It is, and that’s a problem.
It’s not really that commonplace, not for as much noise is made about it. Or, if I’m to put on my Grumpy Fandom Critique Hat™, it’s a very loose term that’s often applied way to broadly to have a distinctive meaning
It’s a tangential problem where people will use a term as shorthand even when it doesn’t really fit as a critique. Like when people say, “oh this feels like Marvel dialogue” or that it’s Whedonesque, or when ludonarrative dissonance was the big buzzword in gaming circles. Like there’s an actual point trying to be conveyed, but it’s painting with way too broad of a brush for it to be of any use, not when it can mean several different things
This is super off topic, but it does tickle me pink when people say Wayhaven’s writing is purple prose, because I genuinely find it too dry to be flowery
Something like This is How You Lose the Time War by Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar is super flowery and poetic, and very, very purple, and such a delight to read for me at least
Oh, Wayhaven is definitely not purple prose. It DOES go into “flowery” territory on occasion.
I love this topic and am also dismayed by the glut of doormat mcs I’ve read recently (Moreso in itch io games but some here too). My biggest gripe are the ones that feature MCs that are constantly stuttering in fear, have panic attacks, unable to react to any situation and then… voila. They are suddenly confident. Now any of the aforementioned tropes are very real and interesting topics to explore, but there needs to be some catharsis, some serious character development to affect the change from doormat to confident protagonist, and I RARELY see this. It’s usually, oh I met this sassy RO, or oh, I’m the chosen one and now I feel more confident. I feel like this is just a lazy plot device that adds little to no value to the the narrative and is a disservice to anyone that has experienced trauma/panic/ptsd/extreme shyness etc.
A common theme with this type of mc is that, despite having personality stats, it’s obvious the mc is supposed to be super shy/naive and when you pick sarcastic or stoic options and your mc still reacts like a stuttering mess it makes no sense. Also if the mc is in their 20s/late 20s would it kill to make them act their age and not like a teenager?! But for me the main issue is respect, I can overlook many things in a story and still enjoy it but if I feel like the mc is being disrespected left and right for the sake of angst or the plot I won’t enjoy the story. You can be shy and still ask to be treated with respect, you can be shy and walk away from a situation that makes you uncomfortable without being heartbroken or moping over your j*rk ro. It’s true that doormat mcs are more common in more romance focused ifs but there are other ways to write romance without falling into the submissive mc territory.
On a side notes, as other have stated Mind Blind is a prime example of a very very underpowered mc that doesn’t take sh*t from anyone, can push back and be resentful about their situation and despite their limitation excels in other areas that complement the story. They’re also surrounded by a team of people with different degrees of power and all of them have their own limitations and flaws and the mc’s skills can complement them, ro or not.
This. Definitely this. Mind blind is genius. I particularly love that just because you may be shy or awkward at romance, you are not precluded from being a confident, loud-mouthed bad ass at other things. People aren’t one-dimensional and I love the situational specificity mind blind gives the mc. Maybe you’re soft for nick, maybe for your parents, maybe for your RO, the story lets you be multi-faceted instead of a charicature of one stat.
I am not. Hooray!
I do think that PCs lacking in self-worth, or who need help from other characters, can have agency, and can be fun to play. Buuut, where it can run into problems is:
- An unfinished game begins with a passive PC in a rough situation, and assumptions are made about how the PC’s trajectory is going to go; this is not really something an author can control, especially if they don’t want to reveal lots about where the story’s going
- The PC is presented as a character who is mouldable by the player, but the game does not respond to it (such as having a “serious/joky” personality scale, but the PC always cracks a joke no matter how high their Serious rating is) - this makes it feel like the game is not paying attention to player personality choices
- An author intends a more “set” PC with a retiring personality, and players are frustrated when they are not able to break out of it (because ChoiceScript games broadly tend towards PCs which are customisable by players). In that example, I would advise authors to be clear about their intentions for the PC upfront to avoid miscommunication; I would also advise considering whether mechanically tracked personality traits are desirable or necessary
- Or any number of other things - an author unconsciously had a particular type of PC in mind; or they considered including a confrontation scene, for example, but realised it would involve too much branching or future work and it had to be cut; it could be caused by anything, really
- A PC is in an unpleasant situation but is not provided options to be aggrieved so some players are left going “er, is the PC meant to be content with this?”, or to stand up against someone bullying them, or to break out of it in some way. So it can become a slog of putting up with less than stellar treatment without much changing, in a way that doesn’t feel great.
