Opinion: Silent Protagonists Don’t Work

halflife2

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…

"What do you think, Gordon? Gordon? GORDON?!"

“What do you think, Gordon? Gordon? GORDON?!”

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).

There are many reasons why the Big Daddies were front and centre of BioShock's PR - Jack was a non-entity.

There are many reasons why the Big Daddies were front and centre of BioShock’s PR – Jack was a non-entity.

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.

The controversy over Snake's voice actor in MGSV shows just how much fans identify with a speaking character.

The controversy over Snake’s voice actor in MGSV shows just how much fans identify with a speaking character.

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

Agree? Disagree? See both sides? Let us know in the comments below, on Twitter @lowfatgaming or on our Facebook community page.

5 comments on “Opinion: Silent Protagonists Don’t Work

  1. Corvo was definitely a character! His interactions with Emily, all the books that mention him, and all the snippits of gossip about him built his character. He doesn’t talk because dialogue suggests direction, and Dishonored is all about there being no clear direction for you to take, and to approach your missions in whatever way you see fit.

    Like

    • I agree. I think, generally, if a game is “free-form” or open-world the silent should be mostly silent. If it’s a story-driven game, then the character should speak – especially FPS. There are obvious exceptions; I’d hate Link to suddenly start speaking! It’s an interesting discussion though. – Dave

      Like

      • I, on the other hand, want a talking Link as it allows Nintendo to create a deeper plot, give Link some character development and make Link’s quest feel more personal.
        I actually wrote a book about Link, a book titled “Innocent Sin: The Three Heroes of the Triforce”.
        In this book Link travels to the future and gets suddenly thrown in a conflict between the New Hylia, a resistance movement, an evil corporation named Honda Zaibatsu and some robotic aliens called Godcrafts.
        In this book Link is perfectly able to talk and, if Link was a mute, the ending would have been a lot less emotional.
        After a fight against the Honda CEO, Link meets Hylia, who reveals that Link was sent to the future just to cause a genocide but, because Link himself had bonded with other people, he doesn’t want to do that genocide, so he fights against Hylia, despite not wanting to kill her.
        In this situation, the words Link himself speaks are the only thing that shows how Link feels about having to choose between killing the goddess he used to worship or destroy a city and kill all humans in it.
        Link’s companions don’t know anything about Link’s past and his relationship with Hylia because Link comes from a different place and a different age, so Link’s culture is very different from his companions’s one.
        The book ends with Link refusing to kill Hylia because she has finally realized that she was no different from the people she wanted to kill and Hylia committing suicide using the Master Sword.
        Link then regrets everything he had done in the past, throws away the Master Sword and joins a communist criminal organization named the Red Star Brigade under the name of Artyom Lenin.
        Do you like this kind of ending or not?
        And, if you like it, do you agree that a story like this feels way more emotional with Link actually showing a personality or not?

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I, on the other hand, want a talking Link as it allows Nintendo to create a deeper plot, give Link some character development and make Link’s quest feel more personal.
    I actually wrote a book about Link, a book titled “Innocent Sin: The Three Heroes of the Triforce”.
    In this book Link travels to the future and gets suddenly thrown in a conflict between the New Hylia, a resistance movement, an evil corporation named Honda Zaibatsu

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I, on the other hand, want a talking Link as it allows Nintendo to create a deeper plot, give Link some character development and make Link’s quest feel more personal.
    I actually wrote a book about Link, a book titled “Innocent Sin: The Three Heroes of the Triforce”.
    In this book Link travels to the future and gets suddenly thrown in a conflict between the New Hylia, a resistance movement, an evil corporation named Honda Zaibatsu

    Liked by 1 person

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