Updated: May 5, 2020
Multiple-protagonists is used a lot in novels - typically, it is pretty natural to shift the main character or the perspective of view among chapters, however, how can we do this well in video games to make the transition natural, and make the audience really feel the game has multiple protagonists, instead of one protagonist with multiple other playable characters?
Let me analyze some existing multiple-protagonists games that I have played:
Grand Theft Auto V is a very popular action-adventure game that has three protagonists: Franklin, Michael, and Trevor. Their stories are separated at the beginning but will merge together as the story advances.
Throughout the game, players can control any one of them and can switch among them freely almost anytime. However, the main character alters each chapter, so you can only play the designated one to proceed, and often what you can do in the story is highly related to the current character you are playing. Sometimes the other two protagonists also appear as playable characters during one's main story, so you can switch among them when they are collaborating for a big task. When you are not controlling the other two characters, they have their own daily life as usual so next time you switch control you might find they are in completely different places. While playing a character that not associated with the current story, there are still many side-story or tasks that are exclusive to this character, so even not watching the story, playing them will still have different experiences.
And I want to share some pros and cons from the narrative perspective (Disclaimer: they are all personal thoughts):
+ protagonists are interrelated substantially in the main story
+ protagonists' uniqueness preserved well by giving stylized roles and side stories
+ switch playing characters almost freely, especially when collaborating
+ other characters still have their life while not playing
- nothing particular.
Yakuza series is themed on the way of life of Yakuza, which is like Japanese crime syndicates. Yakuza 0 is talking about what happened before the first Yakuza game - and has two protagonists: Kazuma Kiryu, who is the main character of the entire series, and Goro Majima, who is Kazuma's senior, friend, and rival throughout the story.
In Yakuza 0, players control Kiryu and Majima in turn when chapter changes, in different maps, and doing different jobs. In the late chapters, they will temporarily switch the place, fight against some people that are originally from the other side, but they will not meet at all until the last minute of the game (and the game ends after this moment). Everything in this game is almost exclusive to one character. Players can start switching between them only after the story ends.
+ the almost completely separated story (except very last chapters) and side events emphasized the unique gameplay of two protagonists
+ huge number of mini-games and side stories greatly enhanced the personality of each protagonist
+ use of cinematic narration and also manga-style cutscenes
- must finish the current chapter to play the other character, sometimes cannot feel the parallelism, even though playing two characters in turn actually indicating the story happens in parallel
- even though they are fighting against the same group of people ultimately, the entire story can still be separated almost completely
Ace Attorney is a series of adventure games consists of investigation parts (like point and click adventure) and courtroom trials part. In each title of the series, players can control at least one other character other than Phoenix Wright (except the 4th title in which Apollo Justice is the main character). However, after playing every single title in this series, I only felt only Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney − Dual Destinies and Spirit of Justice (5th and 6th title of the main series) are real multiple-protagonists games.
Players almost do nothing different when playing different characters, except the followers, the style of dialogue, the description of items and characters, and the one special investigation method. From 1st to 4th titles, I personally think the other playable characters are like either a background supplement (spoiler: like all Mia Fey episodes in the game are all telling what happened before the current timeline), or a temporary helper (spoiler: like you control Miles Edgeworth because Phoenix is in hospital, or Athena Cykes only the other two attorneys are not present). Differently in Dual Destinies and Spirit of Justice, Phoenix and Apollo are actually investigating one case parallelly from different perspectives, and each of them contributed to the path of truth by a significant amount. However, since the game is completely linear, players cannot switch between characters by themselves.
+ feeling of working towards one goal in different perspectives
+ the trial of Apollo vs. Phoenix is really thrilling - two protagonists in opposite positions work together to defeat the bad guy
- the gameplay is almost identical among different characters
- cannot switch playable character at all
There are many games that players control a party of characters. Especially in JRPG, each character normally has their own story and shares a great amount of content. Sometimes, the protagonist in the game is more like an observer, since his/her personality is determined partially or fully by player's choice, while the other playable characters have predetermined personalities, like Persona 5, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, etc. I am not thinking these kinds of games are multiple-protagonists, because your perspective of view is not changed at all. Not like in novel or drama, the audience is always 3rd-person for the characters. This is one of the reasons why multiple-protagonists titles are much fewer in video games.
It also brings a hard question: if the game is based on a multi-protagonist novel or drama that two (or more ) protagonists are enemies, how could the game tell the story? Let players control each side alternately but choose one to control in the last battle? Some games might make two opposite storylines that fit two protagonists, so players just choose one at the beginning, but I personally just feel they are completely two different stories instead of a story with dual-protagonist - the story must be an entity, in which what all protagonists have done should lead to the same ending.
I still think this is a very hard question that I couldn't have an optimal answer, but I will share some of my thoughts:
0. Always remember you are writing one story with multiple protagonists, not a number of stories that each has one protagonist.
1. Make all protagonists controllable unless you have a better idea to demonstrate it.
2. Try to bring the correlation among them even they are not together. For example, let one's action has an impact on the other(s), make them related to the same event (like working towards the same goal in parallel). A great example from Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn (highlight to reveal): you control different parties that fight against each other in several stages for some reason, and all characters preserve their status even when they are your enemy. In normal gameplay, Micaiah's party is much weaker than Ike's party, and the story also shows Ike's party has overwhelming power. Ike can almost one-shot kill any of your units, and if you made Ike godlikely stronger, he would be a nightmare for Micaiah. Not only what the player did can affect the gameplay, but also players can feel the desperate situation from Micaiah's perspective.
3. Design suitable gameplay systems to give players the feeling that they are equally important. This really differs by the actual story or the game type, but there is a great example from Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney (4th title, highlight to reveal): the last episode keeps switching between Apollo and Phoenix, and they are even in the different timeline - however, they complement each other as the evidence discovered in one side can be used in the other side in the next part, and gradually lead towards the truth of a case that has been suspended for 20 years.
4. Make the action of each protagonist meaningful to avoid turning some intended protagonists supplemental characters. Remember the background and the personality of the character throughout the creation process, let what they did in the early stage connected to the later story (this happens a lot in any art formats if the story is long).
5. Find something that only this character can do IN THE STORY. This can be reflected by gameplay, but be careful because if players are playing a party, sometimes this makes the character a tool.
Also, I would say don't bother too much about switching characters freely. This is sometimes a technical or budget issue depending on the type of the game. You should have other ways to make the narrative good.
I have heard that 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is really successful in storytelling as a multiple-protagonists game. I haven't played it yet, but I will do and I recommend anyone who has read this post to play it (though not yet released in the US I think). This game has 13 protagonists but they did a really great job on it.