For those new to the series, plural protagonism is based on this article I wrote for PopMatters. Plural protagonism occurs in a game when there is no individual main protagonist leading a group: the group itself becomes the hero. Each individual maintains their identity while contributing to the narrative in equal measure. Moreover, they are all controlled equally by the player and coordinate as a collective consciousness to overcome the challenges facing them.
This narrative technique appears most prominently in JRPGs and this series investigates different JRPGs that feature plural protagonism in interesting ways.NOT THIS TIME!
As I’ve been writing this series, I’ve offhandedly mentioned a number of times that plural protagonism is not limited to JRPGs, nor even are JRPGs necessarily the best outlet for expressing it: the genre just happens to provide many strong examples. Eventually, I’ll need to more thoroughly elucidate the terms I use but for now I think I’ll continue exploring games that illustrate these concepts and define them holistically when more patterns emerge. As mentioned though, among the more concrete patterns relevant to this series is that JRPGs tend to tell stories about cooperation and use cooperative mechanics and narrative techniques that reinforce these themes (Myers, Joe. “United We Stand.” The Escapist. Nov 9 2010.). However, I’ve found a game that illustrate many of the components of plural protagonsim without being either Japanese or an RPG.
Desperados: Wanted Dead or Alive is a real-time strategy (RTS) game by German developer, Spellbound Studios released in 2001. Spellbound would eventually go on to make Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams, one of my favourite games in recent years, under the name Black Forest Games (Filipowich, Mark. Review: Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams. PopMatters. Nov 8 2012.). However, their first major success came from Desperados, its less impactful sequels and another real-time tactics game, Robin Hood: The Legend of Sherwood.
Real-time tactics games like Desperados differ from most RTSs in that the player only controls a team of six characters with finite resources. Most RTSs have the player build and manage whole armies as in Age of Empires or StarCraft, or they control a small number of spellcasting heroes alongside weaker support troops as in Tryst or WarCraft. Generally speaking, the genre is built with multiplayer competition in mind; singleplayer campaigns play out as manufactured multiplayer matches with the balance skewed to give a sense of novelty. The player is responsible for a nameless, theoretically infinite supply of soldiers or a significantly higher powered hero unit traversing a map. The most important distinction between Desperados and most RTSs, however, is that in the latter the player’s role is that of an offscreen general or god. The player’s place within the fiction is distant: they are giving commands from outside the battle, but they can be said to exist within the game’s world.
In a game of Red Alert, the player plays as a general, they aren’t on site, but they issue commands as a commander does. The player has a body within the game’s fiction, they just don’t use it. More abstractly, in Civillization, the player plays as a civilization: they guide units as a collective cultural consciousness. They may not control a single avatar and more likely they probably don’t control any of them, instead altering macro data to alter larger trends spanning in-game eons.
Desparados is different, however. Players don’t occupy an offscreen commanding body but they aren’t so removed as their units’ oversoul nudging statistics one way or another. In Desperados, the player is—in the fashion of plural protagonism—the consciousness guiding a small, close group of distinct individuals. The player controls characters, not units. But the player has no in-fiction surrogate within the game either. The player isn’t assumed to be a general offscreen as in most RTSs and they don’t interact with the world through a single avatar as they would in most other games. The player is the single consciousness of six discrete individuals. The player is all of them at once, their bodies operate under the commands from a single consciousness (the player). There aren’t many RTSs structured this way: the most well-known of this real-time tactics subgenre is probably the Commandos series from the late 90’s, which provided much of the inspiration for Desperados‘s development*.
This subgenre had a bit of a bubble in the late 90’s, early 00’s that I suspect burst mostly because of the steep difficulty curve built into it. As creative as it is allows players to be, micromanaging multiple characters all at once in real-time can be stressful, especially when the player’s fragile characters refuse to act without receiving any orders. However, the compelling feature of Desperados and similar games is the considerable experimentation required to circumvent challenges. Where most games ask the player to build a living room set from a box of particle board and dowels with the aid of an instruction book, Desperados and gives the player a tree and a set of tools.
