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Why so Silent?

An article on common reasons for silent protagonists and a critique of the idea.

(Minor spoilers for Dishonored)

Why are so many protagonists in games these days silent?  Back in the old days of videogames nobody talked.  They didn’t have the technology to fit in any voices outside of the occasional villain screaming. But as the technology grew, space on disks and such grew and voice acting was added gradually. Games would have more spoken words.  Characters started grunting when they jumped, calling out their attacks and eventually full on acting in cutscenes.  These days most games have a ton of spoken dialogue.  Games have scripts!  Something unheard of in the old days. 

Now that voice acting in games is a near must for nearly any AAA title the choice to make a protagonist silent is a conscious and deliberate one. Out of literature and film and games, only games commonly have a silent hero.  Think of your favorite silent main characters in movies and books.  Take out the ones that are animals and you’ll likely have a pretty small list. So why all the silent game heroes?

I’ve never been particularly bothered by a silent protagonist but I’ve been playing Dishonored lately and the main character in that game is completely silent.  While everyone in the game is so well defined and the setting has so much character, Corvo is the odd man out.  So why doesn’t he speak?  Does he fall into the classic excuses for a silent protagonist?

I want them to be relatable.

This is one of the excuses I find the most suspect.  The creator is afraid that if the player character speaks, they’ll say things the player wouldn’t and it would break their immersion.  This can be done well and it can be done extremely poorly.  The audience surrogate heroic mime act works if the player has ways to express themselves through gameplay and in other ways. 

Examples would be Dragon Age: Origins or Persona 4 along with plenty other RPGs. The hero is silent in both games outside of grunts and odd quips during combat.  These games worked because the player is given choices of dialogue and while the dialogue isn’t spoken aloud, the player has enough options to make them feel like they are speaking through the character. 

Persona 4 doesn’t have you giving any soliloquies like you might in Dragon Age but you are always given a chance to react to whatever is going on.  You can comfort friends, tell people off and diffuse situations. You have more choices on how to play your character. (Although I’m pretty sure everyone plays him like a ladies’ man.)

The games where this idea of a silent audience proxy doesn’t work are the games where the player isn’t given a chance to express themselves in any way.  In that case, the character is completely silent and we’re just supposed to project our feelings onto them.  But nobody finds that relatable, because nobody is a mute blank slate all the time.  Even if you physically cannot talk, you still communicate in some way.  We can’t get attached to a completely silent character because we can’t see ourselves in them.  

This is probably the best excuse for Corvo’s silence.  The player doesn’t get any dialogue options with him outside of “Yes I want to buy stuff” or “Please take me to the next area”. The player certainly doesn’t have freedom with dialogue choices but instead gets their characterization through how they play. The game gives you so many choices on how to deal with problems that Corvo is supposed to become an extension of your personality.  This idea is perfect for the gameplay aspect in that it lets the mechanics serve as their own narrative.  The problem comes later, in the form of a little girl.  

I don’t want a voice to screw up the player’s interpretation.

Aka “The Nintendo Excuse”.  This is the reason Link and Mario don’t talk. For these two I’m not really referring to spoken voice acting but just general dialogue, especially in Link’s case.  I’m not too upset about those two actually.  Mario gets his classic lines from Mario 64 and he gets enough characterization in Super Mario RPG and the Paper Mario games that we don’t need to hear him speak.  Obviously the players aren’t really going to relate to Mario very much but we don’t really need to. 

Link is an odd case.  He’s been around long enough and is beloved enough that there’s sure to be a backlash if he says anything outside of his grunts and yells (and that one time he yelled “Come on!”). If he talks it’d have to be extremely well written otherwise everyone will just hate Nintendo for ruining Link.  Right now he’s just a dude that rescues princesses and fights evil and we’re all okay with that.

The problem is that recently Nintendo has been giving him more characterization.  Skyward Sword had more of a love story in it than any Zelda game before.  Zelda was a pretty well defined character who laughed, loved and sacrificed.  Link on the other hand had no such characterization and as such we didn’t really believe the romance between the two of them.  We could see why Link loved Zelda and why he fought monsters to save her, but there was really no reason for Zelda to love Link, he had no personality.  Like I said, Link’s a fine character as a force of nature who fights evil but if Nintendo wants him to be more than that, they’ve got to start giving him a little more.

And that’s the problem with Corvo.  While his silence is perfectly fine during missions and assassinations, it starts to fall apart whenever Emily is in the picture.  The little girl clearly idolizes him, says he’s a caring fella who’d obviously never let her be hurt.  Much like Link and Zelda, the player has a bit of trouble believing that this silent monster of a man is just so likable. The Empress is further indicative of this problem.  For the brief time she’s in the game she treats Corvo like an old friend and Corvo cradles her as she dies. He still says nothing to her.  Corvo would be a great character if he were silent nearly the whole time except for when he’s with the Empress or Emily.  You could learn a lot about a character by paying attention to when they choose to talk but if they never talk at all, you lose a lot of characterization. 

Silence fits the character or setting.

The last example, the character isn’t the talking type or it really isn’t the time for talking. Chell from portal is an example of this if you believe the creator’s opinion on her silence.  She doesn’t want to give the robots the satisfaction of hearing her speak so she’s stubborn and shuts up. The player doesn’t see if she talks to other humans because there aren’t any.  It says a lot about her relationship with the other characters in the game by her silence. 

In a lot of horror games, the player character is silent most of the time.  Obviously silence builds tension and people want to hear a human voice to reassure them.  A fantastic example of this is in Penumbra, the spiritual predecessor to the terrifying Amnesia.  You’re alone in a bunker filled with monsters that have better ears than they do eyes.  You stay silent, terrified of alerting them.  It builds the loneliness in your situation so when you discover there’s someone else alive in the bunker you spend your whole time trying to get to her.  When you get a parasitic monster in your head that speaks in a kind sarcastic voice you’re just glad to hear someone talking to you even if it’s a monster.  Because you’ve waited so long for another voice you, the player, instinctively trust the monster which makes its betrayal all the more sudden and tragic. 

There are non-horror games where silence fits the setting too.  Fallout and Skyrim would be a lot different if the dovakiin was constantly making jokes, it’d ruin the desolate atmosphere of being alone in the wilderness. 

As said before Corvo’s silence in missions makes perfect sense both from a story and gameplay perspective.  He’s silent because he’s being stealthy and the player gets enough characterization in the missions by choosing how to get past obstacles. The atmosphere changes when he’s with Emily or the Empress though.  He’s not “murder machine” Corvo, he’s “defender” or “Father-like figure” Corvo.  His silence no longer fits the character that’s been established previously and he loses that bit of characterization. 

Games are a very unique medium, the only medium where a silent protagonist can work on a regular basis.  In order to utilize the concept, however, there has to be a specific reason for the hero’s silence whether it’s to give the player complete freedom over their character, to invoke a feeling of loneliness or unease, or to demonstrate how the character reacts to other characters.  It’s the failure to identify the reason for silence that so often causes it to fail. 

So what do you think? Are you glad Corvo doesn't talk?  Do you relate to Corvo?  I want to hear your comments!

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