Analysis, RPGs

Who Gets to Be a Hero? A Case Against the Default Protagonist

The phrase “default protagonist” has been used quite commonly in recent years in order to examine and critique issues concerning representation in media. This “default” is affected by the cultural context that any given piece of media is produced within, as well as the long-standing canon that has shaped popular cultural and academic perspectives.

Regardless of the medium, you have probably observed what the most common trends are: the protagonist is usually a man or a boy, he is white (or has a noticeably lighter skin tone), and he is heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, and neurotypical. Many a marketer in the world of multimedia has claimed that this character is most “relatable” or “identifiable,” but viewers who do not fit one (or all) of these categories will probably tell you differently. Seeing this same protagonist, day in and day out, is boring at best and self-esteem impacting at worst.

Video games provide an interesting take on the discussion of default protagonist. Many video games — especially ones that focus on a specific narrative such as Night in the Woods or the Ace Attorney franchise — follow the story of specific player character(s) through the typical three-act structure. However, not all video games follow this narrative design. Instead, some games provide a story type that no other medium can: one that focuses on the player as the main character.  

Thus, the protagonist of the game is no longer a character with a pre-determined appearance, personality, sexuality, and skills, but rather, they are a character based on the player’s actual or idealized self. Granted, several of these games have their own pre-determined plots for the player to undertake, but the fact that the player is able to play as themselves provides a very different connection to both the story and the game world. This feature is especially prevalent in role-playing video games, which makes a great deal of sense as you are essentially viewing fantastical worlds from the perspective you want to pursue as opposed to a specific linear progression that is associate with other game genres.

With this ability to create one’s player character becoming more widespread, one might assume that developers would continue to expand upon those available customization options. Unfortunately, the video game industry still lags behind in terms of providing gamers with a diverse range of options. This can be seen most recently in the lack of romance options for gay or bisexual men in Mass Effect: Andromeda, the Pokémon franchise’s continued reliance on the gender binary for their player character, and the lack of options available to black gamers who want to create an accurate representation of their hair and/or skin tone when creating a character.

Even more frustrating is when a video game franchise that has been making steps forward in terms of better character creation takes a major step back. While this topic can be used to discuss many different games and genres, the major focus of this article will be on the Dragon Quest franchise, specifically the main series and how the forthcoming Dragon Quest XI disappointedly falls back on the default protagonist.

A Brief Overview of the Hero(ine)s in Dragon Quest

When examining and comparing the protagonists in the Dragon Quest series, the result is a rather mixed bag. On a positive note, Dragon Quest was one of the first video game series within the Japanese role-playing game (JRPG) genre that allowed the player to choose the gender of the main protagonist and player avatar rather than only letting them play as a man. The game, Dragon Quest III: The Seeds of Salvation, allowed the player to choose between a hero or a heroine, who then acted as a representation of the player. Furthermore, the entire party’s gender and class could be determined by the player, making it possible for the player to have a party comprised entirely of women.  

Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen also allowed the player to choose the gender of their hero(ine) and, if the player chose to play as the heroine, could have a party with an even ratio between women and men. Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies was similar to Dragon Quest III in that the player could choose the gender of their player avatar, as well as their party members, but also added more extensive character creation that allowed for customizing the skin tone, hair and eye color, hairstyle, facial features, and height of both the player character and their party members.  

Finally, there is Dragon Quest X — the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) which, like most games in the genre, allows for extensive character creation for their avatar. However, despite these few examples, the majority of the series still falls within the trappings of the “default protagonist” model — not to mention the failing in not providing nonbinary gender options.

Every other game in Dragon Quest’s main series stars a character who would best be described as the epitome of the default protagonist I described earlier. With the major exception of Dragon Quest VII, the main character has no name (not even a default name), are unable to have their appearances customized aside from their clothing, and are given barely anything resembling a personality. In fact, it is extremely common to see these protagonists being referred to as “the player” or “you” in their biography descriptions. On the North American website for the Nintendo 3DS remake of Dragon Quest XIII: Journey of the Cursed King, the character description for The Hero reads (emphasis mine):

“A royal guard of Trodain, you were forced to leave your kingdom when a curse was placed upon it. Now, you and your friends (including your furry little pet, Munchie) have set out to find the villain responsible.”

These characters are essentially blank slates for the player to project themselves onto — similar to Nintendo characters such as Mario or Link — rather than be complete characters in themselves. While there is nothing particularly wrong with this type of character, quite a few of my favorite games have player characters like this. The problem is the assumption that the default character (a white cishet abled man) is someone that all players view as identifiable.

The forthcoming protagonist can be described as generic-looking at best, boring at worst.

The upcoming Dragon Quest XI continues this trend of the default protagonist by featuring the Hero of the game as a generic young white-coded man. While my knowledge of Japanese is extremely limited, it is fairly easy to determine that, like most games in the Dragon Quest series, the Hero is meant to represent the player since his character biography on the games’ official Japanese website is listed as “Player,” similarly to how other party members’ profiles include their names.

