Silent Protagonist

I’ll come right out and say it: I don’t buy into silent protagonists.  But I should clarify.  It’s not that I don’t think silent characters in videogames can’t be interesting, or that silence makes a game weaker.  My issue with silent protagonists is the claim that they are silent in order for the player to project their own personalities onto the character.  It sounds good in theory, but certain games are not actually affected by the silence, and in some cases a protagonist that at least says something during the course of a game may actually make the game stronger.  I’d also like to clarify that I’m talking about games that have complicated story-lines that revolve heavily on character dialogue that possibly span multiple installments.

I’ll start with a game that pulls off having a silent protagonist well, which is Dead SpaceDead Space is a sci-fi/horror game that forces you, playing as the engineer Isaac Clarke, to navigate a derelict spaceship alone as your two superior officers give you objectives, and naturally you have to fight through hordes of monsters along the way.  This is the kind of game that doesn’t really require much dialogue, but that is because of the horror/survival atmosphere of the game.  If you were in this situation, you probably wouldn’t be doing much talking either, if at all, and you wouldn’t question the officers’ orders as long as they made sense.  Silence works for this game because it doesn’t rely heavily on dialogue, as most of the background information is discovered through audio and text logs found around the ship.

However, its sequel Dead Space 2 greatly increased the complexity of the story, and featured more dialogue and interaction between characters.  If the sequel portrayed Isaac silently again, I do not think the game would have been as strong.  Interactions would have seemed unnatural and even humorous at times.  By giving Isaac a voice, the game gives the player a voice as well, as he/she can adopt Isaac’s personality as if playing a character in a play or movie.  This illustrates my point that silence is not necessary for a player to feel a connection to the world they’re playing in, and he/she may even get more out of the experience by temporarily pretending to be the protagonist.

The big series that comes to my mind when I think of silent protagonist is The Legend of Zelda.  Link is a silent protagonist, and aside from grunts and battle cries, he doesn’t say a word.  The series creator Shigeru Miyamoto explains that Link is silent in order for the player to feel like they are in Link boots, effectively projecting the player’s personality onto Link.  But to be honest I’ve never felt like Link and I were one in the same.  Other characters might address him as “Thomas” but it always seemed a little ridiculous.  Link clearly has his own personality and emotions.  He’s clearly a good guy and wants to stop Ganondorf from taking over Hyrule.  What if I, the player, want to instead defeat Ganondorf and then take power for myself?  What if I want to be a complete jerk to everyone in the world?  I realize that that’s not the kind of game Zelda is, but these examples show that the character cannot be the player.  What I’ve discovered is that I’m not the one projecting my personality onto Link; Link is projecting his personality onto me.  This ties back to Isaac in Dead Space 2, where I felt more part of the events of the story because I was playing the part of Isaac, not the other way around.  I would feel more connected to the Zelda universe if I knew what Link was all about, and I believe that maybe just a little bit of dialogue might help.

Silence in protagonists isn’t damaging to a game by any means, but talking can always make it stronger.  Just as we are encouraged to speak up in class to give an instructor a better sense of what we are all about, so should protagonists in order for the players to understand what they’re getting themselves into.

Link to Shigeru Miyamoto interview of silent Link: Interview

  9 comments for “Silent Protagonist

  1. estackpo
    February 27, 2013 at 11:31 pm

    As much as I love the Legend of Zelda series, your argument is in line with my own thoughts on the subject. There are very few complex videogames that revolve around silent protagonists that I think truly allow the player to step into the shoes/boots of the player character with any greater success than a game involving speech, especially compared against controlled dialogue decision making. Beyond games like Limbo that have a basic pretense that is maintained/doesn’t need to be discussed, I have always found dialogue choices (or dialogue in general) a powerful tool for building the player/character connection. Think about a game like Mass Effect. It would basically turn into a Halo rip off if it didn’t have the dialogue choices and the empathetic aspects. I think genre choices can dictate whether or not a developer decides to integrate speech for a protagonist, but in a modern era of videogame production, I don’t see any reason why more protagonists cannot be allowed speech.

    I only let Legend of Zelda off the hook assuming it wants to maintain the nostalgia and set formula of the hero template.

  2. Kip Casper
    February 27, 2013 at 11:53 pm

    I’ll agree with you by calling out the big kahuna, Half Life 2. In order for a silent protagonist to work, it requires careful writing, timing, and interaction to keep the illusion that you are who the game claims you are. Nearly every single modern game I have played has failed at this.

    Half Life 2 throws the book at you. People trip over each other to worship you, they speak in hushed tones, Alyx casually flirts with you, and everybody tries to interact with Gordon organically. However, I never felt immersed. I never played the first Half Life before tackling the sequel, so my suspension of disbelief was shot. The backstory was largely irrelevant, and summarized by several NPCs. Gordon never explained himself, and for the game to progress he never had to. I still would have felt better to hear some casual banter explaining the events, or have him modestly deny doing anything that fantastic. Hearing Gordon say “it was nothing, I’m no hero” would have helped me believe he was a hero far more than hearing somebody else say “I can’t believe it, the Gordon Freeman!”

    Carefully crafted dialogue to make the player feel included always feels silly. In Half Life everybody gets in your face saying “what do you think Gordon? Huh?!?” just to have a convenient second NPC tell him or her to stop pestering me. Situations like this do way more harm for immersing the player in the story. It would have been better if Gordon simply said “I don’t really know… try asking Dr. Scienceman over there,” instead of the game actively reminding me that I am silent.

