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Are Switchable Protagonists the Future of Diversity in Games?

Heavy Rain

In 2010, PS3 exclusive Heavy Rain received much critical acclaim for the then-uncommon way it told the same story from the perspective of four different characters: a grieving single father, an FBI agent, a private detective, and a female photojournalist. The player switched between each character as the story progressed, and this only enhanced the game, as the perspective and experiences of each character shed new light on the serial killer they were collectively tracking.

Over the last five years, Red Dead Redemption, The Last of Us, Assassin’s Creed 3, Batman: Arkham City, Grand Theft Auto V, State of Decay, Until Dawn, and Assassin’s Creed Syndicate have joined Heavy Rain among the increasing number of successful big-budget games that have featured switchable protagonists.

The critical and commercial success of both The Last of Us and Grand Theft Auto V in 2013, in particular, helped cement the financial viability of this model, and the result is a new era of diversity as players experience stories through a variety of perspectives instead of just one.

The Freedom of Choice

Grand Theft Auto V and State of Decay also introduced the ability for players to freely switch between protagonists during open world exploration/”free roam.”

GTA V offers three male characters who are all criminals from different backgrounds. During story missions, the game switches back and forth between them at the writers dictate, but the player chooses who to play during side missions. (And let’s be honest: you spend 99% of your time in GTA V doing side missions.) So you can choose to roam around L.A. as slightly unhinged white guy Trevor, upper-class criminal and family man Michael, or up-and-coming young black guy Franklin. (All of them treat women pretty poorly, and exist a world in which female characters are only there to nag, annoy, or be used as sex objects–but hey, at least there’s some racial diversity!)

Grand Theft Auto 5

The endlessly fun post-zombie-apocalypse survival game State of Decay, released the same year, goes a step further and allows you to switch between dozens of characters of different ages, races, and genders, with the added twist of permadeath. Because the focus is on surviving the zombie hordes, however, there isn’t much backstory around the characters, aside from a short list of their personality traits and assets or limitations.

The newly released Assassin’s Creed Syndicate offers a similar choice between its two protagonists, twins Jacob and Evie Frye. The story forces you to switch back and forth between the two characters as you progress, but you can choose to play the side missions as either one, and easily swap between them with the press of a button.

There has been widespread speculation that Ubisoft’s decision to use switchable opposite-gender twins was a reaction to the bad PR they received last year around the lack of playable female characters in Assassin’s Creed Unity, when it’s creative director Alex Amancio famously said that creating female characters was too much work (an argument that was refuted by Assassin’s Creed 3’s animation director).

If this was indeed a factor, Ubisoft may have been “pressured” into doing something that ultimately made the game better. The ability to play as either twin–along with the setting–is one of the major differentiators between this Assassin’s Creed game and the many previous ones. And, frankly, it’s the most remarkable feature in a solid but otherwise fairly ho-hum Assassin’s Creed game.  Despite almost all the marketing around Syndicate focusing on Jacob, a quick glance at online forums dedicated to the game reveals that more players seem to prefer to play as Evie.

Assassin's Creed Syndicate

A longtime fan of the Assassin’s Creed franchise myself, I probably would not have purchased the game if not for Evie. I’ve spent many more hours than I expected trolling the city streets of London as Evie primarily because it’s so refreshing to be able to play as a female assassin. Otherwise, Syndicate feels like just another beautiful but routine (read: slightly boring) Assassin’s Creed game, albeit a technically upgraded one.

Unfortunately, many other gamers seem to agree. Although Syndicate has received generally positive reviews, early sales data–which notably doesn’t include digital sales–indicates it’s selling OK, but worse than most of the previous AC games. (This is primarily attributed to franchise fatigue and the setting, however, and not to the game’s switchable protagonists.)

The Need for Choice

In 2013, women made up less than 5% of protagonists in games (with 45% of games allowing you to choose your gender), and on average those games received only 50% of the marketing budget of games with male protagonists. Because games with male leads sold better, games with a female protagonist are broadly believed to be bad for business. In 2013, for example, the creative director of cyberpunk RPG Remember Me claimed that the game was turned down by several publishers partly because it featured a female lead.

