactical advantage... which makes it weird the whole thing gets dropped from the series in the next installment. (The COs themselves seems to be the "Player Character" instead.)
According to Olaf, advisors are sort of like the tactical equivalent of training wheels.
The Civilization games have famous historical figures as leaders that are all inexplicably alive from 4000BC to 2050AD and retain supreme power no matter what revolutions happen within their governments. If Rome overthrows its monarchy in favor of a republic, Julius Caesar is still the all-powerful head of state.
Averted in Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, Every faction is controlled by single leader for some 600 years, who even have some biography, and all of whom seem to be philosophers or thinkers of a kind (you hear snippets of their works after discovering new technologies, building Secret Projects, etc.). The leader was given life prolongation treatment, and it is even possible to give such a treatment to all your people later in the game.
An interesting case comes up in Ultima III. Later games assure us that the Avatar (main hero) was indeed in that band of 4 characters who defeated Exodus. (Supposedly he was known as "The Stranger.") Yet what class and even species of those 4 is entirely variable and there is no characterization. It's possible to have all 4 characters be species that are not from Earth, or depicted in any other Ultima game.
Ultima VII mentions the Avatar's body is materialized from scratch each time he travels to another dimension, with his earth body (the player) being the only constant one. This serves as a catch-all justification for all variations of the Avatar's appearance or stats or virginity between games, as he is reincarnated on each visit. The Avatar is literally a God in Human Form, on top of being a Digital Avatar and the Avatar of Virtues.
Literally the case in the old PC game Dungeon Master (not the trope) where "you" are in fact an invisible spirit guiding a group of warriors whom you've resurrected; they do all the grunt work.
The Keepers in Dungeon Keeper are named, though the player's keeper is not, however they all fit the archetype perfectly, as they are non-physical entities.
Although they do have a physical component, the dungeon keeper's heart, and if it is destroyed they die. And of course, their ability to control their warriors is much more limited than in most RTS, unless they use the Possession spell to take a first person perspective.
Supreme Commander touches this a fair bit, but does have the commanders as specific characters. When shown outside their ACU, they are shown wearing face-obscuring helmets, although the UEF & Cybran commander is a male, while the Aeon one is clearly female.
The commanders do receive a degree of implied character development during the campaign-the Cybran commander in particular, during the ending credits of the game, has a great deal of backstory revealed. He's a clone of Dr. Brackman, the creator of the simbionts and leader of the Cybran Nation.
Aside from offering each race a different Player title (the Tarth "Ubergeneral," the Human "Commander," the Chch't "Hive Imperius," etc.), the Deadlock turn-based strategy games follow this.
Averted in the Stronghold series, where the player can choose a name and whether to be male or female. The player has an avatar in-game in the form of a warlord who hangs around the starting area. If the warlord dies, it's game over. In the spin-off Stronghold Crusader, the player can also choose between a Caucasian or Arabic warlord.
Stronghold 2 will actually greet you in your name if you have a common name that it recognizes. ("Greetings, Sir David!") The game also had a few easter eggs related to this, for instance you could set your name as Darth Vader and the game will greet you as such.
Hostile Waters refers to you only as Captain, the only living person aboard the Antaeus. As for how were you preserved for the twenty years it spent on the seabed, the ship took one of those little brain chips that you put into vehicles and literally built you a body.
While you manage a space station in Startopia, the station's AI, VAL, refers to you as "Administrator" and makes comments that suggest you're a contemporary human (which is to say, you, the player). This may explain why there aren't any humans aboard, but not how you came to be there.
In Perimeter, you're a computer AI commander refered to as 'Legate'. After your group splits into three factions, each with mutually exclusive goals, you still command all three, taking turns. Presumably, they just duplicated you.
World in Conflict gives the player a name and rank on both sides (Lt. Parker and Lt. Romanov, respectively) for other officers to address him with, but little else. In the original game, your player character actually has a screen presence, despite the fact you never get a clear view of his head you can tell Parker is a white male, and at the end you learn the narrator was your character all along looking back at his career. The Expansion PackSoviet Assault seems to abandon this for the generic commander role, though.
Panzer General II addresses the general in the briefing room as an actual person, who is offered smokes, drinks from the samovar, etc. They even talk of rewards for good performances in battle. Additionally, if you check your performance screen (i.e., how many awards you've won), you have a picture of you followed by a randomly generated name.
Star Wars: Empire at War and its expansion both use this, though it is kind of implied that the commander is the Droid Adviser each faction has.
This goes back to Star Wars: Rebellion as well.
The fact that the Imperial officer in the tutorial, at least, clearly threatens the player with demotion.
Speaking of Star Wars, this trope is successfully averted in Star Wars: Force Commander, in which the titular Force Commander, Brenn Tantor, is the player character. As a result, in certain missions, you command yourself - in one instance, your in-game avatar responds to commands as if talking to himself. Plot-irrelevant "skirmish" maps include Brenn as the generic driver of the TR-MB vehicle.
Taken to a logical conclusion in Battalion Wars: The Commander you play not only doesn't have a name, but seems to lack a body as well, instead leaping from one unit on the battlefield to the next. The characters who give you orders seem to acknowledge this, given that they will often order you to take control of specific units during a mission.