The player controls a team of six unique characters, each with a separate kit of abilities and items. Missions play out in a straightforward “get in, get the thing, and get out” format, with emphasis placed on stealth and distraction. Members do not act without player input, even to defend themselves—not that it would matter if they did, enemies are able to kill a team member within a second of spotting them—and losing any one member of the team results in a game over. Therefore, the player must be always cognizant of where every one of there members is situated. No member can be ignored, nor is the player allowed to lose any of them.
What develops from this small party of specialists is a uniquely difficult game. The player must manage the whole party at once, maintaining awareness of unused or offscreen teammates even while finagling with others to navigate the map or disable an enemy. Therefore, team coordination is paramount: the player—again, the consciousness guiding all six separate bounty hunters—must negotiate the strengths and weaknesses of each member of the team. The awkward controls and limited UI contribute a great deal to the substance of plural protagonism.
Imagine the following situation: five enemy gunmen lounge near a small house, unaware of the heroes’ presence. Three of them are huddled together in conversation, one of them is on the roof, and the last smokes a cigarette by a fence. All must be dealt with in an instant or they’ll sound an alarm. Doc McCoy’s gas grenade can knock out the group of three clustered in front of the building, Sanchez can hurl a rock at the man on the roof and Kate’s short range derringer is quiet enough to kill the smoker by the fence without alerting attention from any neighbours. The player can queue up one action for each of them but no more. Controlling them is awkward and they must stay out of sight as they get into position, careful not to enter an outside enemy’s patrol or appear suspicious to any civilian passersby.
When they execute the action in unison, the player’s series of clicks, drags, hotkeys and scanning is abstracted in the game’s fiction as winks, hand gestures, whistles and silent nods in a direction to set up their carefully coordinated attack. The player doesn’t exist in the fiction, so their interaction with the game’s interface is translated into the game as nonverbal cues between each player-character: the success or failure of the action is translated in the fiction as successful or failed coordination. The game’s limitations of the mouse and keyboard are an appropriate analogue to the limitations of nonverbal communication between the protagonists. Pulling the manoeuvre off indicates an intuitive familiarity between the characters, it translates as an understanding between them. They are one in mind.
On the other hand, consider a game like League of Legends, where the interface and controls are designed to be as fluid as possible. In a MOBA like LoL, the player only manages one character, not six, and their control over their avatar is perfect. The extensive list of hotkeys and LoL‘s pathing AI and responsiveness are as close to flawless as can be expected: players have absolute control over their character. LoL is a professionally competitive game, errors in control are unforgivable so the game’s developers have done everything possible to eliminate any gaps between intention and output. A player in LoL will always move and act the way they meant to.
Conversely, in Desperados, occasionally characters will take an inefficient (or lethal) path, they’ll execute a command slowly or they’ll fail to do some of the more nitpicky actions the player gives them unless they’re carefully micromanaged. This happens when the player clicks too often, or issues party commands too frantically or when they haven’t set themselves up properly. In other words, panicking or planning poorly makes characters behave poorly. The AI doesn’t cooperate or it stacks too many commands in a row, and considering how quickly characters can be killed when detected (read: so quickly), getting the hell out of dodge is extremely ineffective.
However, this is significant for the narrative quality cooperative mechanics bring to the game. Again, the poor interface and character behaviour can be abstracted as the characters themselves panicking and acting ineffectively, misreading cues, sending the wrong ones, or being forced to act without them entirely. Overloading the fickle interface with commands is abstracted into the fiction as characters communicating poorly during a delicate operation.
Characters don’t act by the player’s intentions when things become frantic. To mitigate this problem, the player must use more care and patience when setting up by studying the environment more carefully and playing to each character’s kit more creatively. The player must be a more controlled consciousness and must act with the group in mind. Conversely, if a character is detected, the player’s survival depends on remaining calm and managing the group to either fight or escape the threat together, or by providing a distraction to create an escape route for the endangered character(s). Even a contingency plan needs to be planned and it needs to be executed cooperatively.