And indeed, the data supports this conclusion, because it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: creating far fewer games with female leads, then investing 50% less money in marketing those games, will naturally yield lower sales. So not surprisingly, games with male protagonists (and a 50% higher marketing budget) sold 25% better in 2012 than those with an optional female protagonist, and 75% better than whose with a female-only protagonist.

Heavy Rain, Telltale Games The Walking Dead Season One and Two, GTA V, State of Decay, The Last of Us, Life is Strange, and Until Dawn all sold very well, however, proving that gamers will accept and even embrace diverse protagonists.

Games headlined by white male protagonists are still overwhelmingly the norm, but the number of female protagonists has been increasing slightly in the last few years, thanks to recent and upcoming high-profile games like Life is Strange and Tomb Raider, and the inclusion of female characters in games like FIFA 16. This is partly due to the increasing public attention devoted to diversity in video games, as they become more popular and varied, and attract new types of players.

The vast majority of gamers today are Millennials, who expect video games to reflect or incorporate their own diverse life experiences–just as they do other forms of entertainment and technology–and who believe every voice should be heard. A 2014 Neilsen report found that less than 50% of men and women surveyed believe there’s equal representation/inclusion of both genders in video games, and even fewer agree with this statement when applied to racial diversity.

Many gamers have also grown to prefer and even expect customization options. When popular Early Access PC survival game Rust instituted randomly assigned (and unchangeable) races to players in March, the response was predictably negative–both from some white players who were uncomfortable with playing as a person of color, and players of all races who just wanted more customization options.

Video game publishers have to adapt to meet customer demands, just as other technology and entertainment companies do. Even generally risk-averse large publishers and studios know they can’t continue churning out only games that revolve around scruffy young white guys when that doesn’t accurately represent their customer base.

In addition to the increasingly visible backlash against exclusion–as The Witcher 3 developers experienced earlier this summer–there are PR incentives for studios to make games that are more inclusive. Syndicate received a PR boost last month when it was revealed that the game included a transgender character in a minor role, for example, and Halo 5 Guardians has received some positive attention for including a black man as one of the two male leads.

Upcoming stealth action RPG Dishonored 2 has taken the unusual step of allowing you to play as Corvo, the male protagonist in the first Dishonored, or as his now-adult daughter Emily, who was the first game’s damsel-in-distress–but you only get to choose once, at the beginning of the game. Unlike Syndicate’s protagonists who play pretty much identically, Emily and Corvo will have different powers. Arkane Studios worked “really hard”, according to co-director Harvey Smith, to avoid “a bunch of pitfalls” and “tropes that people lazily reach for when they make female protagonists.”

Emily in Dishonored 2

The game’s story, and the marketing around it, seem to be geared towards playing as Emily, while the option to play as Corvo seems to have been implemented as fan service for those who loved him in the first game and want to continue playing as him. Or for all those (male) players whom studios believe just can’t handle the idea of playing as a woman.

The Problem with Choice

Now that switchable protagonists have been embraced by players and critics, the question isn’t whether more character-driven games will employ this method, it’s whether this is the only way we’ll get more diversity in big-budget games. And whether that’s a good thing.

The benefit to employing switchable protagonists is obvious: it allows studios to incorporate more diversity without alienating their core white male user base. Don’t want to play as a woman? Play as Corvo or Jacob. Don’t want to play as a black man? Don’t choose Franklin in GTA V. And for women and minorities, the opposite is true: now you can play as a woman/black man/alcoholic Latina with a limp! (Thanks to State of Decay for that last one.)

On the surface, it seems like a neat solution to the conundrum of how to appeal to a more diverse player base: just give players more than one option!

The “just” is misleading, though, because it actually takes a lot of time and work to create more than one protagonist, and it fundamentally changes and imposes restrictions on the story you’re telling, especially if you want to keep costs in line.

