What ‘Ys Seven’ Seems to Have Against Its Protagonist

I can’t think of a single element in Ys Seven that I haven’t seen reiterated ad nauseum in a dozen of other games in the last ten years — a period in which by any measure the game would still be classified as outdated. We can go back and forth on the merits of game structuralism, the merits of innovation versus convention. Surely, for fans of traditional JRPGs (and I’d count myself among them), the appeal of the familiar is itself a large selling point. But like any creature that’s evolved in relative isolation for one too many generations, there’s a specificity to Ys Seven‘s design the function of which I just cannot understand.

Namely, it is the way that it integrates its silent protagonist.

Unless you’re very careful, silent protagonists stick out like sore thumbs even in the best of narrative heavy games, far less the more unpolished ones. The idea is immersion, or so I’ve always been told. However, in a structure where your subjectivity is already compromised — a third person image of a character with a name and background all very much distinct from yours is quite a ways away from a blank template of the first-person perspective — the silent protagonist rarely sees satisfying execution. Link’s pantomimes, Jack’s lack of questions toward Atlus, the impenetrable ellipses of Shining Force or Suikoden, all of these characters speak to a frustration with gameplay rather than a player’s unity with it — in this gamer’s experience. These are not tabletop heroes that we have classed, named, and designed ourselves; they’re largely preset characters whose roles in their narratives seem represented by an auditory absence, rather than player presence. The lack of a voice doesn’t confer agency or subjectivity.

Still, I would argue silence in a protagonist makes sense in games that are more abstracted from an explicit narrative. As I have already written previously, Limbo excels in its use of silence as atmosphere. The tension of encountering those Lost Boys-esque “other children” is in how menacing and alien they and I seemed to one another. Even if we could speak, what would we say? Then, as Jeffrey Matulef of GameSetWatch notes, there are some games, like Okami, in which it makes sense diagetically if we can’t talk directly (“I Have No Mouth and I Must Save the World”, GameSetWatch, 3 September 2010). We can contrast these games with a full-length RPG like Ys, in which dialogue comes at a fairly constant clip. The gaps created by one character’s unexpressed lines is less abstraction than it is distraction.

The problem particularly with Ys isn’t that Adol doesn’t speak but that the player isn’t provided with even an oppositional means to fill in flat characterization. Adol’s lines are not left blank like the ellipses-prone protagonists of Shining Force; they’re explicitly and mundanely summarized in green text, so we can be sure what the character is saying.

If a game removes something, ideally it should be to allow the player to gain something else. Perspective, for instance, or the means for self-reflection. Conversely, it feels like there is no strategic function to this game’s line summaries at all. For as serviceable as the majority of Ys Seven‘s script is, it would have been just as functional to actually give him lines and leave it at that.

Not having played the other Ys games, I’m only aware that this is a typical trait of the series, which went so far as to redo those installments which deviated from the mold. So, clearly (its narrative functionality aside), it’s a characteristic that works for fans. In one light, I could see it as appropriate — like other silent protagonist games (Persona comes to mind), the rest of the cast is so vibrant that it’s in some ways acceptable that the protagonist fade into the background.

But then we have another problem, in that (at least in this installment) Adol is only nominally the protagonist. Similar to Star Ocean, you can toggle amongst party members instantaneously on the field, meaning that at any point your player character could be any of a number of teammates. Adol’s role as the hero mostly becomes clear only during dialogue sequences. Of the few times where he’s asked to make a decision, his choices seem fairly arbitrary, more for the creation of pauses or setting up side quests than directing the flow of the story. Real executive decisions don’t require player input at all. They’re just part of the narrative.

All of this manages to make the clunkiness of Adol’s summarized voice even more frustrating. The device seems frankly at odds with everything else the game is doing, which kicks me as the player right out of the experience. The more that a fan is used to a device, obviously the less noticeable it becomes, but does that necessarily create a play experience through the game or simply despite it?