When the team is detected and the player starts mashing on their commands, characters behave differently, characters that were hidden may run out in the open, characters that were running may start walking. But the precision demanded in each command is effective because, in the fiction, it makes sense that one character’s panic could create a communication breakdown across the whole team. One character misreading an order or planning too rashly leads to the rest of the team not knowing what to do, of the plan breaking down and everybody freaking out. The player’s control over the game is a proxy for the characters communicating with one another (or their failure to do so).
Again, the player must act on behalf of the whole team and the controls themselves start to fall apart when their play is disjointed and unorganized. When coordinated control breaks down, characters misbehave. The player must adjust to the limited UI just as the characters within the narrative must adjust to nonverbal coordination. Granted, the game’s poor control scheme is likely just an anachronism from a difficult niche genre that has since faded from fashion, but it nonetheless provides an effective proxy for actual human coordination that fits the game’s context.
The overall objective for every mission is straightforward. As mentioned, it can almost always be broken down to beginning at point A, navigating to point B and then reaching point C to escape the map. There may be some caveats the player must deal with (forbidden from killing, forbidden from being detected, must dispose of a certain target, etc.) but the end goal is the same. However, each mission instead breaks down into a long string of problems that can be approached or avoided by whatever methods the player can invent with their characters’ unique kits. So instead of giving the player a path to follow, they instead have a starting point, an object to collect, a point of escape and a deep toolbox to figure out their own path from A to B to C. Any one character’s kit is insufficient to overcome just about any challenge. Even a single guard facing an inconvenient direction can be insurmountable for any one of the cast. Yet, by applying skills from different characters in unison, the player can escape, avoid, disperse or in some cases directly confront enemy groups several times their size. Characters are only able to make any progress by combing their unique kits.
For example, most characters have a knockout skill that nonlethally and quietly downs an NPC. The problem, though, is that unconscious NPCs will awaken either by a patrolling guard or on their own over time, after which they will sound an alarm. However, one character, Sam, is able to tie up and gag unconscious enemies to keep them downed. Sam himself is not able to knock anybody out, but he’s necessary to anybody who can. Furthermore, only two characters, Cooper and Sanchez, are able to lift and move inert bodies. So disposing and removing an NPC from the map with a KO requires the cooperative effort of the initiating character to knock them out, Sam to tie them up and Cooper or Sanchez to move them out of sight.
Of course, a player may choose to lean on one or two characters’ kits for most levels, but skills have different value in different levels and conditions. In low visibility missions, for instance, enemies have reduced sight but improved hearing, meaning the noisier Sam, Cooper and McCoy become far less valuable than the comparatively quiet Kate, Sanchez and Mia. As conditions, enemy types and environments change from level to level, characters take on more or less prominent roles. A strategy that breaks the game in one level is useless in the next. Furthermore, because character kits are only useful in collaboration, by changing level conditions or by starting characters in different proximities to one another, the game demands different skill combinations. Ultimately, the player will naturally rely on different character combinations across the game, barely touching one character for a level only to depend on them entirely for the next. By the end of the game, the player will have needed to use every possible character combination of the team. Therefore every character has equal importance and impact.
As the title screams, Desperados is a western. At the risk of repeating myself, the western genre mythologizes the individual’s conquest of nature and the Other (Filipowich, Mark. “Plural Protagonism Part 2: Wild Arms 3.” bigtallwords. Apr 11 2013.). Desperados, however, defies the western’s fetishization of the individual by being playable only through cooperative mechanics. Cooper’s generically handsome face might be stamped on the menus and he may be the first player-character of the party, but for many missions his kit is unsuitable for anything other than a support role. There are even missions where his inconvenient positioning requires other characters to rescue him. During cutscenes that move the plot and set up the next objective Cooper often defers to others’ plans or expertise and he places total faith and trust in his teammates. He might be the centre of the boxart, but in the game he’s just a member of the team. Finally, even though Desperados may be a western, it eschews the rugged individualist narrative that often accompanies the genre.
Though he’s off screen for most of the game, antagonist El Diablo is set up as a solitary figure emblematic of greed and lawlessness. He organizes gangs into an army and targets local townships, exploiting the disparate, unorganized municipal police forces and the cowardice of a US marshal. El Diablo organizes a tiered hierarchy to benefit from the region’s disorganized structure and is only undermined by a close knit band of travelling rogues.