Ultimately it feels like it comes down to agency and ensuring that the player feels “seen” by the game rather than their PC being a passive participant (try saying that quickly), even if the PC is struggling or isn’t a “powerful” character. To be clear, there is room for passive participation that can be really engaging - a lot of IF explores this to great effect, and you can tear the bad ending of Study in Steampunk from my cold dead hands - it’s just that for CoGs/HCs, and for most HGs, that’s not the norm.
This is where PC skills or personality traits can be a really useful tool when figuring out different routes through a scene. If you’ve given your PC a set of skills which includes Swordfighting, Sneaking, and Persuasion, these will be helpful in branching a confrontation scene. For social interactions, if a PC has traits like Forceful, Compassionate, and Jovial, it’s sensible to write for PCs who will have picked those options - don’t inadvertently leave out the ones who have high levels of Forceful because they will feel frustrated.
I haven’t read Mind Blind yet but am excited to - it sounds like it balances PC underpoweredness, social interactions, and skills nicely!
My roommate, in response to the challenge: “Patsive partitsipants.”
Me, in response to my roommate: “Are you having a stroke?”
I’ll tell you now, there’s a pretty cunning twist that helps keep players from wanting to set their feet and not go along with the plot, and it utilizes the MC’s main character flaw of being easily brainhacked. I was actually shocked when it got revealed later.
Great thread idea! I love being able to read about issues readers have with MCs and ideas on how to fix them. There is a lot of writing advice online, but very little on how to write an interactive story/character.
When I first started writing IF, the protagonist was one of the hardest things to figure out. They have to be vague enough that people can project onto them, but not too vague or they fade into the background… or worse, become a doormat.
The way I ended up thinking about it was I (the writer) knew some things about the MC. I could see their outline. … just not the whole picture.
And, the traits I could see were ‘clever’ and ‘competent’, because I guessed most players would want to play a character who was smart enough to figure some stuff out, and able to do what needed to be done when it needed to be done.
I don’t think I 100% pulled it off, honestly. There are moments in my game I could’ve written better in hindsight. But, threads like this help a huge amount. It’s great to see what people like and don’t like, and suggestions about how to fix issues.
Oh, this thread is great! It’s so cool to have a place to think about why certain mcs are engaging or not especially as someone whos (slowly slowly!) working on a game haha
I think a lot of people have said it already but to me the vibe I often get in the games that get a lot of flak for “doormat” mcs is that it’s not that the author hates the mc or doesn’t care about the protagonist of the story, but that mc is the hardest character to write for as Barb says— especially if it’s been more of a problem in recent years, it might be that a lot of people started writing their first game over the pandemic and don’t really know what to do with the mc because they want to make them a character anyone can insert into or shape however they want, which just ends up with the mc not feeling like a real cohesive character and makes it hard to confidently write their actions, so they end up sidelined while the better-defined characters that are easier to write confidently get the spotlight?
Like— the games where people get really attached to their MCs, like Mind Blind and Fallen Hero, tend to be games where it feels like MC can be shaped however you like because the writing is extremely responsive to the choices you make, but actually, objectively, Button is a pretty consistent character no matter what you do (always a smartass, always invested in being a psychic cop, always frustrated with their situation etc) and so is Sidestep. They’re games with a really clear idea of who MC is and what MC’s prior relationships are so the writing always makes sense and feels cohesive and that makes MC feel much more “your own” character than a game where there are many more personality sliders, but the character never really reacts to anything because accounting for all the versions of the MC that the author has tried to include is just too much work.
I think a game that does this really well is Project Hadea on twine, actually— the Operative is a really specific character with a very specific background and outlook, but the level of responsiveness is incredible and the clarity on who this person is means the choices you get feel meaningful and the operative is always the main character. & for characters who are less obviously “set” I love how @HannahPS balances the differences in the MC’s potential personality with the things that make them grounded in a specific idea & who they are, or, like… Tally Ho and Jolly Good… compared to games with a vaguer, blank-slate MC that I, at least, struggle to connect with, where they tend to feel more like a “doormat”
The “how much background” question has been around for ages. I agree that the optimal way is an umbrella approach that caters to a wide variety of different personalities, skills, power-ups, etc.
Ah, the often used pattern of avoiding “doormat-ness”.
If this is the case, then Creme de la Creme and my entire Maverick Hunter series has this error.
Maybe it’s because of the fact that I am using Mega Man X as my basis.
The story is indeed about X (and the PC) developing their strength.
