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Static Role, Exchangeable Character

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In traditional storytelling, every character has a specific role in a plot that is statically assigned to them. In Video Games, however, it is possible to associate specific Narrative Beats with an abstract "role" rather than a certain character, and to let the player decide which one of the available player or non-player characters acts it out in their playthrough. This makes the plot appear incredibly variable and tailored to the player without actually having any Story Branching, since all story beats (character actions) remain essentially the same but different characters can have vastly different reactions to the role they've been given. Often, the selection of characters available for a role will be limited in some way (e.g. only magic-users, only blood relatives, etc.).

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A telltale sign of this trope at work is when players or even the game itself start using generic, gender-neutral role descriptors (like "the Specialist", "the Volunteer", "the Love Interest", etc.) instead of character names to simplify walkthroughs. It commonly overlaps with Romance Sidequest (if the PC's love interest, regardless who it is, has a role in the overarching plot) and Mutually Exclusive Party Members (if one such member dies, the other may be called "the Whatever Survivor"). A sufficiently large cast is often required to use this trope effectively. If a particular character is unfairly promoted for a certain role by the game, it may be suffering from Story Branch Favoritism.

When a character who is supposed to play a specific role is replaced by a new character, it's a Suspiciously Similar Substitute, not this trope. If you can pick a character for the role of "the Player Character" at the start of the game, then it's a Schrödinger's Player Character (assuming the other possible PCs then don't appear in the game at all), who may also have a Canon Identifier. Has nothing to do with the Static Character trope.

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Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Adventure 
  • King's Quest (2015): Queen Valanice. In Episode Three, Graham meets two princesses named Vee and Neese. The one he chooses to romance is revealed to be Valanice in the present.

    Board Games 
  • Betrayal at House on the Hill, various roles: At the start of a given session, the players pick a scenario and are given random predefined characters to role-play. Half-way through the game, a variety of scenario-specific roles (usually including at least one traitor) are semi-randomly assigned to some characters, putting an additional role-play layer on top of that.

    First-Person Shooters 
  • In Wolfenstein: The New Order and the sequel, you are given a Sadistic Choice between saving Wyatt or Fergus, which alters the "timeline". This means that the survivor serves as The Lancer to Blazcowicz as well as a new NPC (Tekla in Fergus' timeline, "J" in Wyatt's) and some minor gameplay alterations.
  • In Rage 2, the protagonist's gender is chosen by having you choose between a male and female soldier. The one who doesn't get chosen gets killed in the following cutscene.
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    Hack and Slash 
  • In Dungeon Siege III, the character you choose is the one that shows up to the invitation to the meeting that turns out to be an ambush. The ones you didn't will show up later at various points in the game with an explanation as to why they didn't go and join you as companion characters.

    Immersive Sim 
  • Dishonored 2, player character: Immediately after the opening cutscene, the player decides whether to play the rest of the game as Corvo Attano, the returning protagonist of Dishonored, or his daughter Emily Kaldwin, now Empress of the Isles. Whoever you didn't pick gets transmuted into stone by the Big Bad during her coup, while the other is locked up, only to escape and start looking for a way to save them.

    Platformer 
  • A Hat in Time, the Chapter 2 Boss and the Bomb Defuser. The main focus of the Chapter is a rivalry between movie directors The Conductor and DJ Grooves. Players can help one or the other win an award by completing their missions; the winner takes a Time Piece to try and change a previous loss (in The Conductor's case) or several previous losses (in DJ Grooves's case) in the past, while the loser shows up during the boss fight to save Hat Kid from an explosive attack.

    Real-Time Strategy 
  • Dawn of War II, "The Traitor": One team member turns traitor over the course of the game, with the player's actions determining who it is, such as doing some sidequests or not, or equipping corrupted gear, with the role falling to a Mission Control NPC if all members are kept pure and if the player ends up making the psyker the traitor, he'd suffered Demonic Possession and was Fighting from the Inside. Canonically, Avitus becomes the traitor.

