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 Space. Dead 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