Desperados is also responsible for some interesting uses and abuses of western tropes. Of the six person cast, only Cooper and McCoy are white dudes. That’s significant because the western is a genre that operates around the quest to chase out Otherness. Nineteenth century America saw the dispersal of natives, the enslavement of kidnapped Africans, a war with Mexico, a war with itself, exploitation of east Asian laborours and the proliferation of industrial revolution. While westerns aren’t just an American phenomenon, as a form of fiction it still traditionally romanticizes the enemies of America’s expansion west. As the genre re-surges in popularity every few years, notable westerns have addressed its colonial fetishization (The Proposition and Django Unchained for example) and there are quality stories told with western motifs but the tradition is nonetheless steeped in racial conflict.
It’s therefore relevant that the player’s characters include those who represent the very people that many westerns treat as enemies. The cast includes a Mexican bandit, a favourite villain in the genre, along with a black man and two women, one of whom is Chinese, all people whom the genre prefers to ignore. All player-characters are placed in the same complexly heroic light and treated, narratively and mechanically, as equal to the aforementioned white dudes. And while the game ambivalently pretends that the horrors of American imperialism did not occur, it also tells an egalitarian story that deliberately includes women and people of colour where most other examples of the genre either don’t or only include them as things to shoot or win.
Sadly, Desperados is uncritcal of its problematic tradition even though it puts itself in a strong position to comment on or defy the material it pays homage to. Including a diverse cast in heroic roles is subversive on its own, but Desperados suberts only accidentally, not as an attempt to say anything. The cast leans pretty heavily on stereotypes ranging from tired and lazy (the demolitonist is the game’s only speaking black man) to more wincing offences (Sanchez is repeatedly made a joke of for his lack of intelligence and his alcoholoism and among Kate’s skills are those related to her disarming feminine wiles). One step forward, two steps back.
Which is a shame because the protagonists are deliberately painted as morally shaky, fitting better with a post-Hollywood western than with the white-hat/black-hat binary of the genre before the 1960’s. Even without being a cerebral treatise of ethics, it’s liberating to control a party of scoundrels. Cooper is a bounty killer, McCoy is a con man, Kate is a card cheat and Sanchez is a gang leader. They’re relieving their region of a notorious criminal but they’re doing it for their own good. The most noble among the team is motivated by a love of adventure, and the most ignoble by a quest for revenge, but all are seeking to share in the bounty on the antagonist’s head. They want money and they’re using legally dubious skills to get it. The group is only interested in taking down the crime lord, El Diablo, and keeping the peace insofar as they can profit from it. They only earn the utilitarian’s begrudging support because they’re eliminating a greater threat.
But Desperados never really pays off its setup: it is a closer homage to The Wild Bunch and The Magnificent Seven, films that celebrate the atmosphere and individualism of the old west, than it is to “anti-westerns” like Unforgiven or the 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma. In both The Wild Bunch and The Magnificent Seven, the ensemble cast is composed of aging gunslingers in the last wild years of the west. Desperados, while giving no indication that the west is being won, presents its setting as uncritically as other, fluffier westerns.
Both The Magnificent Seven and The Wild Bunch feature a motley crew of badass individualists, and while The Magnificient Seven‘s cast invites their last hurrah with some grace, looking forward to a quiet life on the farm caring for cattle and women, it nonetheless romanticizes the heroes’ solitude, their violence and their self-interest. These characters never seem to need one another or cooperate, they’re just an amalgamation of badasses waving the same flag. Compare this with the three immoral, self-centered and ethically unreliable characters of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Clint Eastwood’s Blondie and Eli Wallach’s Tuco need one another, they rely on one another and they cooperate with one another, but only out of self-interest. The more they deceive one another, the more dramatically ironic honesty bleeds into their relationship. The film focuses on both Blondie and Tuco equally and the outcome of their journey depends on their successful cooperation. The film doesn’t even privilege either as the sole hero.