This isn’t necessarily bad, but it does require a very deliberate approach–and tradeoffs. The Last of Us and GTA V proved that using multiple protagonists doesn’t have to mean sacrificing good story-telling, but Syndicate’s story is weak and its multiplayer was scrapped entirely. Red Dead Redemption’s surprise switch at the end angered far more people than it satisfied (including me, mostly because I can’t stand the whiny second protagonist), and State of Decay was able to get away with offering so many diverse protagonists because there is almost no character development.

State of Decay

The alternative for studios who want to tell a specific story, however, is to put all their eggs in one basket and commit to a single protagonist of a specific race and gender–and for many games this will still be the best option. But now that decision comes with its own set of risks–namely, alienating great swaths of players who won’t identify with that character. In the past, that didn’t matter–you could still plan on driving significant sales as long as you spent enough money marketing to your base, because alienated potential players could just be ignored. But in this era of social media dominance where everyone has a voice, marginalized gamers can and will make their displeasure known. Loudly.

Another reason switchable protagonists aren’t a silver bullet is that, as they’re currently implemented, they’re almost always only one characteristic removed from a young white male character. They’re young white women like Evie, and Ellie, or Madison in Heavy Rain, or young black men like Franklin or Native American men like Connor, but almost never a woman of color.

Until Dawn used switchable protagonists in story missions to great effect–controlling each of the characters in turn gives their potential death or survival much greater emotional impact. But it also proved that building a game around switchable protagonists is no guarantee of true diversity, as you rotate through one young wealthy (mostly) white character after another, with women being sexually objectified throughout. (I still really enjoyed Until Dawn, I just had to overlook Emily and Jessica’s terrible slut-shaming conversation, ignore the lengthy scene in which Sam is wearing only a towel, and overlook the fact that only male characters were allowed to have guns–and no, that flare gun doesn’t count.)

Until Dawn

The mostly white, all upper-middle-class characters in Until Dawn made some sense in the context of that particular story, but you have to ask why almost all the stories told are about white, upper-middle-class characters. In fact, almost all of the games that have employed switchable protagonists as a story device have offered only white characters–although several of the characters were women, at least–with the notable exception of GTA V, which features a black criminal (so, not exactly challenging any stereotypes).

These may just be the usual growing pains that occur whenever a large lumbering industry takes its first tentative steps towards change. Bad decisions and poor/lazy writing are inflicted on games with all kinds of protagonists, and this reluctance by studios to make the characters too different from the white-male norm is likely to change as players prove over time that they want more diversity.

While it’s clearly possible for a strong story, diversity, and switchable protagonists to co-exist, that needle must be threaded very carefully–and not every studio appears to be up to the challenge. At least not yet.

The other major hurdle to using switchable protagonists as a solution to diversifying games is that this approach only works in certain kinds of games.

Tomb Raider and Uncharted, for example, are telling stories about a specific character, so adding a second protagonist probably wouldn’t make sense, and the Mass Effect and Fallout games are built on customizable characters. So many older, established IPs are firmly rooted in the story of one particular character, in fact–or customizable or genderless characters–that more protagonist diversity will have to come in the form of new IPs or established franchises like Assassin’s Creed and GTA that frequently change their protagonists.

Because new IPs are already fraught with risk, however, we’re not likely to see a large influx of new story rich games with diverse switchable protagonists until diversity is no longer considered a risk–which puts the spotlight back on upcoming high-profile games with female protagonists like Rise of the Tomb Raider, Horizon Zero Dawn, ReCore, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, Hellblade, Dishonored 2 and Detroit.

How well these games sell may influence when–but not if–we’ll get more diverse protagonists.

Sarah Warn is the Editor-in-Chief of remeshed.com and an avid player of console and PC games of all kinds. She was previously the founder and EIC of AfterEllen.com, and online editorial director for MTV Networks. Follow Sarah on Twitter.
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Sarah Warn is the Editor-in-Chief of remeshed.com and an avid player of console and PC games of all kinds. She was previously the founder and EIC of AfterEllen.com, and online editorial director for MTV Networks. Follow Sarah on Twitter.

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