    RPG — Eastern 
  • Final Fantasy VI, late-game party leader: After Terra's reinclusion to the party, the players can arrange the fourteen-member party however they like, barring one or two places where a certain character is fixed for plot purposes. The character in the "party leader" slot is assigned the same lines regardless of who's placed there, which can result in some wildly out-of-character dialogue.
  • Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire, their remakes, as well as Pokémon X and Y have the "Rival" character. The games have the player choose between a male and female player character at the start, with the player character that went unchosen receiving the rival role. In addition to being your rival, the Hoenn games have Brendan/May take the role of your neighbor/Professor Birch's child, while the Kalos region has Calem/Serena be the unspoken leader of your new friend group.
  • Downplayed in Uncharted Waters: New Horizons: To have more than one ship in your fleet, you have to hire named sailors in ports and appoint them as additional ships' navigators. If you have surplus mates, you can additionally appoint three of them as First Mate, Book Keeper, and Chief Navigator. While mates appointed to these roles will participate in specific dialogues (e.g. the Book Keeper will chime in during market negotiations), their impact on the plot is negligible.
  • Dragon Quest V: There are three possible wives for the hero, and while they have very contrasting personalities and dialogues, their role is the same: get married, bear children, get kidnapped and turned into a stone statue for a decade before being rescued by her children and husband. The kids also have their mother's hair color, but have the same lines in every case.
  • In Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree's Woe and The Blight Below and the sequel, you're given a choice between a male or a female as your main character, with the one who you didn't choose functioning as The Lancer.
  • Miitopia has this for many, if not all, characters in the game, as the player can set any Mii character to whichever Mii they please.
  • In Seiken Densetsu 3, the characters you pick and the order you pick them in determine who gives what dialogue, and who appears in various scenes. The second character always joins you when you break the seal at the waterfall (unless it's Carlie, who, when picked second or third, always joins in the same location), and the third is the one who helps you break out of Jad's prison (if Carlie is your third character, someone you didn't pick will break you out instead). While the final dungeons depend on your first character choice, most of the game plays out the same up until then, so quite a lot dialogue can be given by any (or almost any) of the playable characters in major cutscenes.

    RPG — MMO 
  • Star Wars: The Old Republic, "Havoc Squad Lieutenant": In the end of Act I of Republic Trooper's storyline, you get promoted to Captain and must, in turn, promote one of your two organic companions to squad lieutenant. Both Jorgan and Elara are happy if you pick them, but for different reasons: to Jorgan, this is the restoration of his old rank that he was unfairly stripped of; to Elara, this is the long-overdue recognition of her skills and dedication to the Republic's cause. Regardless of who it is, however, they dutifully serve as your second-in-command for the rest of the campaign.

