Does Silence Speak in the Loudest Voice?: Misconceptions about Silent Protagonists in Video Games
Granted, Link does “hiyah,” “eyah,” and “ahh” his way through all of his post-64-bit adventures, but no amount of elfish interjections can change his status as a silent protagonist. Is a failure to communicate much, a failure to communicate?
As far as narrative and gameplay mechanics go, the silent protagonist has a long and venerable history in video games. In fact, it is only a slight exaggeration to say that the silent protagonist has been around as along as the medium itself. In the late 70s, the text-based RPGs Colossal Cave Adventure and Zork featured silent protagonists borrowed straight out of the D&D tradition, and the advent of graphical interfaces gave the first Ultima game’s playable character an overworld to explore, though it scrimped on the verbal niceties. Even video game poster boys Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog began their careers as taciturn adventurers, and after a decade of imitation-Italian gibberish and “too cool for school” rhymes, I wish things had remained that way. Yet, despite how enduring and wide-spread its usage may be, the silent protagonist remains one of gaming’s most misunderstood tropes.
The confusion comes not from what a silent protagonist is but from what it is thought that it can do for the player’s gaming experience. As the theory goes, inserting a speechless playable character into a narrative-centric game yields the digital equivalent of the tabula rasa, and upon this blank slate, the player may imprint whatever personality she wishes. Or, as Zach Sensei puts it on his blog:
When playing a game with a silent protagonist there is no clear distinction between your voice and theirs. Having a silent protagonist is one of the best ways to ensure the player has a more personal connection to the protagonist. When another character in a game talks to the silent protagonist our emotional reaction becomes the hero's reaction. We are no longer forced to accept the character's emotional responses if they are different than the way we would behave. “Silent Protagonist”, The Art of Gaming 101, 15 Aug. 2011)
This idea essentially reverses the dynamic found in traditional narrative forms such as cinema , in which the character’s voice, thoughts, and personal journey are his own and are only displayed to the viewer. More importantly, it seems logical. The less input that a developer has on a playable character's personality and character development then the more agency the player should have. Greater agency breeds more interactivity, and more interactivity equals a deeper level of immersion. However, I understand this notion to be restrained by three misconceptions regarding the silent protagonist and its relation to the player, to non-playable characters, and to the story. A closer look at these misconceptions reveals that simply muting a game’s hero does not enhance the player’s immersion any more or any less than games with talking protagonists.
Misconception: A silent protagonist is a blank slate for the player to write on
A player will always leave a unique fingerprint upon her gaming experience. It’s a given in this medium. However, this misconception arises from the belief that a player’s voice, emotional responses, and subconscious thoughts become those of the playable character by virtue of its silence. To begin with, a silent protagonist is often anything but silent. Although it may not utter a single line of dialogue throughout an entire 30-40 hour campaign, a silent protagonist does employ facial expressions and use body language. These instances of non-verbal speech are generally brief, but since they lay outside of the player’s control, they define the playable character to the player rather than letting her agency shape its characterization. This fact can be illustrated by examining one of the most famous characters used to promote this misunderstanding’s veracity: Link from the Legend of Zelda series.
Granted, Link does “hiyah,” “eyah,” and “ahh” his way through all of his post-64-bit adventures, but no amount of elfish interjections can change his status as a silent protagonist. He doesn’t speak, non-player characters talk to, around, or through him, and only every now and then, the player gets to decide if his head shakes or nods during a dialogue sequence. According to Sensei, even his name refers to the “link” that the player is meant to have with him (“Silent Protagonist”, The Art of Gaming 101, 15 Aug. 2011), and it can be substituted for anything the player desires at the start of the game (though I’ve never seen him referred to as anything but Link except in instances of naming that occur during spates of extreme drunkenness and/or childishness).
