Player and Protagonist Integration

A big factor in many video games is a sense of immersion—the feeling that you yourself are involved in events playing out in another world. Many games try to do this by implying that the protagonist is simply an extension of the player—an avatar. The trouble with avatars is that giving them the potential to do anything makes it hard to make them do... well, anything. Thus other games prefer to give you characters with a life of their own, you just get to play as them.

So, here is the Sliding Scale of Player and Protagonist Integration.

  • Advisor: The protagonist has a personality of their own and, in-universe, their own free will. They explicitly acknowledge the player as another entity from whom they are taking advice. They may consider you to be either a generic 'voice in the head', a spirit from a vaguely defined 'other world', or some kind of deity, or they might just come straight out and break the fourth wall. Naturally, the latter option tends to be reserved for more humorous games. Probably most common in Adventure Games, in which you're the person to whom they're saying "I Can't Use These Things Together."
  • Controller: The most common type. The protagonist has their own personality, which they will act on in story situations, but the player directly controls them throughout the action.
  • Heroic Mime: The protagonist has a personality, borne out by how others interact with them, but their lack of specific dialogue allows the player to imagine how they speak, if not how they act. Link is a classic example of a Heroic Mime done this way—it's clear he does talk, we just don't see the exact words. His actions, however, are largely fixed.
  • An Adventurer Is You: The protagonist is created by the player. They will usually not have a predetermined personality, but allow the player to choose how they speak and act through dialogue options and a Karma Meter.
  • Featureless Protagonist: Expanding on the principle of a Heroic Mime, the Featureless Protagonist has no predetermined traits, allowing the player to imagine the character however they want (though the game may impose some limits on how you can act). Best suited to text adventures, such as the Zork series, where the lack of graphics makes it easy to avoid showing the player, though the Myst series also stars a Featureless Protagonist in first-person view. Gordon Freeman is often seen as somewhere between a Heroic Mime and a Featureless Protagonist, since even though we know a bit about him and he has a predetermined appearance, his persona has so little impact on the game world that he's little more than an excuse for the player to be there.
  • You Are You: The player explicitly is the protagonist. At its purest level, this involves the implication that the 'game' is actually some form of communication software, controlling actual events elsewhere in the world in real time—Uplink being a prime example. The Non-Entity General will often fall into this, as in Command & Conquer. Less extreme examples might include a number of puzzle games where you're given a cursor to influence the game world, but there's no actual character you're interacting with.

Note that both ends of the scale essentially consist of the player acting as themselves- the difference is where the role of 'protagonist' lies, either with the player or with another in-game character. Which, come to think of it, makes it less of a sliding scale and more a circle.

See also the Sliding Scale of Gameplay and Story Integration, a more generalized examination of the relationship between the "gameplay" and "narrative" elements of the game as a whole.

Weird Examples:

  • The Myst series, thanks a generous helping of the Literary Agent Hypothesis, is all over the place. The series started off as You Are You, but later retconned the original games to be hundreds of years ago and based on the true stories of a Featureless Protagonist. This led to the MMO spinoff Uru, which went back to You Are You with the players acting as modern day Myst fans who find themselves drawn to the ruins of D'ni.
    • Incidentally, Cyan claim that Uru is not an intentional pun on You Are You (U R U), but just a word made up for their Constructed Language.
    • The final game of the series also apparently casts you as a Featureless Protagonist, but Word of God has revealed that the player character is intended to be Richard A Watson, a member of the development team who also played the leader of the D'ni Restoraction Council in Uru, making him a You Are You for one specific person, and a Heroic Mime for everyone else.
  • The backstory of Virtual-ON states that the arcade machine you're playing on is actually a remote control module from the future, so you aren't playing a game so much as actually piloting a Humongous Mecha in the distant future.
  • Contact, where You Are You, except when you're a Controller for the protagonist Terry, except you're actually Advising him, except you're not, and—aaaaahhhrgh!
    • This is actually a very important plot point, especially during the ending when he actually gets sick of you controlling him.
  • Most of the Command & Conquer games go out of their way to pretend it's really communications software, with the installation program referring to itself as installing EVA, the interface used in game. A notable exception is Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun, where the player is simply a controller, and the protagonist of the original game is retroactively given a concrete identity.
  • Starcraft is a good example of a mix between Featureless Protagonist, Controller, and You Are You, where you specifically are the general giving orders and such, and your decisions are all your own (within the mission you are on, of course), but in some cases (like the Protoss campaign in the first game, in which you are canonically Artanis) your character has a preset identity. StarCraft II largely retconned the Magistrate's and Cerebrate's existence.
    • Starcraft 2 straddles the line between Controller and Advisor. The protagonists (thus far Raynor in Wings of Liberty, Kerrigan in Heart of the Swarm, and presumably Zeratul will continue the pattern in Legacy of the Void) are fully fleshed-out characters with their own roles in cutscenes and so forth. They acknowledge when they're selected and given orders, because all units do and it would be weird for them to be exceptions, but otherwise do not give any shrift to the idea of a player. Although clicking on Raynor on the Hyperion a few times will have him comment that he's "sitting around talking to [his] damn self".
  • In Max Payne, you are generally the Controller but at some points, Max will demonstrate the awareness of your presence: in one level, you can make him shoot a loudspeaker playing annoying music and he will thank you for that. Later, in a nightmare, Max realizes for a moment that he is the player character of a Third Person Shooter (but ignores it later).
  • Experience 112 has you both as an Adviser and a You Are You. The main character is a young woman who is stranded in an abandoned lab and you are someone who is sitting in a Mission Control room and helping her find her way out.
    • Lifeline operated similarly, although it did ascribe some characteristics to the guy in the control booth (he's specifically male, a guest on the space station, and has a girlfriend called Naomi), making them not a pure avatar for the player.
  • The Assassin's Creed series is a double Controller- the player actually takes control of Desmond, and he is in a computer taking control of a computer reconstruction of one of his ancestors.
  • Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty: Raiden's soldier dogtags have the player's name on them. This is never explained, and is just one of the numerous ways the game plays with the fourth wall and the relationship between the player and player character.
  • Limbo of the Lost takes the Advisor path: you're Briggs' "spiritual guide". Annoyingly, Briggs sometimes knocks on the screen to deliver condescending advice to you.
    • The game goes one further: near the end, Briggs is captured by the Seven Deadly Sins and strapped to a table... but they don't notice his "earthly guide". Detatched from Briggs, you must complete the final puzzle of the game, a Timed Mission to save him before he's sacrificed.
  • Deadly Premonition plays with this. Essentially, you control Francis York Morgan, who occasionally talks to his Imaginary Friend, Zach (implied to be you, the player). Due to a split personality, you are actually Zach's Controller, and thus York's Advisor.
  • Tim Schafer (Psychonauts, Brütal Legend, Grim Fandango) favors the Advisor style, and often describes his approach as casting the player as the character's conscience.
  • The Pokémon series has you as Advisor to your team of Pokemon, a Heroic Mime when dealing with human characters, and You are You when battling and trading with other players.
  • Runescape has An Adventurer Is You, but the adventurer takes some personality during some quests and other activities.
  • Loco Roco has the player directly controlling a Heroic Mime planet who has to indirectly control the protagonists where they want them to be.
  • Are You Afraid of the Dark?: The Tale of Orpheo's Curse has a Framing Device where You Are You, telling the story of the game to gain entry into the Midnight Society. The story-telling takes the form of a standard Controller for the main characters Terry and Alex.
