Silent protagonists don’t work anymore, is the opinion of LFG writer Rory Mullan. Less Half-Life, more Metal Gear? Read on as he explains…
Let’s just get something out the way: I like Half-Life. I like Half-Life a lot. I like its setting. I like Alyx, Eli, Doctor Kleiner, Barney, Lamar and the rest of the gang. I like the idea of Gordon Freeman, but I don’t like how his character never talks. According to Wikipedia: “In video games, a silent protagonist is a player character who lacks any dialogue for the entire duration of a game with the exception of occasional interjections or short phrases. A silent protagonist may be employed to lend a sense of mystery or uncertainty of identity to the gameplay, or to the player better identify with them.”
As far as I’m concerned, games are the best medium for telling stories. They bring a unique quality of interactivity. Look: I’m not going to ramble on about this aspect too much because you’ve all heard it before, but in many ways games are ready for telling stories beyond what can be achieved in film and novels. With games you can create your own stories almost on the fly and a balance can be found between a scripted, defined protagonist and this.
Let’s cast our minds back to 1998. Half-Life is released and the word is set on fire. People are angry that their computers can’t run it, but that is beside the point. Critics are loving the silent protagonist and are pleased with the introduction of this concept, they somehow like it because Gordon Freeman can be identified with (he is a theoretical physicist who hits headcrabs with a crowbar).
Although many would not care to admit it, the base construct of a silent protagonist presents a significant problem. It is lazy story telling. Yep. You read that right. It is far more engaging when your character exists as an entity where his interactions with other people extends beyond rebels or Atlas barking orders at you. I’d hate to say – and I apologise if this offends you – but Valve made a lazy decision in Half-Life because at the time it couldn’t really be done and it just happened to work out. You are awesome if you played Half-Life, but do you remember any interesting banter between characters (outside of a few trivial conversations between scientists) that is even comparable to the dialogue in Half-Life 2? And I’d hate to break it to you, but the reason characters in Bethesda games don’t talk is because it would be impossible to record all that dialogue couple with the fact the Elder Scrolls, Fallout et al are free-form RPGs – not story driven romps.
Even in artistic BioShock, raise your hand if you thought Jack was a more interesting protagonist then Booker. Let me break it down for you; Jack gets orders snarled out him through a speaker and Booker reacts dynamically with Elizabeth as they lounge around Columbia. Booker shows that behind the pistol or the rifle there is a real person with real opinions but Jack feels like an impassive robot. It is a more engaging experience to be in the head of someone who actually has identifiable characteristics and motivations then a robot who doesn’t even splutter one opinion as the psychopathy and the pandemonium of Rapture around home.
When the characters that surround you are deep in conversation (or in the most extreme circumstances, speaking directly to you) it can produce an alienating impression with the nasty side effect of shattering immersion. When you arrive in City 17 and Alyx collects you for transport to the clandestine resistance base and she directs dialogue directly at you, it just feels weird and clunky. Or in Metro: Last Light, when Pavel takes you through the metro Nazi death camp and spends time asking questions directly at you it was a weird and worrisome feeling (not only because you were in a metro Nazi death camp). And even if developers can avoid placing you in situations like this, it still often doesn’t work. Why does Corvo not respond to anyone? When characters around you are in deep discussion and they address you directly, it is a restrictive, annoying feeling when you can not step up and interject opinion: it is a noticeable problem when your character chooses to remain silent.
Think of the godly speeches of Shepard aboard the Normandy as the fleet races towards earth to finally break the Reaper hold upon Earth, stirring emotion deep inside the player. This is a great example of when using dialogue by the protagonist can elevate the experience. Enhancing the experience to such a degree that you actually feel like you’re experiencing a direct event and that there is no antagonistic feeling of ‘Why isn’t my character speaking here?‘.
To be honest, I’ve probably been a speck too liberal with the use of the word ‘character’. Gordon and Jack are not characters. What can you really say about them, as characters? Not much, really. Not to beat around the bush, Valve and Irrational did not create characters, they created aesthetics to hold weapons and go through levels. The only reason both are so memorable is because of an antithetical cast of characters, situations and the overarching narrative.
And there you have it, why silent protagonists don’t work. Let’s think of some of the best protagonists: Adam Jensen (hey, I liked him!), Shepard, Booker and they all speak. In this day and age, it simply is not good enough for developers to scrape by without it. You can’t just define a character by their environments these days, not in our medium.
Don’t get your coat just yet; as hinted, there is a balance to be found! Games like MineCraft, DayZ and, gee, even Half-Life and BioShock to a certain extent can produce stories. When developers can hit the sweet spot with a creative, developed protagonist and an engaging dynamic world it is as glorious as D-Day. If this trend can become common; we are going to see a Renaissance of games.
– Rory Mullan