But here is where things diverge. If the PC and X was just a doormat, then they won’t stand up for themselves, as mentioned. They do! However, the PC can have varying levels of pacifism, which makes for interesting dialogue…
“Why must Reploids fight one another? I’d had enough of such violence!”
Now the key thing is that the PC develops their strength over the course of the game. But the challenge is that of a PC, a protagonist with an internal conflict. About pacifism and the use of violence to bring about the peace that they so often crave.
But at least X and the PC won’t be the second tire. In the original case, Zero has faith in X’s abilities, and so does Axl. (Especially Zero.)
So to address the doormatness of what the PC (and X) should do is: to give varying levels of pacifism, to make said internal conflict clear and nuanced. They should obviously get challenged on their nature but we, as the player, should also be able to see the good of it, see mavericks they are able to get through to and see the different ways aside from fighting they are able to make a difference. That way, we won’t see the PC as a doormat.
The doormatting of PCs is pretty much what I call the “Inafune theorem” since Keiji Inafune did the Mega Man X series dirty by emphasizing on his creation and X’s best buddy Zero instead, meaning that the Mega Man X series needs better narrative. Moreover, I am surprised that this can show up in some very popular works like the aforementioned Wayhaven. I’m very nearly guilty of making the same mistake too.
I’d like to point out JimD does an amazing job of this. I’m sure most of us have played Safe Haven (and i don’t know how to blur spoilers so please don’t read further if you haven’t) and one of the most interesting moments in the game was when Tommy came to MC’s door to ask for help. The choices the player could make at that moment had 2 outcomes, you either go with Tommy or you don’t, but there were 5 choices to help him and 4 to refuse him, all for different reasons. That sort of storytelling is exactly how you avoid a doormat MC. You simply let the player choose how the MC feels about something and give them an opportunity to act on those feelings when you think is appropriate.
You need your MC to be weak and gain power later? Give the option for them to act out in superficial ways. Maybe in their mind they’re planning how to get back, or better yet they can clap back.
Yeah I love playing a teen mc that’s leader of the group they’re one of the youngest members of the group and is not a weak link
“Tales of Heroes” I’m looking at you😏
Though, I think the main problem is self-insertion, either the author want to insert themselves, or the author thinks how best way to insert the reader. Here the author probably do not think the reader is flattering in real life if they decided to create a doormat MC for readers to insert themselves.
I agree with idea about connection with power fantasy/mary sue syndrome, but I don’t think it’s a reaction to it, it’s more like 2 sides of the same medal.
While I don’t think the IF is ONLy about escapism, let’s be honest, it plays a significant part in desire to play it, to feel yourself in scenarios which are unlikely or impossible to realise in real life, and sometimes fell cathartic satisfaction in it.
One of the main banes of our existence is the lack of control. Inability to protect ourselves entirely from looming threats is a constant companion in our life.So lots of IFs contain themes about taking control, overcoming threats and feeling satisftaction about it.
Power fantasy and doormat are like two version of extreme coping mechanism.
Power fantasy/mary sue gives you feeling you’re always in control. There is no threat that can overcome you, you can deal with everything and have fun with it, you are absolutely 100% secured all the time.
Doormat fantasy is about having no control but being happy about. If there is no control, there is no responsibility. You are not responsible for anything in your life, things are just happening to you, and you just let them happen. Without responsibility you can enjoy your angst and be the damsel in distress for any people who want to save you (and control you).
I don’t thing either of these thing is bad per se. But if you have this kind of theme in your game, you should make this information clear for your players, so they could be aware about this and decide if they want it for themselves.
Doormat MCs are the highest risk group for what I call “super soldiers crying on a kitchen floor” - forced emotional reactions that don’t fit origin and established character of MC, can’t be avoided and always end up being obnoxiously long and self-pitying “woe is me” type of stuff.
I generally hate angst and excessive emotions in my player characters, but doormats almost always boil down to angst and sixty different emotional reactions to a gust of wind that don’t affect anything in the long run. Because they can’t truly act or affect things around them - it’s so much easier to just pad out the text with emotional reactions and keep on trudging.
This means angst and picking out emotional reactions near-constantly. Both things I deeply hate because they take space from actually proactive and important choices, actions that help to establish the character more effectively than reactions.
We’d probably agree on some instances of this being done poorly or cheaply in fiction… but super soldiers who are emotionally broken by their experiences are a 100% real thing. You don’t get much more real-life super-soldier than Audie Murphy, and he spent plenty of time crying on various kitchen floors afterward.
