Editorial: Personality

I recently found myself sifting through my collection of RPGs, and it occurred to me that nowadays, most game heroes have personalities. Not always interesting or likable personalities, but personalities nonetheless. There was a time, though, when it was not uncommon for the main character of an RPG to have virtually no dialogue and no distinct personality traits. They were a blank canvas upon which the player could project their own image.

I am not sure which style I prefer. Certainly it lessens my enjoyment of a game when I dislike a character. For example, I would have enjoyed FFX much, much more if Tidus and Yuna had no dialogue and simply followed my directions. Their personalities and accompanying dialogue repulsed me and in that case, no dialogue would have been preferable to the dialogue I was given. However there are also games such as Shadow Hearts where I simply adore the main character and the game would lose so much of its charm if it lost his personality.

Games in which the main character is just a vessel for the player’s will tend to have better immersion whereas games with strong main characters tend to feel more like a movie or a book I am progressing through. I feel like I am in the game when I play Chrono Trigger or Earthbound, and I feel like I am watching the game when I play FFXII or Disgaea. Both styles have their time and place, I suppose. I just find it unfortunate that fewer games take the blank canvas approach to main characters. Are there any current games like this that I am unaware of?


  1. I think western RPGs are tend to go more with the blank canvas approach but I’m not sure.

  2. Personally, I prefer the ‘blank canvas’ approach, though some games have performed admirably by creating characters which people have an affinity with.

    Silent protagonists are going the way of the Dodo, I’m afraid.

  3. I prefer fully developed protagonists unless the game gives you a decent ammount of dialogue options (which JRPGs are generally poor at doing).

  4. My first blank canvas game that I remember was Super Mario RPG. I remember there being points where I was very frustrated, but to this day, it ranks among the best games of my collection. (Not to mention it was the game to get me into RPGs, followed by Final Fantasy IX.) I believe Western games are more among the blank canvas approach — (Fallout, Bioshock)

    But even if this does go away, one gaming franchise will never give this up. Dragon Quest :)

  5. I disagree want to talk about a hero with no personality let’s talk about squall every 5 seconds I’m not good enough I can’t do this someone give him a knife so atleast I can end the suffering for me. Or zidane what a giant fucking waste of pixels tuna and tidus were fucking god sends compared to these two squareenix failures.

  6. Like people have been saying, if there’s enough choices, the blank canvas approach can be great. Mass Effect and Fallout jump to mind as games that do this well. It does seem to have a lot to do with the Western/JRPG divide, and how (for the most part) JRPGs seem to be about telling a story, whereas Western RPGs want to (for better or worse) tell YOUR story. Take Persona 3/4 for example (great games that use the blank canvas approach, if you’re looking for something to devote a ton of time to). It falls in a weird middle ground where you can’t really play any way you want (there aren’t really many “jackass” options), but the game’s too open to have a fully fleshed out main character, due to all the social link events. As a result, the protagonist is supposed to be this huge, pivotal point of the plot that everybody relies upon, but he only gets a line every 2-3 scenes. It kind of makes him an observer that everybody treats as a leader, if that makes any sense.

  7. Oh, and @Underdog: Love ’em or hate ’em, both Squall and Zidane has distinct personalities (maybe Zidane a bit more than Squall). I think there’s a difference between being a blank slate and being an emo git :D.

  8. @darth – I think I like the persona method the most. I don’t really care that I don’t get to decide what I ultimately do at the end as long as I get to decide how I go about it.

  9. If Squall doesn’t have a personality then Oliver doesn’t have a personality.

  10. Squall has very pessimistic view toward everything, which leads to hilarious conversations, and entertaining thoughts about what he thinks about people. That, my friends, is entertainment :)

  11. Also, Zidane is the exact opposite with an optimistic view. He thinks he can get every girl in the world.

  12. Squall isn’t very entertaining, but he still has a personality. Zidane is very interesting and has rather a lot of personality.

  13. I know I’m fueling a fire here… and I don’t mean to, I just found Squall to be extremely entertaining. Nearly every comment that everyone made, he had a negative thought about it that he would only let the reader know. Fantastic use of dramatic irony. Personalities like his make it so I don’t miss the blank canvas.

    **The ‘viewpoints’ quote
    “So like… Is it true that SeeDs aren’t supposed to question their missions?” (Irvine)
    (There are times I’d like to know myself. Like… now for example. But…) “Why do you care?”
    “So like… if you knew that your enemies were pure evil, you’d get more fired up to fight them, right?” (Irvine)
    (…An enemy that is pure evil? Right or wrong are not what separate us and our enemies. It’s our different standpoints, our perspectives that separate us. Both sides blame one another. There’s no good or bad side. Just two sides holding different views.)

    **The midlife crisis quote
    (I liked him… wasn’t really a bad guy. He was one of us… spoiler … You’ve become just a memory. Will they… Will they talk about me this way if I die, too? Squall was this and that. Using past tense, saying whatever they want? So this is what death is all about… Not for me. I won’t have it!!!) “I won’t have it! I’m not having anyone talk about me in the past tense!”

    Makes me laugh everytime

  14. @SilicoNooB – Haha, reminds me of Rule 34 of the Internet.

  15. Ewwwwwwww, I don’t want to come accross StrawberryEgg’s Olivershrine.com.

  16. This thread made me giggle.

    And I sorta agree about Squall, on the entertainment front. It was funny watching people become frustrated with him.

  17. To go back to the topic, I can’t stand blank heroes. Even in a game like Fallout 3 in which I can stand it the most because of all the conversation choices, I still find myself wishing the main character had a personality of her own.
    Dragon Quest VIII just confused me because I had never encountered a “blank” hero before, and I haven’t liked it since.

  18. I think the Fallout 3/Mass Effect style works best, since it’s not just dialog options, it’s the actions you can take as well. I’m hoping ME2 goes even farther down this path with the in-dialog actions you can have your character perform (which, if I’m remembering right, were supposed to be in ME1). If they can make the character cinematic, I don’t mind him/her being a bit more opened.

    That being said, I do think that games with characters with a pre-made personality can, by their very nature, handle character interaction much better than blank-slate games can. There’s just too many options to account for everything in blank-slate games, so you end up with things like the people running up to you and giving you random items because your karma is above some predetermined level in Fallout.

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