Eastwood’s portrayal of The Man With No Name in the Dollars trilogy is iconic, so it’s easy to associate that character with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but Wallach’s boisterous Tuco is the focus for over half the film. The camera follows Tuco, the audience is made to sympathize with him when he’s betrayed or when he justifies his actions or when he elaborates on his history. Blondie may often become the hero when he’s on screen, but for the first half of the movie he’s elsewhere while Tuco carries the plot. Despite the billing, the movie is about both of them and their shared goal.
When the two do finally team up, they’re so clearly self-absorbed that they don’t know how to cooperate. Tuco flagrantly bullshits his partner, only accidentally betraying his real thoughts and feelings when he’s neck-deep into one of his lies, while the taciturn and opportunistic Blondie plays sides against one another to get himself closer to his destination. The rugged individualism of the two leads actively works against them most of the time, and their rigid mindset hinders them from adapting. Tuco and Blondie manipulate one another to get treasure while the civil war is tearing America apart. All the while, Lee Van Cleef’s villainous Angel Eyes profiteers from the war by smuggling weapons and equipment across borders and assassinating everyone with the pocket change to spare.
The only moral characters in the film are Tuco’s brother in the clergy, and two Union commanders: one dying of gangrene while Angel Eyes exploits war prisoners and an alcoholic captain watching waves of men die over a strategically important bridge. For all his moralizing, Tuco’s brother has made a far easier living than Tuco, and the two union commanders have no impact on the war even while it slowly kills them. The only moral characters in the film are ineffectual while the only effective characters are immoral. Even as Blondie and Tuco evolve, the movie elegantly masks whether their true motivation is to end the killing or clear a path to their treasure.
So, to return to Desperados: Wanted Dead or Alive, the narrative sets up a group of morally dubious individualists, of a diverse makeup, who share unquestioned loyalty to one another and who are all incapable of making any progress without coordinating. Which has incredible narrative potential given the aesthetic source, but the game refuses to comment on it. It sets itself up to be more than the typical western, but it only goes half measure (to borrow an important phrase from Breaking Bad which, hell, is also a western because I say so). Unlike The Magnificent Seven each member is incapable of overcoming even the smallest obstacle—therefore defying the individualist narrative—but unlike The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, there is no subtextual interplay of their morals and their willingness to cooperate.
Even without living up to its potential, Desperados creates an interesting tension: a group acting under a single consciousness, combining their unique skills and abilities for a common good but with that common good being extremely selfish. They work together, but for personal gain. Furthermore, El Diablo’s crime racket is indisputably worse for keeping the peace than Cooper stabbing a crooked deputy or Sam blowing open a bank vault. The player-characters’ role as heroes is only secured by the presence of someone far worse. And their success only comes from their cohesion as a small, unified group against the more selfish El Diablo’s growing criminal empire.
Desperados is often at odds with its aesthetic homage and a lot of its more interesting subversions are not pressed to the extent that a critic might like to see in a writerly text. But its skeleton is an effective illustration of plural protagonism and its narrative pays loving tribute to a form of fiction that is tied closely to solitude, independence and individualism. Furthermore, the plot follows the united group overcome the challenges posed by a criminal exploiting the disorganized social structure of the old west. Desperados: Wanted Dead or Alive displays a number of key elements of plural protagonism, even if it does not resolve some of the tensions it creates. Still, it illustrates some potential of the form in a genre of play not normally associated with cooperative mechanics.
*I actually watched a friend play Commandos when it was first released in 1998 and based on the influence it had on Desperados’s mechanics I assume that most of the mechanical connections made to plural protagonism for Desperados will also apply to Commnados. The World War II setting and the inspiration it takes from adventure movies set in that time period might actually make Commandos a better illustrator of plural protagonism but my experience is second-hand and comes from many years ago so take those assumptions with a grain of salt.
Further reading: Rowcester, Patch. “Desperados: Wanted Dead or Alive review.” Reviews Without Scores. Jun 2 2009.
Bigras, Erik. “A Simulated Retrospective Part 2: The Old West.”Higher Level Gamer. Nov 12 2013.
Stone, Tim. “Perpetually Cool: White Death.” Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Jul 11 2013.