In Dwarf Fortress, the player seems to be some sort of omniscient spirit, able to set priorities that all the dwarves instantly recognize. And unlike the dwarves, the player needs no in-game food.
A common theory is that the player is in fact Armok, the god of blood the gamer refers to in its full title. Given the very creatively brutal ideas the community comes up with, this isn't hard to believe.
Sacrifice has a notable aversion, in which the player character actually exists on the battlefield itself, can only act on what's within range, and can potentially be killed by the enemy.
In Age Of Empires II, with the exception of the Saladin and William Wallace campaign, you personally are just some peasant/monk/young soldier who happened to strike up a conversation with someone who knows a lot about the stories, as seen in the cutscenes. It's the narrators you have to wonder about.
Most narrators actually do identify themselves and explain why they know what they do. The Mongol narrator mentions he was chosen to record his people’s journey from the moment they decided to leave Mongolia. In Joan d’Arc’s story, it is one of the first soldiers to join her. In Saladin’s, it’s a crusader soldier who was taken prisoner yet allowed a lot of freedom.
The expansion, The Conquerors, is a bit better: the El Cid campaign is narrated by his wife at his funeral in Valencia, and El Cid himself appears in every battle, more or less; in the Attila campaign, Attilla is, again, a character on the battlefield; and in the Montezuma campaign, it's implied that you are either Montezuma or his warrior-priest cousin (later short-lived successor and leader of the futile resistance) Cuauhtémoc (who narrates). The fourth campaign is a collection of individual historical battles, most but not all of which feature the person you're playing as a character.
While the original Dawn of War was rather... ambiguous as to whether the player character existed or not (just who was Gabriel talking to in the first mission?), in the Dark Crusade and Soulstorm expansions, when selecting an army to play as in the campaign, the player is pretty much told that they are the leader-hero of the faction they control. This is done even more explicitly in Dawn of War II, with the opening cutscene referring literally talking to the player and telling them that they are the nameable Force Commander in the game.
In Evil Genius it would be easy to assume the player's role is that of the disembodied Frau Farbissina-soundalike who (very loudly) relays the orders you give, but the tutorial makes clear you are neither her, the Genius or the henchman. Naturally.
In Seven Kingdoms 2: The Frythan Wars (And possibly the first one) the player does not get any real story. However, the name entered when creating the profile is used as the name of the player's King (All High for non-human factions) unit in game, giving the impression that the player is actually there leading the kingdom. However, getting killed just puts one of your generals in charge.
Averted (or played with) in Achron. The game makes a strong distinction between chronal and achronal entities. You are the general precisely because of your achronal nature; which makes a lot of sense since battles in the game are won or lost on the basis of who can out-time-travel his/her opponents.
While Heroes of Might and Magic gave players a choice of four lords to serve as their avatar, its sequel II simply stars some faceless, nameless commander loyal to either of the Ironfists. This same character serves the same role in the Erathia campaigns for Heroes III, alongside a few corresponding blank slates to represent the neutrals, the Nighons, the Deyjans and the Contested Lands. All further Heroes games have since done away with this, instead focusing on individuals and third-person narrative.
Sword of the Stars: The voice-overs will address the player using non-specific titles like "commander", "Var Kona", "my Queen", "Elder", or "Morru Qu'aan". Though in SOTS 2 you're presumably the Black when playing Liir, which is a playable unit
Baten Kaitos makes use of this in an interesting way; you, the player, are an otherworldly soul who shares the heart of the main character. Through this, you get to give input on in-game situations ,although you can make no changes to how the plot plays out. It makes it easier to break the fourth wall when you're just talking to your second soul, instead of asking yourself 'Do I want to jump into the pit of darkness yet?'.
In Total War games, even leaders refer to you as "sir", when they are people like kings or daimyos who technically wouldn't answer to anyone. On the battlefield however there is a general, though he can get his loaf sliced. The player seems to represent the spirit of their nation since your faction has a king (or equivalent) but that isn't you - in fact you can, in extremis, try to have him killed.
Valkyria Chronicles, post the first game, is a strange example of this. The squad does have a commander (Avan or Kurt) and possibly sub-commanders, but even if all the commanders get Hospitalized from battle, the squad will go on fighting. (This is not true in VC 1, where it's a game over if Welkin is down). Furthermore, characters will affirm ("Let's fight!", "I'm doing my best!", etc) if given orders in battle, even if the commander (or for that matter, other squad members) is nowhere near them. Subtle Survival Mantra?
Justified in Darwinia, as the game takes place inside a computer and the player is remotely connected to the Darwinia server. The complete lack of character for the player is mentioned in the ending by Dr Sepulaveda stating that his life's work has been saved by a total stranger.
Galactic Civilizations: not only do you not play much of a role, a race losing its homeworld never seems to prevent its emperor from relocating to the new capital on the other side of the galaxy. AI empires can lose their rulers to random events, but a) this can never affect the player, and b) their successor is always named Azurelas for some reason.
It's still puzzling to think of what or who exactly you are in The Sims. You have the power to completely rebuild and refurbish your home and to take life-changing decision for everyone in your family, but you are none of them since they can't die and you can't. You also have the power to selectively make the time go faster of slower for specific family members. Some kind of family spirit?
In FTL: Faster Than Light, it is entirely possible to lose your entire original crew during your mission, but as long as your ship always has at least one person on board, you remain in control.