    RPG — Western 
  • Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, "Dxun Party Leader": During the Battle of Onderon, you must detach three party members to perform a diversion on Onderon's moon Dxun. Whoever is chosen as the leader of this strike team stars in a minor subplot where an ancient Sith temple tries to tempt them with The Dark Side, and you have to deal with its aftermath after the battle.
  • Mass Effect series:
    • "Virmire Survivor": In Mass Effect, two squad members, Ashley and Kaidan, are separated from the party on Virmire and by the end of the mission, Shepard has to make a Sadistic Choice to save one of them, leaving the other to die. The accepted term for the one who lives is "the Virmire Survivor", and they go on to play an important episodic role throughout the rest of the original trilogy—which is essentially the same, regardless of the survivor's identity.
    • The entire Suicide Mission in Mass Effect 2 is built around this trope, as Shepard has to repeatedly assign squadmates to specific roles (the Tech Specialist, the Fireteam Leader, the Biotic Specialist, the Escort, etc.) over its course. In a twist, while every available candidate gets their assigned job done, subpar assignments do lead to minor Story Branching at the end of their respective segments, possibly resulting in their or another squadmate's deaths (see here for detailed analysis).
    • Because of the second game's Anyone Can Die ending, Mass Effect 3 has roles in both the main storyline and side missions that are filled by one of your former squadmates if available and another character otherwise. Some of these fall under this trope, such as the Urdnot clan leader (Wrex or Wreav) and one of the Lawson sisters on Horizon (Miranda or Oriana), while others are a Suspiciously Similar Substitute, e.g. the salarian doctor preparing the genophage cure (Mordin Solus or Padok Wiks) or the geth ally (Legion or, er... Legion's backup copy). Some of these have great difference in plot outcomes and consequences, others, not so much.
    • In Mass Effect: Andromeda, the male and female playable characters are twin siblings. The one you don't choose starts off in a coma due to their cryopod being damaged and is later awakened to be a secondary NPC.
  • Dragon Age series:
    • Dragon Age: Origins:
      • "Rescue Duo": Towards the endgame, the Warden may be imprisoned in Fort Drakon, and two party members can be selected to try to rescue them. Different combinations have different degrees of success (e.g. Leliana and Zevran will have zero trouble bluffing their way past every guard post, while Sten and Oghren quickly make themselves a laughing stock), but all ultimately reach and free the Warden.
      • "Landsmeet Champion": During the Landsmeet, Teyrn Loghain challenges the Warden to a duel, but you can instead name another champion from among your companions to fight him. Dog will be rejected outright, while any other choice will provoke a number of reactions from NPCs. Furthermore, while most companions will leave Loghain's fate up to you after defeating him, Alistair will always slay him out of hand because It's Personal.
    • Dragon Age II:
      • "Hawke Sibling": One of Hawke's younger twin siblings always dies in the prologue (Bethany if Hawke is a mage, Carver otherwise), while the other, often called "surviving sibling", goes on to play a specific role at several points of the plot - most importantly at the end of Act 1, where they contract the Darkspawn Taint if taken to the Deep Roads and can be made a Grey Warden if Anders is present in the party.
      • "Love Interest": Hawke's lover has a minor role outside of the Romance Sidequest, such as when they come over after "All That Remains", or when a mage-Templar alliance kidnaps them.
      • "Rescue Duo": Similar to DAO, in the Mark of the Assassin DLC, when Hawke and Tallis are captured, the other two party members try to break them out—and universally fail, but their interactions during the attempt paint a perfect picture of the convoluted relationships among your party members.
    • Dragon Age: Inquisition:
      • "Grey Warden Ally": Depending on the world state, either Alistair, Loghain, or Stroud from DA2 play a major static role in the "Here Lies The Abyss" plotline. At the end of said mission, one of them or Hawke becomes "the Fade Survivor", whose role is to play out in the future games.
      • "Mythal's Thrall": Towards the endgame, either the Inquisitor, or Morrigan drinks from the Well of Sorrows, allowing them to neutralize the Elder One's dragon in the Final Battle, but also making them a thrall to Mythal.
      • Divine Victoria: At the end of the game, one of the Inquisition's female human members, Cassandra, Leliana, or Vivienne, is elected the new Divine. While the flavor narration and the off-screen policies each of them implements vary greatly, Divine Victoria's role in the Trespasser DLC is more or less the same, regardless of her secular identity.
  • Fallout 4, "Sole Survivor": The game starts off with a married couple preparing for an event later that night, and the player can customize the two of them before selecting one. The other then becomes an NPC with a default name who dies at the end of the prologue.
  • In The Elder Scrolls series' spin-off Dungeon Crawl game, Battlespire, the story is the same whether you choose to play as male Apprentice (Josian) or the female apprentice (Vatasha). The only difference is that you are now rescuing the one you did not choose to play as.

