My thoughts on Protagonists, Main Characters and Visual Novels

I hate Visual Novels where you can enter your own name for the main character. I’m sure there are a lot of people out there that enjoy it when a character they’re into calls them by their name, but I’m not a fan (of the technique. I think all of us would enjoy Mion calling us by our names).

One thing that I also dislike from this is the insistence of calling protagonists “MC” (for Main Character) in online discussions. Obviously, when you can choose your name, there is no other way to have a conversation about the protagonist, but it bugs me. It bugs me even more when you have a protagonist that has a name but is still referred to as “MC” – something that has happened to both Hisao and Doug.

Some of the character definitions for Historia’s Chapter 1

I think that this problem does also fall mainly on the division between “Visual Novels” (VN) and “Kinetic Novels,” (KN) and explains why I prefer the latter. For those not knee-deep in online text-based game culture, a “Kinetic Novel” is typically a story, like a novel, that also has art and music that accompanies it. There isn’t much gameplay; you basically fire up the game and put yourself in the creator’s hands.

Visual Novels, on the other hand, will contain some kind of “gameplay” elements – you need to make some choices, or complete tasks (e.g. minigames), and the story will be altered depending on which choices you make.

I prefer to make Kinetic Novels. The most obvious part of this is that they take less work (although it looks like Historia might take as long as Katawa Shoujo at this rate). You only have to make one story; you don’t spend a lot of time re-writing the same scene to incorporate the choices by the player. But, it does then let you have more control over every element of the story. I’m sure that everyone has heard some quip along the lines of “this business would be great if it weren’t for the customers” – and that’s kind of the feeling I have here. Let me explain why by talking about the opposite end of the scale – the VN.

VNs come in many shapes and sizes. Some are little more than a series of minigames or faux challenges in order to delay you getting some kind of “prize” (like lewd artwork), whereas others are more complex. I recall that Act 1 of Katawa Shoujo, which acts as a “Sorting Hat” mechanic (basically a part of the game that will lock you onto a single path) was so convoluted that none of us knew how it would work. Delta and/or Aura then programmed a bot to play through the game a thousand times with random choices to work out if it were even possible to get the Rin path. From memory there was only a 5% chance that you’d get that path, so they tweaked the gameplay.

Two of the most common charges I see levelled against Katawa Shoujo are that Hisao is “too bland,” and also that people played the game but then had unexpected consequences after making a choice (the main example here being Comforting Misha).

But, I posit that both of these things are necessary once you leave the literary safety of a KN and start adding in gameplay.

First of all, your protagonists are going to need to be bland. Part of the reason Rin was nigh-on unobtanium in the fist version of KS Act One was that the choice structure was designed to reflect what a “real” Hisao would do. He was supposed to be a person with a fixed set of experiences and motivations. To allow for him to make different choices and yet still keep the game logically consistent, some of those experiences needed to be wiped – to be filled with the the player’s hopes and dreams. We also needed to make sure that the story didn’t present choices that were unrealistic in the context of the game.

The next problem is the effect of the choices. If you’ve gone with a “blank slate” protagonist then you’re a little off the hook here. You can take the choice literally and then just go from there. You might end up with an infinitely branching structure, but you can then prune them off pretty quickly. But if your protagonist has any sense of “self,” or if you need your story to end up at the same point regardless of the choice, you start running into issues. Firstly, gameplay generally needs to be immediate. I can’t remember the choice, but there are a few options in one KS path that don’t look like they have any impact at all. But, unless you follow the recipe exactly, you skip one scene and thus can’t get that coveted 100% CG. That’s another thing that has annoyed a lot of people, and even last week on the KS Subreddit I saw another person asking about the “impossible” 100% CG.

Next up, if you give the protagonist a lot of agency in the story, then you force a choice onto them, it’s not going to be exactly what the player had in mind – because you are not the protagonist. They have their own life (of sorts) and thus the way they interpret the choice ahead of them will not be what you intended. That’s where you end up with Hisao yelling at Hanako or Misha getting a bad-end haircut.

KNs, therefore, let you define characters more finely without the complaints from the audience about the character being too bland or “doing things that no rational person would do” (something that I’ve heard levelled against Hisao). After all, they are characters, not players.

