Narrative Analysis: The Basics
Games Discussed: Super Mario Bros. series (Nintendo), Sonic the Hedgehog series (SEGA), Street Fighter series (Capcom), Final Fantasy III/VI JP (Square-Enix)
Every story has a central character, commonly referred to as the protagonist. Characters earn the status of protagonist by driving the story with their desires and actions. In video game narratives, the protagonist is almost always the primary player-controlled character. Famous examples of video game protagonists include Mario from Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. series, Sonic from SEGA’s Sonic the Hedgehog series, and Ryu from Capcom’s Street Fighter series. Although these characters come from vastly different stories, they all share the common thread of driving the plot through their desires and actions. Mario wants to rescue the princess; Sonic wants to save the animals; Ryu wants to become a martial arts master. Each of their games are focused around their quests to accomplish their goals, which makes them the protagonists.
In games with multiple characters, such as role-playing games with combat parties, the protagonist is the one whose desires and actions are given the most focus. One such example would be Terra Branford of Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy III (Final Fantasy VI in Japan). Although the game has an extensive cast of player-controlled characters, each with their own side stories, the central conflict revolves around Terra’s unique status as the offspring of a human and a fantastical creature known as an esper. Characters with the closest connection to the central conflict are often the protagonists, as they have the most to gain or lose, depending upon the outcome.
The protagonist is commonly the ‘hero’ of the story, performing positive actions that improve the lives of others, but this is not always the case. An example of a villain protagonist would be Prince Arthas Menethil of Activision-Blizzard’s Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos. Although Arthas begins the story as a devout paladin, he’s tempted by the evil force known as the Scourge and goes on to commit countless atrocities against his own people, all while under the player’s control.
Games Discussed: Final Fantasy VII (Square-Enix), Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos (Blizzard-Activision), The Legend of Zelda Series (Nintendo), Mega Man Series (Capcom), Chrono Trigger (Square-Enix)
For a protagonist to be effective, they must be pushed to grow out of their comfort zone by an opposing force. When this opposition comes from another character, that character is known as the antagonist. Stories can have any number of antagonists, but video game narratives often feature a single antagonist for the protagonist to face in a climactic. Well-known video game antagonists include Ganon from Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda series, Sephiroth from Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy VII, and Dr. Wily from Capcom’s Mega Man series.
An antagonist does not need to be a villain, however, just as the protagonist need not be a hero. What makes someone an antagonist is not the morality of their actions, but whether their actions are in opposition to the desires of the protagonist. One example of this phenomenon would be Magus in Square-Enix’s Chrono Trigger, who acts in opposition to the heroes, but is ultimately pursuing a noble goal: the destruction of the same enemy that Crono and his allies want to take down.
Games Discussed: Final Fantasy VIII (Square-Enix), Chrono Trigger (Square-Enix), Pokemon Red/Blue (Game Freak), Metal Gear Solid series (KONAMI)
A foil is a character that exists to highlight certain attributes of the protagonist, either by mirroring those qualities or contrasting them. This contrast can force the protagonist to change as the foil’s actions and the subsequent consequences offer the protagonist a glimpse into their own future if they follow that path. As a foil’s purpose is to spur growth in the protagonist, they can be allies or antagonists. In video games, foils often play the role of minor antagonists, as they provide a strong source of early-game conflict before it’s time introduce the ultimate enemy. Famous video game foils include Gary Oak from Game Freaks’s Pokémon series, Revolver Ocelot from Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid series, and Seifer from Square Enix’s Final Fantasy VIII.
Although foils almost always exist to serve the growth of the protagonist, some narratives feature foils to secondary characters. Chrono Trigger’s Magus, a minor antagonist, serves as a foil to Frog, as they are soldiers on opposing sides of the same war. The version of Princess Zelda from The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess is the foil to Midna, a princess in her own right, as she teaches Midna what it means to be a ruler. In both Chrono Trigger and Twilight Princess, these opposing characters are forced to ask themselves the same questions due to their similar social roles, and the answers they choose dictate how their characters will progress throughout the rest of the story.
1 Gotham Writers’ Workshop. Tips from the Masters – Kurt Vonnegut: 8 Basic Rules of Writing. Gotham Writers Workshop, Inc. 2020.