Children Are Our Future: The Unique Power of Young Protagonists
I’ve been playing games since I was old enough to hold a controller without chewing on it. While many of the heroes I played were older than me—Mario and Donkey Kong were my two favorites—there were young protagonists, too, characters like Ness or Red or, a little later on, Sora and Roxas.
It was those younger characters that really captured my attention. Maybe it was because they were more like me, or perhaps it was because those games were more story-focused than their predecessors, but while Donkey Kong Country and Super Mario Bros were fun to play, it was Pokemon and Kingdom Hearts that got me to obsess over their characters and worlds.
A young protagonist isn’t just appealing to kids, either. Having a child as the main character changes the way we perceive a story, shifting the tone to one of joy, wonder, or fear, depending on the context of their adventures.
Hope and Friendship
In Troll and I, you play both titular characters, a mythical troll and a young boy named Otto. The story is one of friendship and survival against the odds as the pair fend off both hunters and the perils of the Scandinavian wild.
Part of the reason the story works so well has a lot to do with Otto’s age. Troll is huge and powerful, while Otto is quick and nimble—if you replaced Otto with an adult man, the balance between the two would be lost. The characters’ dependency on each other hinges on their vastly different attributes—pairing the big, bad troll with another powerful, brute-force kind of guy would leave you will all brawn and no brains—not to mention an adult man would likely not be able to pull off the same feats of agility and flexibility as a younger, smaller hero like Otto can.
Likewise, Pokemon’s protagonists also affect the game’s tone considerably. We assume that a child protagonist is going to be more interested in friendship than fighting, even when fighting is still a major part of the gameplay. This is Pokemon’s whole message—in almost every game, it’s emphasized that a nurturing relationship with your Pokemon will get you further than an antagonistic one. When you fight Team Rocket, or their later incarnations like Team Flare or Team Aqua, it’s clear that they use Pokemon as a means to an end, not as lifelong friends. Regardless of how you personally feel about your team, by making the main character a young child rather than an adult, the game posits youthful hope and friendship as an alternative to adult power and greed.
If adults are capable, strong individuals, children are their opposites. They might gain strength over the course of a game or grow into adulthood, but what makes them compelling characters is often the fact that they’re more vulnerable than adults.
This makes especially good fuel for increasing the suspense and terror of horror titles. In Among the Sleep, for instance, you play as a child navigating a series of surreal environments, pursued by threatening figures. As a child, you can’t stand up and fight. You can only run for a short distance before falling down, and your only real power is your ability to hide. In a story where the heart of the horror lies in the fact that those who are supposed to care for you are now a source of great danger, casting the player as a child hero who cannot fend for himself makes the most sense. If Among the Sleep featured a teen or adult protagonist, players would wonder why they couldn’t just walk out the door.
Though Troll and I is primarily about friendship and survival, that survival, too, comes from a sense of vulnerability. Neither Troll nor Otto would be able to survive on their own against all the threats that surround them, and their friendship is born out of the interplay of their unique skills and their mutual desire to stay alive.
Young Protagonists Inspire Creative Game Directions
A solid protagonist is one of the most foundational features of a video game. Whether they’re Nathan Drake or a toddler barely able to walk upright, who your main character is matters; we as players need someone to root for, somebody whose shoes we’re interested in stepping into. While a child might not be a game writer’s first choice because a kid doesn’t represent the core demographic, pushing players outside of their comfort zone can make the difference between a good game story and a great one—sometimes, a character’s vulnerability can be a game’s biggest strength.
Troll and I features not one but two protagonists, each of whom possesses unique weaknesses and strengths. If you’re looking for a game with a strong story and vulnerable, interesting characters, be sure to pre-order your copy today!