But no amount of bad nominal jokes can change the fact that Link is a full character unto himself, complete with character arc and personality. Take The Wind Waker, for instance. At the beginning of Link’s character arc, he is a young, lazy boy with no responsibilities. As the game progresses, Link has an adventure and matures into adulthood -- well, slightly older boyhood, anyway -- by growing in strength, wisdom, and courage, the three thematic pillars of the Zelda franchise. It may not be the most original or dynamic of character arcs (of course, this is the company that thought Metroid: Other M had a solid story going for it), but it is an arc nonetheless and one that the player will follow no matter how many varied approaches they take towards gameplay.
Personality-wise, Wind Waker uses a cel-shaded graphical style to endow Link with a range of facial expressions. When Link first leaves Onset Island, his facial features are doleful and anxious, and Tetra remarks that she can tell that Link will get sentimental on her. While on his adventure, during cutscenes and the in-game sections, Link’s face can reveal him to be happy, angry, sad, confused, whimsical, hurt, enraptured, and more. Finally, when he leaves Onset Island at the game’s conclusion, his facial expressions brim with confidence and eagerness to start another adventure. Every one of these emotions, from the beginning of the game to the end, is produced by Link himself and is based on his placement in his personal arc. And these emotions are not limited to the newer Zelda titles. In A Link to the Past, Link has a variety of 16-bit expresses that the player has no control over. Perhaps most notable is the animated sprite used when he first enters the Desert Palace (the only place that this awestruck face is used in the entire game). In both cases, no input from the player can alter Link as a character.
The reason that a silent protagonist like Link can’t be a true blank slate is because a person’s reaction to any stimulus can have myriad responses, any one of which can be considered accurate and appropriate to the situation. Given this fact, it is hardly possible for programmers to account for every possible emotion that a player could engage in while witnessing any give event, or for that matter, even accommodate a way for the player to input the information via the system’s controller. Instead, by giving Link a character outside of the player's own (silent or no), the developers create a means for the player to connect with Link and his emotional response, not through the player’s agency alone, but through empathy. The player vicariously agrees with Link that worry is the proper response to being fired out of a cannon and into an inescapable pirate fortress of death or that he should shy away from any encounter with Tingle. Sure, it may be the same kind of empathetic connection that we have with characters in media like novels and movies, but when it’s done right, the experience is powerfully immersive nonetheless.
Misconception: The silent protagonists enhances interactions with NPCs
The second misconception proposes that a silent protagonist boosts the interplay between the player and the NPCs inhabiting the game’s world. The idea follows that if the protagonist doesn’t speak with the other characters, then any response imagined by the player can fill the void of interaction. But problems arise when we scrutinized this misconception within the context of two games from the first-person shooter genre: Half-Life 2 and Duke Nukem Forever.
No matter how one plays Duke Nukem Forever, the NPCs in the digital world will always regale Duke with the praise and adoration that all matter of manchild can only dream of. Should the player try to show the women of Duke Nukem’s world respect beyond considering them merely breast transportation devices, well, good on him, but the ladies will still debase themselves as per the enjoyment of Duke and not necessarily the gamer. The player can draw whatever he wants on the whiteboard in the game’s opening sequence, but the security guard will still act befuddled by Duke’s genius, not the player’s. This pattern persists throughout the game, and no action taken by the player can alter the NPCs’ views of Duke in any way, save for perhaps death, which only really amounts to a small hiccup in the game’s narrative.
One would think that Half-Life 2 would change this experience dramatically, since Gordon Freeman doesn’t speak a word, even to the game’s deuteragonist Alyx. Yet, as we saw in the example of Link's silence, Valve couldn’t possibly program Half-Life 2’s underlying structure to feedback on the infinite ways that a player could react to a circumstance. During any conversation sequence with Alyx, the player may choose to salaciously eye her up close or listen with candor but at a distance, or he may be uninterested in what she has to say and just stare at a particular bit of the paraphernalia in the game’s world, waiting for the sequence to end. The point is that none of these actions have any consequences within the gaming world, and Alyx will always flirt, be sincere, and joke about Freeman’s reticent nature at the same points across the campaign regardless of how the player chooses to represent Freeman in the game space. In the end, the silent protagonist may not lessen the interaction with the game’s non-playable characters, but the interaction is certainly not heightened by it either.
