I Hate Blank Slate Protagonists

The blank slate protagonist is a staple of JRPGs, and I completely understand why. Video games strive to completely immerse the player, so it only makes sense that you would let them pick their character’s nme, customize their appearance, and try to make their personality as open to interpretation. This usually results in a deadpan protagonist with the most vague dialogue choices possible.

Despite their intention, these characters break the immersion that they are so desperately trying to give the player. They don’t accomplish what they set out to do, and actively ruin the credibility of their worlds and stories. It’s impossible to take dramatic scenes seriously when one part of the conversation is a mute who never reacts, and yet the player is supposed to channel themselves through this non-entity.

There are many ways to give your player a believable character who they can insert themselves into, and it’s not by making them as weakly written as possible. We respond naturally to complex and rich characters, and it i by giving them relatable characteristics that we empathize, not by stripping them of basic signs of humanity. By writing a character well and creating gameplay that puts the player in the mindset of that character, you create a more authentic experience of being the person they are playing as.

The following contains minor spoilers for Persona 5, Fire Emblem Three Houses, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

Persona 5 Royal review - both better and worse than the original •  Eurogamer.net
Promotional art depicting the Phantom Thieves from Persona 5 Royal (2019).

The worst examples of blank slate protagonists can be found in Fire Emblem Three Houses, and Persona 5, two games that I love to death. These games are predicated in satisfying gameplay and populated by a diverse and superbly written cast of characters. That’s why it makes no sense that the main characters have no personalities.

Both games do their best to give you a chance of roleplaying through Byleth and Joker, but it’s too little and too late to give this empty vessel three distinct dialogue options. In Persona, characters like Yusuke and Futaba discover their spirit of rebellion after traumatic experiences that shape them as people. Joker is just kind of there. Three Houses would not work if each of its Lords, Dimitri, Claude, and Edelgard, did not have their own perspective and contrasting philosophy that is not wrong, merely different from their counterparts. Byleth being there doesn’t do anything, even though the player does decide which of these factions succeeds.

Both games have systems in which they demonstrate the growth of your relationships with your friends and allies. In Fire Emblem, you have support conversations, and they’re some of the best and most interesting dialogue in the game. As Edelgard recounts the torture that mutilated her and killed her siblings, Byleth just stands by with their typical expression of complete apathy. Dimitri recounts watching his family and friends die in the tragedy of Duscur, and Byleth does not react or utter a reply. These tragic scenes are undercut by the unintentional comedy of a player character who can’t speak.

Both Persona’s Confidants and Fire Emblem’s Supports have the options to say things that improve your friend’s opinion of you, which does help with the back and forth, but only marginally. This would work so much better if Byleth or Joker were able to say what dialogue option the player chooses. Many games do this; they give you a short description of what you could say, and then the actual spoken line is longer and detailed. Persona abates this somewhat by having many dialogue scenes not be voiced, but it really makes the animated cutscenes where Joker speaks stand out painfully.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses mixes strategy with Persona-style relationships -  The Verge
Byleth Eisner, protagonist of Fire Emblem Three Houses (2019).

The problem with these games that have silent leads is that the casts have amazing designs and mesmerizing performances. Genshin Impact has fantastic character writing and voice acting across the board in multiple languages, but the protagonist gets to say a dozen words or less in the actual story. You hired a voice actor and recorded tons of lines just for their profile screen, but then you don’t let them talk during the cutscenes. Why?

It doesn’t help with my immersion, it breaks it. The Witcher III is one of the most immersive games I have ever played, and that’s because Geralt is a fully realized character who is organically integrated in this story. His personality is consistent and clearly defined, it doesn’t stop me from investing in the story, it aids it. And gameplay is a huge part of immersion, so much so that I don’t see why they spend so much time on it for an empty vessel character.