    Turn-Based Tactics 
  • XCOM: Enemy Unknown, "Volunteer": To trigger the endgame, the player must send one of their organization's psychic soldiers into the Gollop Chamber to contact the Etherial Hivemind. This soldier becomes known as "the Volunteer" for the rest of the game, leads the assault on the final alien base, and must survive said assault because in the final cutscene, they perform a Heroic Sacrifice to save the Earth and humanity.
  • Fire Emblem features MANY cases of this:
    • Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War originated the marriage system that appears in Awakening and Fates. The mother characters are fixed and their children look and act the same regardless of who the father is; only the gameplay skills are different. If the mother remains unmarried, a pair of substitutes appear instead—they have the same dialogue as the 'canonical' children, but different stats. However, the substitutes also have conversations and events unique to them (many of them about not being as good, status-wise, as the 'canon' children).
    • Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones, endgame protagonist: The twin protagonists Ephraim and Eirika follow different questlines, but reunite in the final chapters. The one whose plot branch was followed continues spearheading the plot through the same endgame sequence of events, but with different dialogue and personal scenes.
    • Path of Radiance has a lot of variance in story scenes based on which characters are alive. In general, the dialogue of each scene will be mostly the same, but some characters will take over other characters' lines if the original speakers died. This even expects to certain support conversations. E.g. in Astrid and Makalov's supports, someone always stops Makalov for selling her pendant at a pawn shop, it's his sister Marcia if she's alive and Ike if she died.
    • Fire Emblem Awakening has two separate cases:
      • Various husbands: Intermarrying the characters opens up an extra map where the player can meet a child whose identity is determined by the female half but who is also said to be the child of the male half of the pairing (in effect, for every marriageable female character, there is a static role "Her Husband" that can be assigned to any marriageable male). The child can support with their father, but the main point of the support conversations is always the same (e.g. Nah wondering why her father married her mother, Inigo explaining his Dumbass Teenage Son act, Cynthia and Severa trying to become Daddys Girls in their own ways, etc.), with only the father's speech patterns and rarely personality impacting the way it is presented. Plus the Avatar's exclusive child, Morgan, can have talks with hisnote /hernote  older sibling that, like children and fathers, mostly have the same subject matter regardless of who the sibling actually is.
      • "Chrom's Wife": Chrom is the one character who gender-inverts this. He is the only character who MUST marry in-story, and he can marry one of 5 different characters (or 6, as Chrom marries a nameless village girl if neither of the five girls qualify or they're already married). Regardless of who they are, "Chrom's Wife" fills the same story role in two scenes: appearing with his baby after Chapter 11, and meeting Chrom's Kid from the Future in Chapter 13. Every one of these apart from the generic village girl also has a child of their own in addition to Chrom's fixed child. This child fills the role of "Lucina's Sibling": having a set of support conversations that like Morgan's case, are pre-fixed and with the same subject matter.
    • Fire Emblem Fates features a similar system as the one noted on the Awakening example above, with the difference being that the father is the constant parent and the supports with the mother are the "generic" ones. Azura is the exception, with mechanics similar to that of Chrom in the above example. Also, the servant who joins the group first is dependent on the Player Character's gender; Felicia accompanies male Avatars first, and Jakob for female Avatars.

    Visual Novels 
  • In Paramedium, Nina and Lance appear in both games, but players choose which of them is the protagonist and which is the sidekick.

    Wide Open Sandbox 
  • Downplayed in Saints Row IV, whose endgame subtly imitates Mass Effect 2: the final mission occurs in three phases (delivering the Key, opening the portals, storming the alien ship) and you must choose one of three pairs of homies (Pierce and Shaundi, Matt and Asha, and King and Gat) to go with you on each one, leaving whoever was with you before to Hold the Line. While all of them basically do the same things, their reactions and dialogue is unique to each pair-mission combo, and in the second phase, the AI allies you summon depend on who is with you at the time.
  • Assassin's Creed: Odyssey, both player character and "Deimos": At the start of the game, you pick whether to play as Alexios or Kassandra, and the sibling you didn't choose shows up later on as Deimos, a warrior for the Cult who serves as The Heavy of the main plot.
    • The Legacy of the First Blade DLC has Natakas and Neema, Darius' son/daughter and the new Love Interest. Who shows up depends on the player character's chosen character (Natakas if Kassandra and Neema if Alexios).

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