Club Tropeicana: Silent Protagonists

Gerry Hart breaks the silence on protagonists that refuse to speak their minds

Gerry Hart
29th November 2016
Image Credit: Valve

Silent protagonists are more than anything else an invention of necessity. Early games didn’t have the technical capabilities for voiced dialogue and rarely had the space available for much written dialogue to substitute it, and for a while this was perfectly ok as few games had particularly nuanced narratives.

As time has passed and gaming storytelling has evolved many have come to view silent protagonists as antiquated and shallow in the face of their voiced counterparts. Such a view, however, doesn’t do them credit.

The primary argument used against silent protagonists is that they barely qualify as characters at all. Their silence affords them no opportunity for verbal self-expression and stilts their interactions with other characters, which in turn hinders their character development. My objection here is that characters can express themselves and communicate through more than just their voice. In their video on Metroid: Other M, Extra Credits highlighted how much we can actually infer from the series’ previously silent protagonist Samus Aran, chiefly that she opted for a career in bounty hunting, a dangerous job that also entails a free spirit. Similarly in his analysis of the latest Doom’s protagonist, Jim Sterling noted that despite his silence, Doomguy was surprisingly expressive, demonstrating a violent hatred for all demonkind and a seething contempt for his manipulative allies, all through his in-game actions. This is to say nothing of the silent protagonists who can express themselves through text based dialogue such as in the Elder Scrolls games.

Immersion is another contested area in this debate. Detractors of silent protagonists argue they can impede one’s immersion due to their silence in a verbal world, whilst their defenders argue that silent protagonists can provide a “tabula rasa” onto which the player can insert themselves into the game’s world, and I believe there is something of value in this. Such characters might not be particularly deep in and of themselves but they can allow players to insert their persona onto them and define them through their actions, which in games that require the player to make genuinely tough choices can make for powerful experiences.

I also think its important to challenge the assumption that voiced protagonists are inherently better, an argument best demonstrated by cases where silent protagonists have been unsilenced by their developers. The most glaring example is the aforementioned Metroid: Other M which was heavily criticised for its handling of Samus Aran. Granted bad writing plays a part here but voiced characters can often provide for a much more singular experience. I found Fallout 4’s voiced protagonist for instance to be far less engaging than their silent predecessors. Try as I might, my self-made Ryan Gosling lookalike was not “my character” but rather Fallout 4’s. They had a defined voice with defined vocal inflections, reinforcing their defined life and defined goals, all of which clashed with Fallout’s traditionally freeform gameplay.

None of this is to say I dislike voiced protagonists. They certainly have their place and I feel gaming would be markedly worse off without them. But for the reasons outlined I believe their silent counterparts are just as valid and important to the medium as they are. So perhaps in future we can stop worrying about how Doomguy buys his groceries when he only communicates through heavy ordnance and gurning.

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