Misconception: Silent protagonists allow the player to make the story her own.
The third misconception asserts that having a silent protagonist increases the player’s immersion within the story. I won’t spend a lot of time repeating myself here, but once again, the developer is limited by the infinite ways that a player could engage with a narrative’s conflict and plot, and so the story’s path becomes mostly linear, barring a few possible offshoots here and there. For example, RPGs with silent protagonists often employ sections in which the player is asked to do something or go somewhere and is then prompted to answer yes or no. Whether it’s Chrono Trigger, Breath of Fire, Golden Sun, or The Illusion of Gaia, the illusion of narrative volition is actually a Hobson’s choice, and players can never answer in a way that will distort the necessary elements of the plot of the narrative. Answer yes and the game continues as normal. Answer no and the game prompts you to answer over and over again until you answer yes or an NPC redirects the conversation in a way that voids your choice entirely. Either way, the game pushes you down the path you were that you were intended to travel from the start.
But what about multiple endings and sidequests presented in games like Chrono Trigger? Well, it is true that multiple endings certainly do increase the kinetic consequences of the player’s actions, as different choices can result in wildly different outcomes. However, we again come to the counterargument that games with fully voiced characters are able to construct similar multiple ending scenarios, such as Grand Theft Auto 4, Prince of Persia: Warrior Within, and every Silent Hill game. The same can be said for sidequests. Also, the advent of a sequel generally cancels out this argument anyway. In the case of Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross’s story necessitated a canonical ending for Chrono Trigger (the Dino Age ending, for example, simply will not allow for a fit between the two plots), presenting Crono with a fixed characterization, through some dialogue on the side.
So, I hear you ask, what could advance interactivity and immersion in video games if not the silent protagonist? Well, it’s not a matter of whether or not a character talks, but rather how that character’s dialogue is handled through the game’s deep mechanics and narrative structure. I think the best example of this is Bioware’s Mass Effect with Dragon Age Origins, the Elder Scrolls series, and the Fallout series coming in right on its heels.
What sets these games apart are not purely how they deal with a protagonist’s dialogue, but the measured approaches that they take towards it. By providing the player with limited dialogue options, they create a narrative structure in which the player can have their chosen dialogue result in consequences in the game’s world, for its characters, and in its stories. I know it sounds counterproductive, as any predetermined option must at first glance seem to take immersion and agency away from the player. However, when the developer can dole out a certain number of interactive dialogue options at a time, they can also predetermine the various outcomes. Therefore, each conversation may then have a small or large -- but either way, meaningful -- effect. By incorporating the game with more and more instances of these branching paths, the developer exponentially multiplies the amount of total paths that the game may have.
Increasing interactivity this way leads to greater immersion for the player because they are witnessing and dealing with the direct alteration of the game based on their input, an agency that does not simply determine how they will get from part A to part B but what exactly part B will become as a result of their actions. Here we see that true immersion in a gaming experience is a middle ground between developer and player agency, not the “all or nothing” approach supposed by the silent-versus-talking protagonist.
Let me finish by saying that my goal here is not to suggest that the silent protagonist does not add any immersive quality to a video game. Quite the opposite is true. Silent protagonists do provide a wonderful means of accessing the play mechanics and narrative of a game, but it’s just simply not a means of increasing interactivity and immersion in and of itself. What I am instead trying to show is that what the silent protagonist once was (or what it was once thought to be) has changed with the medium. As video games continue to evolve, we must reconsider even the tropes engrained as deeply into gaming history as the silent protagonist, not only so we can reassess what they mean for our own gaming experience but also to reconsider aspects of the medium -- for example, the relationship between the developer and the player.
Either way, the silent protagonist can still have a lot to offer gamers. If nothing else, re-implementing the trope might make the next Sonic game far more enjoyable.