[In this special guest GameSetWatch editorial, student and game commentator Andrew Vanden Bossche takes a look at the role of the silent protagonist in video games.]
So there you are, trying to save the world, but no one’s listening to you. Whenever someone asks you a question, one of your friends answers for you. When the game finally lets you make a choice, it’s usually between a) help an old lady across the street or b) poke her in the eye and steal all her money.
And even when you pick b) out of perverse annoyance, some smartass party member will intervene, and you’ll have to go through the dialogue tree again and again until you pick an option more respectful to the elderly.
So where does the silent protagonist come from? After all, the technology to give protagonists voice is still fairly young. While now it’s standard for even games with very simple plots to at least include some explanatory text, lots of games have never needed to.
The Origins Of The Silent Protagonist
The first Mario games didn’t contain too much more dialogue than “sorry, but our princess is in another castle” and Mario definitely didn’t need to say a word for you to understand what was going on. Early games like Zelda
featured silent protagonists because there wasn’t any reason to have them speak. Like picture books, you could understand everything you needed to know about the story from what you could see.
Mario is an excellent example of this, because so much of the game’s personality comes from the charm of the scenery, from the brightly colored environments to the smiley faces drawn on clouds and hills. To this day, Mario gets away with extremely minimal dialogue, and many people find it weird when he talks; we’re used to him communicating through gestures and actions. In the Mario RPGs, he communicates through exaggerated gestures and silly nonsense words which are as expressive, if not more so, than actual speech.
So when is it that the silent protagonist started to stick out? Well, for one thing, the silent protagonist we see most often is, quite unlike Mario, supposed to be a representation of the player. It’s a really different narrative technique, who’s origins are less in the vein of technological limitations but arise from the earliest eras of RPGs, in which the protagonist is supposed to be an insertion of the player.
This is back when video game RPGs still had a lot more in common with pen and paper RPGs and the idea of “role-playing” (that is, actually trying to act out your character’s behavior) was still very strong.
A lot of these games got away with this because the either had a single silent protagonist or a group of equally silent members (check out Etrian Odyssey
for a contemporary example) with very broad and sometimes quite simple quests, like exploring a dungeon for treasure. Hence, there’s nothing really defining the characters except for their stats and maybe a visual icon, which leaves the player free to imagine whatever they want about their characters (or not).
In the developer diaries for Etrian
, Kazuya Niinou mentions his wish for players to imagine their own stories about the characters they make. It’s a system that’s not even built in the game really- there’s no way that it matters what you imagine about the characters you make, but you’re still given the choice to pick their appearance. There’s not much in game reason for it, but it’s a wonderful touch to make the game more personal.
The Silent Protagonist Conundrum
Okay, so if the silent protagonist is so great, what’s the problem? Well, that is the problem right there-it’s the silent protagonist that’s great, and very often we see games in which the silent protagonist just isn’t. The problem comes when there are contradictions.
Remember when Half-Life 2
came out, and the PR tagline was “You are Gordon Freeman”? What they wanted to imply with that statement was that Gordon would take no action that the player didn’t direct. Total freedom, right?
Except, there’s one really big problem with that line. You’re not Gordon Freeman. Okay, right, obviously. But think of everything that implies, because you’re not necessarily white, male or MIT-educated (not to mention no hazard suit or guns). The point I’m trying to make is that the player is still just playing the part of someone else, even if the player has complete control over his actions.
The problem here is the Gordon Freeman is already exclusively defined. Sure, he doesn’t talk, but he has all sorts of backstory that severely limits what the player can imagine about him. Plus, it’s not as if Gordon is really in control of his actions. Sure, Gordon doesn’t do anything you don’t want him to, but he also can’t do things you want him to, either. You can’t shoot friendly targets, and most importantly of all, you can’t talk!
It’s not just that the player can’t make Gordon say things, it’s that his silence is a kind of weakness. Combat is thrilling because in a tangible way, the player is able make things happen, whether it’s defeating evil or protecting the innocent, or any number of reasons. But voice itself is very important power, even in action games. Without voice, it can often feel like the player is just being jerked around through the whole game like a puppet without any real power over what’s going on.
Only very rarely is this actually used intentionally (Portal
comes to mind) to make the player feel like they’re not in control of their destiny. It’s very effective at doing that, but too often it’s used as if it was a way of increasing the player’s agency- and it pretty much does the opposite.
The Freeman Question
So what if Gordon Freeman can’t talk? He’s still Gordon Freeman, and the player’s never going to be him. The thing is, I don’t believe that players care if it’s them making the decisions or the protagonist. When we watch movies, we cheer (or boo) the protagonists along the way, and identify with them (if they’re well written) and understand why they do the things they do - even if they’re things we wouldn’t do ourselves.
But we don’t know why Gordon Freeman does the things he does, making the whole Half-Life
experience kind of weird. In this respect, I think the first game was much better, since all you’re trying to do is survive which is an extremely basic and understandable human impulse. But in the second game, when you’re supposed to be some sort of savior, it makes you wonder why you’re doing through all this trouble.
In fact, I don’t want to pick on poor Gordon too much. Half-Life
does a very good job of working the silent protagonist. One of the feelings that defines that game for me is the irony of his last name. Especially in the first game, he’s a victim of circumstance, and the player spends the whole game trying to get him out of the biggest mess in the world. His silence is great, not just because he’s alone, but because I found myself agreeing with it.
The silence is powerful, letting the player know they’re just an observer, fighting against things they can’t understand or communicate with. The military wants to kill you, Xen wants to kill you, and the scientists just like to hear themselves talk. The only person who actually cares what you have to say is the G-Man at the end, and it’s the one time that you can really respond to another character, even if it isn’t though words.
Video games are often compared to movies. I think that’s accurate, although not in the way that it’s usually presented. In fact, I’d say games are closer to plays. The director is the game designers, the game itself is the script, the player is an actor.
Actors have a lot of wiggle room they interpret the lines and perform them, in ways that the director or scriptwriter may never have thought about or intended. But on the other hand, the actor can’t go outside of the script. Just like a game may have all sorts of alternate paths and endings, but the player can’t go outside them.
I think the point really is that players have no problem being actors, even in roles that may be very different from themselves. I think many players want to expand their range a bit more than designers give them credit.
[Andrew Vanden Bossche is an English and Creative Writing major at Oberlin College. He began gaming on his father’s Apple SE with classic games like Dark Castle and Crab Attack – hitting weak points for massive damage long before it was popular. His education includes console RPGs and Macintosh shareware games. He’s currently playing anything he can get to run on his Mac, since beggars can’t be choosers.]