The incompetent, "chronically out of xir depth" protagonist

I view an “underdog” as being more specific than just a character facing long odds because in pretty much every thriller or fantasy story, the MC will almost inevitably face long odds. The hero will almost always be “outgunned” in most objective measurements; that’s what makes a story exciting in the first place. I mean, James Bond is technically outgunned. So is Ethan Hunt. So is Spidey, Bats, Captain America, etc. But I wouldn’t view any of them as underdogs, even if fighting a whole freakin’ army.

I think “underdog” status melts away when a hero has developed a reputation for rising against all odds. At that point, they have this aura of awesomeness and inevitable victory. I would never view Supes as an “underdog” even if fighting his entire rogue gallery at the same time, because he has a firmly established track record of always rising to the occasion.

To me, an “underdog” may have a lot of potential, but they are untested, a rookie, and totally out of their league. I mean, in Rocky, the MC was the underdog. Yes, 100%. But that sheen wears off in the sequels (to me, anyway).


I like your definition, Malvastor, for the simple reason that this is the way stories get us to empathise with the character, and to ‘root’ for them, ie. we want them to win. Going by that definition, Luke Skywalker the baby Jedi facing a powerful Galactic Empire is an underdog - but so is Indiana Jones, or Wonder Woman in her movie, or Vito Corleone, or Dexter. All intrinsically powerful characters facing terrible odds. To me this makes the definition stronger, not weaker.

This basic principle of character empathy - “give the audience someone to root for” - doesn’t go away because we’re writing IF. I’m not sure why we’d want to write (or play, for that matter) a game where the main character is so perfectly powerful that they don’t have to overcome any meaningful conflict. Is it even possible to write a text-based game with no story? Why would anyone want to play such a thing?

I guess what I’m saying is I’m a bit confused by this entire thread :slight_smile: just label me bewildered and usher me to one side…


I don’t think a power fantasy is one in which you succeed all the time. A power fantasy gives you a choice about how you win and there are usually fail states. The Last Wizard, Fallen Hero, The Tower Behind the Moon, Choice of Robots, Choice of Magics and The Lost Heir. All are power fantasies, all contain choices about how the character can win and they all have fail states. Fail states only enhance power fantasies. Power Fantasies are about achieving spectacular or glorious victories. In order for the player to feel victorious, the villain (or challenge must seem threatening, and thus there must be a fail state (your death or someone else’s death).

In many of those games fail states aren’t fail at all. It makes feel is fail with flavour text but 99% is exactly same. Oh. Super fail you have a stone palace instead a gold one. … The magic tower i have on purpose due role-playing a fail state… It was best ending ever for me. Being a golden immortal demigodess in my own kingdom of art and luxury … yeah… and my lover bard I sign that fail

I’d say when it comes to being an incompetent protagonist in interactive fiction, you have a few things you could do to make it go over easier.

1). It’s part of the character/their situation. This isn’t going to work for most games on this site, but still worth mentioning. It’s easier to accept in a story when a protagonist does something silly because of inexperience, arrogance, or a misunderstanding. Since here on CoG we like having protagonists that have their levels of confidence and strategy player-controlled, there’s not a lot to be done on that front, and there’s really only so many situations where the MC is tricked/confused you can put in the story before it feels unfair- but more on that later.

2). Give the players chances to succeed while failing. Hero’s Rise gets a lot of criticism, and I generally like the series so I don’t want to pile more on that, but I think the reason the Gravitas situation feels so annoying is because not only do you fail to achieve the explicit goal, you basically can’t do anything correctly. It’s necessary to the plot for the protagonist to fail, but that doesn’t mean they have to totally fail. They might have been able to save some of the villains, learn some important information, or otherwise achieve a secondary goal. So perhaps the inexperienced young knight can’t save the dragon, but he manages to buy the royal wizard enough time to cast a spell of protection on the servants- the primary objective was a failure, but the protagonist still achieved something.

3). Acknowledge the unfairness. One of my favorite sections in terms of messing with the medium of interactive fiction on the site is a section in Choice of Broadsides were the MC has a nightmare. Long story short, all options presented are explicitly not the solution to the problem, and as the nightmare goes on more and more options appear to the effect of “Why are none of these right?! This isn’t fair!”. A similar thing happens in Fallen Hero in which the protagonist faces a situation with a negative foregone conclusion in a flashback, where the player really chooses how exactly they fail because they already know it ends badly. Last example is Choice of Rebels, specifically the winter section where, on your first few tries, odds are good you will not do well. But the game knows that, and includes several options for the protagonist to express sorrow, frustration, fear, and outright rage at their losses, including saying, more or less, “this isn’t fair!” and at no point does the game (or moreover, your fellow characters) seem to contradict you on that. In truth, the chapter is more fair than it might seem, but I think Havenstone knew that it would seem somewhat unwinnable at first, and rather than remove a section of the game he thought was important to the story, he resolved to let the protagonist feel the same things as the player.

Ultimately, the incompetent protagonist needs to be a bit of a tragic one, even in a light-hearted work. They need to be aware of their failings, and how unfair it is they keep missing the mark, and they need to be able to express that. Failure should reveal things about the protagonist, and further their story. You could always play the constant mistakes for comedy, and I like fiction that features characters who just can’t get a grip on themselves and achieve what they need to- Michael Scott comes to mind- but when that character is the MC of an interactive work of fiction, it feels like the joke is at my expense, not theirs. And if I wanted to laugh at my unending failures, I’d reminisce about middle school.

This is a great question, by the way, lots to think about.


Have we mentioned the examples of Rincewind, Shinji and Falstaff yet?


I don’t think so. Mostly CoG/HoG characters/MCs have been brought up.

Other possible examples of incompetent characters in other interactive mediums could include Hawke from DAII and the Deputy from Far Cry 5.

Hawke even goes so far as to comment on their failures in Dragon Age Inquisition IIRC.

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Are they central characters though?

Yes, if you mean by ‘central’ as in protagonist. You play as Hawke in DAII and you play as the Deputy in FC5.

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Really didn’t know, thanks.


The fail state in Tower Behind the Moon is missing the opportunity to ascend. That’s a huge fail. Ofcourse you can decide to sacrifice your ascension and end up as a lesser being.

The fail states in choice of magics are death (for the most part) and failing to prevent the world from ending. And there are many ways to die.

Pretty sure becoming the villains puppet in Lost Heir is straight forward fail state.

Not sure how you can say the fail states are cosmetic.

I say FAIL is not real fail at all in most games. Tower is clear i didn’t wanted to ascend. Game is trying to sell hard a desire to ascend selling a other reallty i found worse than being in hell being tortured. So like is choice game i decide hell no. after replay several times without no single death situation and several supposed good endings that i see far worse than those the game hard trying to sell me as failure. When a game forgets that being interactive and letting agency should not force in text how dying am I to become a ethereal tiny pawn of far supreme gods.

If you want sell that it should have been ASCENDING OR DYING and with several gruesome fails.

No a situation were fails are far more enjoyable at least for me even being a badass Deku tree.