    I think the only way to have a silent protagonist is to have as few interactions as possible. Portal succeeded because the entire game is you, Glad0s, and turrets apologizing for their behavior. A million characters don’t have to pretend to have a conversation with you; nobody has to acknowledge your silence. Glad0s doesn’t pretend you are speaking back, nor do her conversations ever feel forced. When she acknowledges your silence, she starts harassing you. She teases you, insults you, and tries to get a rise out of you. It makes you feel way more heroic to stand your ground and not give this psychotic AI the time of day.

    Half Life would have tried to achieve this by every single NPC in the game saying “it’s Gordon Freeman! He is so silent and heroic!”

  3. peterguerber
    February 28, 2013 at 2:52 am

    I feel like the addition of a silent protagonist can be and has been used well, but only if the game enables you to identify yourself as the character and doesn’t ruin the illusion. It’s hard to feel like the Hero of Time when it turns out I’m speaking but just don’t realize it, like when my character introduces himself to others without saying anything. If the character needs to talk, they should talk; if the character isn’t supposed to talk, then they shouldn’t be put in a position where they need to talk. One final note though, I do appreciate it when developers realize the ridiculousness of the silent protagonist like in Half Life 2 and Portal 2 (“Say apple”), but it should be only be used in games that allow for a immersive, self-reflected character.

  4. William Hurley
    March 3, 2013 at 4:45 pm

    I fully agree with your point about Link being a separate character, despite Nintendo’s attempt to project the player onto him. He has no “voice,” so to speak, but he still interacts with characters and his environment in the way that Nintendo wanted him to, not the way that we want to. His motivations are his own and we attempt to guess them, performing actions that we most certainly would not in our own lives. Link smashes and destroys anything that isn’t bolted down to the scenery in the hopes of finding Rupees, while I think I can say with a degree of certainty that none of us would enter a potter’s studio and rampage through the place.

  5. Jonathan Horn
    March 15, 2013 at 6:07 am

    Personally, I’ve never really liked having a talkative protagonist. Take Far Cry 3 for example… Jason Brody? Insane. I cannot put myself in someone’s shoes when they’re doing and saying things that are so far from my own personality. That is a no-no, for me. However, if used right, a talkative protagonist isn’t bad. For instance, Saint’s Row 1, 2, and 3. Your character talks, but what they say is usually dependent on how you made them. That’s a yes-yes.

    — P.S. — Fable 3 was ruined by having a voiced protagonist… Ugh.

  6. Mamoru Fuun
    March 19, 2013 at 10:48 pm

    The most familiar silent protagonist for me would have to be just you in any pokemon game. I kind of don’t mind in this case that I don’t say anything, this is definitely a case where I just reflect my personality onto the characters by doing anything from screaming at my pokemon to wake up or from naming my rival something stupid.

    However as soon as generation 2 came out with gold and silver there has been one new feature I have always questioned, the addition of a cellphone for the SILENT protagonist. It has continued to be a feature since its original release and is still even feature in black and white. I understand its purpose for cases where you want to rebattle an NPC or for some other sort of sidequest but the game decides to give it the totally superfluous function of having random NPCs you don’t know or care about call you every 10 minutes.

    Maybe the creators intention was to make the game feel more real or maybe even let kids feel like they were more adult carrying around and receiving phone calls. Whatever the thought process on that was I still lament every time some fisherman calls to let me know how his 3 Magikarps are doing.

  7. Evan
    March 20, 2013 at 10:05 pm

    I’d have to agree with almost every point you made. As I child I never strayed away from naming my character Link in the Legend of Zelda games as I found it silly for it say “Evan”, if anything it broke the immersion. Although an issue I find with breaking his (or many other silent protagonists’) silence is an issue with changing gears – it’d be difficult to imagine Link putting his two cents into a discussion outside of his usual grunts and head nods, especially seeing as how they have focused so much on developing him as a character via his facial expressions.

    However, on the other hand with the Isaac Clarke, allowing him to speak certainly helped to develop his character. In the first game the most the player got was a heart-broken face palm, whereas in the second we were allowed to delve deeper into his reactions to the experience, it even allowed him use his engineering skills to plan solutions to certain obstacles and direct others, as well as develop relationships with said people. I think if they could successfully manage to break Link’s silence, his quest might become deeper and much more interesting.

    Here is another article you might be interested in: http://www.giantbomb.com/silent-protagonist/3015-54/

    Quick side-note: when typing in the keywords “Link”, “Silent”, and “Protagonist” into google, your blog entry is the third result out of roughly 2 million views, even in front of the escapist, wikipedia, and zelda informer.

    • Hughes
      March 20, 2013 at 10:35 pm

      Yes I’m famous!

  8. emartine
    March 20, 2013 at 10:51 pm

    For the topic of silent protagonists, I am kind of on the fence for this one because sometimes I think it is better for games to include silent protagonists. An example that comes to mind is Fallout 3 where your player never speaks but has the choice of which conversations your player can engage in. Opposite of Fallout 3 regarding the silent protagonist is the Mass effect series where you can still choose which conversations to pick but your Shepard actually repeats them out loud. I personally think that having a speaking protagonist doesn’t matter as long as the game feels immersive.

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