Or so the saying goes. Although in point and click adventures this doesn’t always ring true, with a second protagonist often resulting in double the interaction with the world to find the solution to puzzles. Still, having the ability to switch to a fresh set of eyes often gives a game a much needed dose of variety and when done well can be absolutely brilliant. With many triple A titles starting to embrace the idea of multi-protagonist narratives it seems this is a device that will continue to be popular.
At its worse there’s Resident Evil 6’s somewhat clunky attempt to shoehorn all their key assets into one game, and at its best Assassins Creed 3’s use of Haytham Kenway in the game’s opening hours to set up a brilliant twist. This is perhaps all evidence of the growing popularity of TV dramas over cinema and their increasing influence on videogames. The ultimate experiment in this field is set to be the new Grand Theft Auto, whose three distinct characters cause the plot to seemingly play out like an HBO drama. After the brilliant and surprising shifts in perspective in Red Dead Redemption and LA Noire you’ve got to think that Rockstar will be able to pull it off.
Though they may be less important these days, Point and Clicks were arguably one of the first genres to dabble in multi-protagonist narratives with Ron Gilbert’s seminal Maniac Mansion in 1987, a game which also incidentally invented the cutscene. Maniac Mansion required the player to choose two playable characters from a pool of five highschool friends to accompany protagonist Dave into the eponymous mansion in order to rescue his cheerleading girlfriend from the clutches of an evil tentacle and a mad scientist. The game had five endings based on who survived to the end, a daring narrative ambition for the time that would only really be successfully attempted again with Heavy Rain, Quantic Dream’s point and click in disguise on PS3.
There are broadly three ways in which multiple protagonists can be used. First there is the portmanteau, in which several narratives converge and the player switches between them, like Heavy Rain or the recent indie masterpiece Resonance by Wadjet Eye Games (more on them in a future post). This technique allows for greater narrative depth with each character’s perspective changing the nature of the story.
Secondly there’s the sidekick, most famously explored in the Sam and Max series in which Max, a psychotic wise-cracking rabbit who may or may not be a figment of gumshoe detective Sam’s underpaid imagination, provides a sounding board for the game’s zany humour. Not usually playable, the sidekick is often used as a tool for solving puzzles, such as Sadwick’s shape-shifting caterpillar Spot in The Whispered World.
Finally there are those games in which you must switch between characters not so much to satisfy narrative demands but in order to solve puzzles, which is after all the bread and butter of any good adventure game. A good example of this is the rather excellent recent Book of Unwritten Tales and its prequel Critter Chronicles, a charming adventure parody which saw the player switching an array of weird items between feckless treasure hunter Nate Bonnett and his furry extraterrestrial sidekick Critter.