  • Toyed with in Drawn to Life. You're acknowledged as the Creator and then control a Featureless Protagonist mannequin, whom you almost immediately customize to how you wish it to look. The rest of the characters repeatedly acknowledge the player as a higher power, while also considering the mannequin as a separate character, who they also know is the player. This is revealed in the ending to be All Just a Dream of a coma patient, making the player not only an advisor, a Featureless Protagonist, but also part of an entirely separate character.
  • The Ultima games are a partial example of You Are You, in that while the main character has a defined appearance, it's established that the Avatar actually is the player, using their computer to materialise a new body in another world. The same is true for Lord British, who literally is series creator Richard Garriott.
  • Baten Kaitos has the player acknowledged as a "guardian spirit" who advises the protagonist. In the first game, when Kalas pulls his Face-Heel Turn, he banishes the spirit... and your viewpoint slowly fades to black. It later restores itself as the spirit temporarily attaches to Xelha.
  • In Callahans Crosstime Saloon, Jake Stonebender acknowledges the player's presence as some kind of psychic entity taking up temporary residence in his head, peering out his eyes and offering advice on actions. He's not too bothered by it all because it's happened before.
  • Fire Emblem 7 uses the "Advisor" system: the Tactician is a separate "character" whom the Lords (Hector, Eliwood, and Lyn) occasionally address, but is never shown in any detail (sometimes appearing as a generic sprite on the field during cutscenes, but in no level of detail and never under circumstances where it could be controlled) and has no relevance to the plot. The only affect of the Tactician's presence is that you can select an "affinity" at the start of the game, and units with matching affinities will receive a small boost in stats. Most Fire Emblem games make use of a lesser variant with no physical representation of the player, or the "you" approach: The reason for this game being different is due to the fact that it was designed as the first FE game to be released outside Japan.
  • In a similar fashion to the above Fire Emblem example, the first Advance Wars game on the Gameboy Advance puts the player into the role of advisor for whichever CO(s) are in command, and occasionally has the characters refer to you directly in the campaign mode. Again, this feature was never used again for the sequels.
  • Mabihogi has it that the character you play as is the avatar of the player's will, very meta, and characters will bring it up. Pretty direct.
  • Minecraft borderlines between An Adventurer is You and You Are You. The playable character has absolutely no traits or personality and its appearance can be changed with a different texture to represent how the player wishes to be. Since there is no dialogue or any way to interact with the game's only NPCs, the villagers, the player character is a pure blank slate. Things get more weird after you slay the Ender Dragon and leave The End realm. Two unseen beings are talking to each other about your actions and know that you have evolved to the point where you can read their thoughts. They then start talking directly to you and discuss weird philosophies.
  • The Crusader Kings games have a unique variant of the Controller. Your character's personality is based on traits, and the player can generally guide his personality towards a certain direction to a limited extent as well as controlling his actions more directly. As the game is largely driven by Random Events, though, much of this is less due to the player's willful direction and more to how he responds to his character's own spontaneous impulses. When he dies, the player then takes over his heir, who until then had been acting completely autonomously as an NPC.
  • Tak and the Power of Juju has the player character as a Controller with some aspects of Advisor; in the opening cutscene Jibolba the shaman addresses the player as a "Juju spirit" summoned to guide Tak on his quest.
  • The indie game The Novelist takes a mix of Advisor and You Are You: the player plays a ghostly presence haunting the summer home of struggling writer Dan Kaplan, who is able to read the thoughts and influence the decisions of Dan and his family.
  • In the Dawn of War franchise, the player is variously considered to be an Advisor or Controller — the latter is especially prominent in the sequel — with the general consensus among most factions being that they're in charge of the headquarters staff (generals in the Warhammer 40k universe are expected to be Frontline Generals). The Chaos troops, however, seem to think that you're the voice of one of the Chaos Gods.
  • This is just one of the many ways that Ever17 will screw with your head.
  • Tearaway is an interesting take on this: the player is cast as a divine being called a You; you not only control the messenger Iota/Atoi, but you can use the touch-screens on the Vita to interact with the paper world in various ways.
  • Spec Ops: The Line is all about sneaky fourth wall breaking, with one of its key components being the relationship between the player and the game's protagonist Captain Walker. At the start the player is The Controller, but as the game goes on and things go wrong several characters have lines with double meanings that could address the player or Walker or both. One notable instance has a character saying "you didn't give us a choice" to Walker, but the camera angle makes it look like he's looking out of the screen at you. By the end of the game Walker's gone off the deep end. It's all down to personal interpretation whether you just watched like you would with any other story, he's an extension of you and you messed up, you followed him on his journey to try to fix things, or you forced him to press on and do those awful things.