Ever played a game where you’re steadily progressing through the levels, making a connection with your character and then suddenly, BAM! Out of nowhere your protagonist just became an NPC and you have a new character to learn about and explore the world with. Did you like it? Did you like it or did you see no possible reason as to why the developers would forge this into a game you were just beginning to like? In most cases, how you liked it depends on how well multiple characters have been designed for and used by you, the player, in the game.
The very first multi character game I remember playing was this DragonBall Z game on the GameBoy called Buu’s Fury. Initially you start off playing as Goku, getting to know the environment and experimenting with his special energy blasts. Half an hour later, the ‘chapter’ ends and then suddenly you take control of Gohan, in a totally separate story arc. Goku had to contest in an intergalactic wrestlemania whereas Gohan has to find an efficient way of keeping his superpowers secret from his girlfriend, school and the entire city. Gohan has far lesser experience points than Goku and totally different special abilities. As chapters proceed, we are also introduced to new characters in Goten, Trunks and Vegeta. Each character has their own personalities, ambitions and unique Chi blasts. The only common thing is that they all punch when you press a button and go blonde when you press a different button., which is basically what Dragon Ball Z is all about. We eventually reach a point in the game when we can switch between all 5 characters as many times as we like, experiment with their unique story arcs, and also choose to proceed with the main game story which has their stories intertwining. Sometimes the same story is told in different perspectives. The game also gives you choices with which character you want the story to proceed with or who you would like to fight a monster with. Even after I finished the game, I leveled up all five characters to the maximum allowable Level 200. I wasn’t sure why.
Looking back to that point I can probably reason out why that happened. Playing with one character gave me one story, one target and one character to bond with and explore the world. But playing with five characters, somehow my brain was fooled into thinking it was all that, but times five! Even with more or less the same world and the same blond hair, my mind wouldn’t rest until I had completed objectives for all of those characters. I’m not sure if the designers meant to do that or just wanted to give those picky players the freedom to use their choice of characters, but it definitely worked with me.
I’m aware there have been games with much more meaningful stories with different protagonists since Buu’s Fury (Rockstar Games has probably now probably discovered a niche in such games). LA Noire not only puts you in a new character’s shoes but also cast’s light on the previously controllable Cole Phelps, and makes you wonder whether if he really was a protagonist after all. Another title worth mentioning is StarBreeze Studios’ Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons which not only lets you play more than one character, but also at the same time! That game won awards for innovation not just because of its unprecedented gameplay style but also for how impactful each character was to the story, making it a nice touch that we’re allowed to play with both brothers.
A decade after Buu’s Fury, I got my hands on Rockstar’s Magnum Opus, Grand Theft Auto 5. That game completely pushed the boundaries of playing multiple protagonists, and not only did it offer consequential choices for players but also unsurpassed gameplay possibilities. Missions and heists in the real world are rarely one person jobs, and team members do different tasks at the same time. The designers recognised a great potential to put this in an already established sandbox environment, and what resulted was one of the best selling games of all time. And with good reason too. There were some great scenes in the game, like the tower scene where Michael rappels down the side of the building attached to a helicopter piloted by Trevor, while Franklin keeps guard with a sniper rifle; at any point in the scene you could have controlled any of them, which would have shaped the outcome of the heist, and you’re doing three different things. It was really fun to play and it felt pretty damn cool too.
Personally, I feel that in this eighth generation console gaming era, the more studios that make narrative heavy titles start embracing multi-protagonist experiences and give gamers different viewpoints of the same experience, the more success and critical acclaim they’ll find. Of course this isn’t a general trend and fantastic experiences can be made without the need for this. But finally, it all depends upon what kind of game you make and how good a designer you are to weave this feature in your product.