Maybe this is a thinly veiled attempt at me justifying not having to write path branches, but I really feel that having control over the protagonist’s actions does allow you to spend more time on making a kick-arse story. That being said, I did have to spend a lot of time writing alternatives for Chapter 1 of Histora – but if you don’t know what I’m talking about there then I won’t spoil you.

If there’s anyone there form the player side that would like to weigh in, please do! I’m only looking at this from the “invisible hand of the author” point of view – maybe faceless “MCs” with infinite choices are really fun, and that ability to self-project is what makes you get that guttural connection to a game. Leave a comment below or get in touch on Twitter or the Discord!

13 thoughts on “My thoughts on Protagonists, Main Characters and Visual Novels

  1. As a reader, I prefer protagonists with a strong personality. They tend to be the most memorable. I’m specifically thinking of Steins;Gate, which wouldn’t work with a normal bland main character.

  2. As a player, I like immersion. I like self-insert.
    BUT, I hate bland protagonists, so there is trade off when it’s done right.
    Sometimes you disagree with MC’s actions, but f it makes sense in the story (we all do things we later regret or would change in RL), that’s okay and part of the ride.

    I also like choices that allow me to royally screw-up and ruin things. 😦
    It makes the ‘stakes’ weighty and deepens the connection to the characters (for me).

    As a developer, it hurts my brain to think if multiple realities (alternate paths), but pulling from the above, we want rabbit-holes that really make the player question “what should I/MC do here?”

    …and in dev meetings we call our nameless MC “Mike”, as that helps remind us that he has a personality.

    1. Yeah I think assigning a name helps. I really hate the term “MC” when people are discussing their story. It kind of feels like you don’t care enough about your character.

  3. I’m in the peculiar position of being a reader but also a KS beta tester, and sometime writer with…opinions. Obviously I’m armchair refereeing your collective achievement like an academic who’s never themselves published a novel, but I humbly submit my observations regardless.

    – Not enough KS writers grew up with/liked interactive fiction to be sincerely comfortable with what the paradigm demands of a writer structurally, or how it repositions authorial intent into a more meta level (which to the uninitiated probably feels like having that intent diluted or ignored). Kinetic is comfier because it presents almost no learning curve from traditional narrative forms like fiction or scriptwriting.

    – Hisao’s problems as a main character stem less from him being an eroge protagonist than the collective decision to allow all completely unrelated paths with no common thread of him moving towards a particular conclusion which would obligate you to write him better. I USED TO USE COMMAS BEFORE READING RIN PATH DRAFTS GOD DAMN IT

    – I’m not a fan of “name your protag” either but that’s a personal preference such as first/second/third POV and like those, tends to inform the nature of the work.

    – The outcome of that automated testing was instead of asking better, more obvious questions to direct you towards Rin, you basically fall into her path by miscuing all the other ones. This is simultaneously insulting and hilarious.

    1. Indeed, I think you have a different insight here. Before writing for KS I had only played a couple of games and those were kinetic as well. Like most people I read the Choose Your Own Adventure books as a kid, and whilst I’d say I’m well-read, not much of it was choice-based.

      I certainly have a lot of respect for those devs that are able to hold multiple lines together, like in bigger games (both VNs and other games).

      And yes, the auto testing might be a bit of a red herring. But I do love the fact that there was enough care in the project to go to the effort of making that happen.

  4. Personally I don’t mind the protag having some personality, but I do prefer being able to name them. Self inserting adds immersion and I think choices, even the illusion of choices, matters. Kinetic novels are probably fine for some people, but it just makes me wonder why they didn’t just write a book. If I’m booting up a program for a story, I feel like there should be something to do beyond clicking forever.

    1. Yeah that’s a fair call. For me, writing a KN as opposed to a book is more about having a bit more freedom with setting the scene (i.e. with the sound and art) and also with working in a team. Thankfully there seems to be enough of an audience for both, and enough devs to make the games.

  5. I am a bit interested on what your thoughts would be on the two Vampire: The Masquerade visual novels that came out a while back, Corteries of New York and Shadows of New York.

