The following post contains spoilers for Final Fantasy X and Mass Effect.
A word used by many a prolific amateur and even professional games reviewer usually in reference to the hierarchy of lead characters within a game's storyline. As usual with words that naturally make one sound more intelligent, quite often the word is used to describe the 'playable character' rather than its actual definition of 'lead character' i.e. the character that the entire story revolves around. This, in gaming terms, is sometimes entirely accurate. But often, the playable character of a game is not the 'protagonist' at all.
In theatrical terms, a lot of the time the definition of a protagonist is hotly debated, especially when so many characters are integrated into the storyline. This is no different in games.
For example, the protagonist of Final Fantasy X is, ironically, not Tidus. Despite the consistency of constantly having to stare at his back throughout the entire game, his 'story' is not the story the game fully revolves around. When you fully define the 'lead' character, the most accurate conclusion is Yuna. Without Yuna, there would be no pilgrimage, nobody for Tidus to meet and fall in love with, no reason for him to want to get rid of Sin and ultimately resolve his issues with his father. Tidus' 'story' is actually the main opposition to Yuna's journey considering that Tidus becomes the one thing she has to live for. Therefore, Tidus, again somewhat ironically, is actually the antagonist.
'Antagonist' is also a word where the dictionary defintion falls short of its actual meaning. 'To antagonise' is a very loose definition that could apply to anything. Very often the antagonist is the villain, of course, but theatrically, it is a word used to describe any character that creates conflict, and can therefore apply to any secondary character.
When you think about games, and RPGs especially, most of the time the protagonist is very difficult to pin down. Sometimes it appears obvious, such as Mass Effect - how can any other character besides Commander Shepard be the lead when he/she is the one driving the storyline? But when you look closely, the plot consists of Sovereign's manipulation of Saren in order to revive the Reapers. Commander Shepard, as the universe's saviour, is therefore the conflict to that storyline, and can therefore be defined as the antagonist, with Saren, or indeed Sovereign, leading the plot.
And while there can be a plethora of antagonists, there can never be more than one protagonist in any story, which is why the title is so contested. It is also a conversation that can take on many forms, like what the plot of a game is in the first place, and can resolve into hundreds of ideas and theories surrounding it. With story and character becoming ever more prominent in today's gaming market it is very easy to judge a great storyline, but not fully understand it. Through this sort of debate it is possible to reach deeper levels than possibly the developers even intended, establishing not only an enjoyable game, but a new genre of 'playable theatre'.
So, encouraging debate time! In what other games do you define the protagonist and antagonists? What's your opinion on my views of the two games I mentioned? Do you value story above gameplay and if so, why?
n.b: I've had to write a dissertation recently. Can you tell? :P