The jazz tracks, slick stealth mechanics, and snazzy special attacks of Persona do way more to make me feel like a Phantom Thief than the simple fact that Joker doesn’t talk. Immersion is about atmosphere, and how your actions in the game feel like those of the characters. Spider-Man PS4 is one of the most immersive games I’ve ever played, and it has one of the best written depictions of Spider-Man. The combat and web-swinging is so well done that I have no issue slipping into the character, and seeing this vibrant personality so masterfully rendered makes me want to act through Peter Parker.

And it isn’t like every Fire Emblem game have always relied on avatar characters; the player was an outside entity witnessing the cast and the narrative woven around them. It wasn’t until Fire Emblem Awakening that the player first acted through a character proxy. It isn’t impossible to make an avatar a well-written character, just don’t be afraid to give them a voice to speak and sufficient opportunities to roleplay. Many people enjoy creating characters and roleplaying, it’s the fun of tabletop RPGs and massive titles like The Elder Scrolls, but the developers have to give players the dialogue and story choices to pull this off.

The Witcher 3 Wild Hunt review: A stone cold classic
Geralt of Rivia, the titular character of The Witcher III (2015), fighting a monster.

Now, I might hate blank slate protagonists, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a time and place for them. To the contrary, there are games where the story takes a backseat and having a fully voiced main character wouldn’t fit. A perfect example is The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, my favorite game of all time. Link does not say a word outside of silent dialogue choices, and I would know if he did, I’ve put 800 hours into the game. It is actually a plot point that Link does not speak, and with multiple characters remarking on it throughout the game.

Now, every Link in a canon Zelda game has been silent, although there is no reason given for this in-game. In fact, it’s kind of weird, because Link is this loud and vocal character, constantly “hiyah”-ing and making noise. It is not until Breath of the Wild that Link’s silence is given a reason, and it becomes a major point of contention between Zelda and him.

In Breath of the Wild, Princess Zelda has failed to unlock her powers in time to avert Ganon’s attack, and through Link’s memories, you see how she hated him for being this ultra-competent blank slate. It’s only if you read her diary in Hyrule Castle that she finds out from Link that he is only silent because there’s a tremendous amount of pressure on the boy who claimed the Master Sword. The easiest way to deal with the eyes on him is to maintain this persona of an unflinching hero, rather than let any part of himself come through. Considering how many times he blew himself up with his own bombs and fell down a mountainside in just my 800 hours, it makes sense he’d be worried about embarrassing himself.

The Pokemon games also have a good reason for their protagonists being silent. The games have leaned further into customizing your character in recent games, but these games have always had simple stories and underdeveloped characters, so this game doesn’t need a speaking protagonist. Your goal is to become a Pokemon champion, and speaking is unnecessary to that end.

Practical Typing | Pokemon Adventures: Red (ESFP)
Cover art of Red from the Pokemon Adventures manga, which I wholly recommend reading if you like Pokemon.

I hope that all of the developers from Intelligent Systems and Atlus were paying attention to my minuscule blog where I complain about anime and games, and adjust the next Fire Emblem and Persona games accordingly. Both Three Houses and Persona 5, especially Royal, are amazing games, and there are few areas where you could ask for improvement. The one area I could is that their protagonists are just lifeless, and it’s a shame because from a design standpoint, Joker and Enlightened One Byleth are stunning.

It is important that we communicate to game developers that we want more characters with distinct personalities and voices, not fewer. Even if that means not giving people a blank slate to project on, or even better, giving them enough character creativity to effectively roleplay. If you want the player to imagine themselves as this person, then give them the tools to behave as they want.

I love these games, and any criticism I levy towards them is only my suggestion for how to improve on the things that fans of the series and I already enjoy. Especially because I don’t understand why you’d bother giving Byleth a voice actor for critical hits and battle quotes if you’re literally not going to use the actor for anything else! I could rant about this for a few more hours, so I’m going to cut it right here.

If you liked the essay, every like helps, and you can comment on your favorite or least favorite games with blank slate heroes. If you follow the Otaku Exhibition, you can get updated every time a new essay or review is published. You could even follow me on Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku where I manage to be the most embarrassing part of JRPG Twitter, and that’s not an easy title to take.

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