    Both have choices, but Corteries lets you name a character and is in the first person, and Shadows follows a character named Julia, where you have no choice but to follow her story. You get to make some decisions for her, but it is essentially her story, not yours.

    I usually don’t mind that too much. I’ve never felt like Hisao was supposed to be me in KS; I always felt like he was his own person, and I was just watching this kid deal with his issues. I just get the chance to “direct” where I think the action goes. I don’t take it personally, it just ain’t my story. It’s Hisao’s.

    I feel like it is real similar to tabletop RPG’s. When you play those, you are supposed to be your character, not yourself. If you are playing a character that is unbelievably stupid, you have to fall for not just the oldest trick in the book, but *every* trick in the book, even if you the player know your character is being tricked. There is a lot of fun in that; you get to pretend to be someone else. I usually do that in video games as well; my Shepard in Mass Effect was a character who I never knew what she was going to do next. She played liked she was straight and narrow in the public eye, but out of sight, would shoot somebody in the back of the head, like in a back alley. I picked choices based on what somebody like that would behave, and stuck to that rule; so she would do crazy and really dirty things sometimes, even if I thought they were bad. It was super entertaining though. I like my thrills.

    If I don’t get choice, it is fine. I think there is a lot of promise in a medium that uses text, images, and sound all at once. As long as it achieves it’s intended effect that’s all it needs to do. I’m simply being told a story. It isn’t going to effect my immersion, and I never got why that always messed with people. If a person was telling me about something that happened to them, I could still put myself in their shoes. I feel like that’s saying you can’t get scared during a horror movie unless it is in first person.

    Plus, I can always discuss what people did in a story as opposed to need my input in the story. You dont get a choice at the end of The Last of Us 1, but even if you don’t play it, you can endlessly discuss it. Choosing what ending in the first Deus Ex doesn’t matter, in fact, choosing the ending doesn’t need to happen; talking about what you would do and why with other people is far more interesting to me. The game exists to make you think and consider possibilities, and that matters more to me than the prebaked reaction of characters made of ones and zeroes.

    I think it comes down to what expectations and wants people have when they come in the door. Different people have different expectations for a VN or KN, but it seems like all of them think their way is the normal way to do it, and that’s where the conflict comes from. Every single VN created is going to be seen as a violation of the basic tenets to somebody. I just come in and am looking to see where the creators are taking me, and trust in their judgment when it comes to what methods they are using. If it works, or more like, if it ain’t broke, I’m not going to try and fix it, or complain. As long as my time/money isn’t wasted.

    1. I was reading one of the other comments ant my mind went to Deus Ex. It was still fairly linear in the structure and it’s only in that last 5 minutes of the game. I did also feel that there was only one “real” ending there. Still, I think it did set the stage for bigger games with more diverse choices.

      As a dev I don’t plan to please everyone, but at the same time you need to please at least some people. That’s why it’s good to know what people will tolerate.

      I like the RPG analogy. I’ve not played a huge amount of RPGs (I’m more of a miniature tabletop gamer) but maybe my problem was that I would always play as myself that had been thrown into the situation, rather than “playing to your stats” like your example above.

      But lots of good thoughts. I hope we meet your expectations with Chapter 2!

  6. I have more of a tendency to prefer defined main characters, as I find it more interesting to see character chemistry that feels more natural (whereas blank slate are bland in their interaction, leading to an impression of being a spectator to the world-film around).

    Giving choice even to a strong MC would still work since the character itself keeps its “narrative integrity” and won’t feel off… as long as you write it that way of course.

    In the end, most of it falls on the writer to make it work, but in general a stronger MC will be more memorable, so I tend towards that answer.

    I liked Hisao because he had his own defined struggles than a pure blank state character wouldn’t have had, it made him feel more humane, and in a way, more relatable than a more accommodating one.

    PS: You mention a discord at the end, but I can’t seem to find anything about it.

    1. Ah, I didn’t know I missed the link. This should work – if not ping me again
      As for the protagonist notes – I think we’re on the same page. The “blank sheet” will always come off poorly in my mind. Maybe this is why so many dating sims get a bad wrap as existing purely for the sexual content…

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