Based on this admittedly limited information I have been able to gather regarding the Hero of Dragon Quest XI, there is nothing about this character’s history or personality that indicates they had to be a man. The story of a character being the chosen one — whose destiny was revealed at their birth — is a plot that does not require a specific gender as showcased in Dragon Quest IV. The only Dragon Quest game that truly needed to have a male lead was in Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride, as the story was based around the hero’s journey from boyhood to fatherhood (though this narrative does exclude trans and nonbinary players).  

Some would argue that Dragon Quest VIII needed a man as the protagonist as well, since at the end of the game the protagonist gets married, but I would argue that as a bisexual woman, I would not be adverse to seeing a woman character getting married to a princess (and I have heard quite a few people mention their preference for the hero marrying Yangus, a reformed bandit). The only limitation present is the reluctance by writers and game designers to provide players with the option to choose their gender.

This is especially frustrating when you consider that Dragon Quest XI frequently emulates Dragon Quest III and IV, games where it is possible to choose your protagonist’s gender. Footage from recent trailers revealed that the protagonist of Dragon Quest XI is wielding “the Sword of Erdrick,” an item from a legendary hero that holds a great deal of significance to the overall lore of the Dragon Quest universe, especially in the first three games. However, despite the implications of the “hero” title, Erdrick is not always a man. In fact, Erdrick could be a woman. The twist of Dragon Quest III is that the protagonist — whose gender you can choose — is actually a young Erdrick as they go on the adventure that grants them the title of a “Legendary Hero.” 

Then there is the fact that the structure of the game, specifically “how the party gets together,” was compared to Dragon Quest IV, which is another game where the gender of the protagonist is chosen by the player. It is rather frustrating to see overt references to these classic Dragon Quest games where you can play as a heroine, only for an upcoming game to still be restricted by the default gender: male.

Furthermore, it is possible to showcase the hero(ine) of a video game as being someone who is not a man, and without using specific gendered pronouns to address them. The North American website for the Nintendo DS remake of Dragon Quest IV calls the protagonist “The Hero (You)” and provides this description (emphasis mine):

“The star of the story.  The people of your home village all prayed that you would grow up to fulfill your great potential, and the time will soon come when your progress will truly be tested …”

The game itself follows the same story regardless of what gender the player chooses. The only major differences are the pronouns used to address the protagonist and being referred to either as “lass” or “lad.” But what is especially frustrating is that Dragon Quest IV was originally released in 1990 and Dragon Quest III was originally released in 1988. This means these games that are approaching thirty years old were better at providing more gender options to the player than the majority of the games in this series.

Future Considerations

Players have become increasingly vocal about their hopes to be able to play as more diverse identities, yet game developers have continued to rely on the easiest character designs rather than breaking the mold or implementing character customization. Dragon Quest is not the only video game series that needs to improve upon its representation — and certainly not only in regards to gender — but rather, it is an example of a larger trend in this industry.  

The majority of larger AAA development studios have continuously been unresponsive towards what their fans have been asking: to create more diverse stories or at least to present characters with more options so that players can customize their experience. So far, independent game developers — especially those who identify with marginalized groups — have taken matters into their own hands by creating the games they always wanted to play.

As to what can be done to change these trends, the best thing to do is to question the choices made by game developers and their loose explanations regarding why their games have to result to the same default protagonists. That way, more players will be represented, feel like they are actually welcome in the medium, and become motivated to play and enjoy video games. We cannot have video games without gamers, and the players out there are much more diverse than most game developers would like to believe. It’s time to let everyone be a hero.

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5 thoughts on “Who Gets to Be a Hero? A Case Against the Default Protagonist”

  1. I remember how much I enjoyed choosing my hero character in DQ3 – she was a female-looking main character *and* she wore sensible clothes! I’m happy to play games where you follow a specific character, but when those main characters are all the same, or when they’re blank slate characters, it would be nice to have more choices.

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  2. A bit of a tangent, but I always find it a little funny whenever I hear the claim that protagonists are chosen purely based on their supposed relatability. After all, there are plenty of protagonists who are rich or members of royalty, which is a position that very few people can relate to. In my view, popular narratives are often indicative of power, and our “default” narrator is not a reflection of “relatability” but rather of the group that has the most economic/social/political power in our society. Which in this case is cishet neurotypical white men.

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  3. One interesting thing about the whole “the character needs to be male to marry the princess” thing is that somewhat recently (about a year and a half ago), Call of Duty: Black Ops III experimented with being able to customize the protagonist somewhat (including selecting a man or a woman as your character). One of the game’s main characters is a woman, who over the course of the game is revealed to be in a relationship with the protagonist, and it remains like that even if you’re playing as a woman. No added remarks or anything, it’s just portrayed as usual. Funny how something as big as Call of Duty can do this right but something smaller like Dragon Quest can’t.

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    1. What’s even more frustrating is that the remake for the 3DS changed the ending: now the player doesn’t have to marry the princess if they don’t want to. Instead they can marry fellow party member Jessica Albert, which would be fine except she does not show any romantic interest in the player character unless you go for the alternate ending. Judging by what I’ve gleaned it seems that some fans wanted the player character to marry Jessica because she was deemed to be the most attractive character in the game. Meanwhile, Princess Medea and the former bandit Yangus both showcase in-game that they care and love the protagonist. It’s really rather frustrating overall.

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