Just this week a profile of Gen Mark Milley included this vivid story from when his father and uncle came to celebrate his promotion to general: “[T]hen we have a reception back at the house. I’ve got the Japanese flag up on the wall, right over the fireplace. It’s a flag my father took from Saipan. So that night, he’s sitting there in his T-shirt and boxers; he’s having probably more than one drink, just staring at the Japanese flag. One or two in the morning, we hear this primeval-type screaming. He’s screaming at his brother, ‘Tom, you got to get up!’ And I’ll say it the way he said it: ‘Tom, the Japs are here, the Japs are here! We gotta get the kids outta here!’ So my wife elbows me and says, ‘Your father,’ and I say, ‘Yes, I figured that out,’ and I go out and my dad, he’s not in good shape by then—in his 80s, Parkinson’s, not super mobile—and yet he’s running down the hallway. I grab him by both arms. His eyes are bugging out and I say, ‘Dad, it’s okay, you’re with the 10th Mountain Division on the Canadian border.’ And his brother Tom comes out and says, ‘Goddamnit, just go to fucking bed, for Chrissakes. You won your war; we just tied ours.’ And I feel like I’m in some B movie. Anyway, he calmed down, but you see, this is what happens. One hundred percent of people who see significant combat have some form of PTSD. For years he wouldn’t go to the VA, and I finally said, ‘You hit the beach at Iwo Jima and Saipan. The VA is there for you; you might as well use it.’ And they diagnosed him, finally.”
I agree that this is different from the problem of fictional characters who get big angsty emotions with every little gust of wind. But maybe there’s a better label for that phenomenon than one which describes plenty of real life heroes.
By mentioning supersoldiers I’ve meant something akin to vat-grown humans specifically fashioned for warfare, clones or something akin to Prophet from Crysis, people that specifically warred for so long it has become a habit.
Their reactions should not be the same for every time period, mindset and mentality, yet I’ve seen many people forcing killbots to act and react to things in the same way non-combatants and people not exposed to prolonged warfare usually do. It’s the matter of established origin - if I am, hypothetically, an assassin sent against my enemies for thousandth time this week, why would I react with extreme emotion to a head popping?
People’s emotions tend to dull a lot when it’s something they experience a lot. People die around me often and I’ve found myself growing much more numb to it, even given the fact it was spread through large stretches of time and I have never seen warfare myself. It’s “eh” now compared to the first time it had happened.
That, I notice, is a pretty frequent flier with stories where the MC is powered down for one reason or another: without fail, they will find something to mope about.
Look, me in real life, I’d say I’d probably wind up being a doormat MC in an IF. I’m out of shape, have a white belt level of karate education, am constantly tired, and if I’m not at work, I’m spending most of my time at home, lazing about. The last time I thought my life was truly in danger, my plan was not to fight back, it was pure survivalism: haul ass into the back of the store, leave my coworker to the wolves (Sorry Chaz, nothing personal, love you like a brother, but I’m not getting shot over a drug deal in the parking lot, dawg.), call the cops as fast as possible, throw every piece of furniture in front of the door that I could, and pray my boss had a secret shotgun somewhere in his office.
Turned out, the people we thought were insane drug dealers were just innocently misinformed globetrotters who didn’t realize that they weren’t allowed to camp out in our parking lot overnight.
But like… If you’ve seen any of how I interact online, and if you saw the way I bullshit with my roommate and coworkers in real life, you’d know right away that I’m a sassy little bastard. I might not be much good for a fight, but I can bitch you out with the best of them.
It always perplexes me when I see an MC who might be a doormat for one reason or another, and all they do is mope. Like, damn, dude, if you’re not going to try and do something to fix your situation, at least find a way to be happy with what you’ve got! Surely you don’t drink depresso triple shot every single day?
(Might edit this post later, more to day and much to clarify, gotta go to work right now)
Totally fair, and I realize how that statement can sound like I’m slapping people in the face for struggling with their emotions. I absolutely did not mean it that way, and apologize if I sent the wrong message.
What I meant by my initial statement was that, while there’s nothing inherently bad with being down or struggling with your emotions, a lot of MCs seem to take that to an extreme, such that people reading the story, who might genuinely have those kinds of struggles in real life, might look at it and feel like they’re being mocked by the narration.
In case like that, the author should consider stepping back and reevaluating the character, in that moment, and ask themselves if they’re maybe heaping it on a bit too thick.