Silent protagonists will always be awkward in video games, but there’s one easy way to avoid a lot of that awkwardness. Don’t make them a leader.
Much has been written about silent protagonists in games, and whether or not their silence really aids in our immersion. However, regardless of what you think of them, they almost always share a certain important personality trait. They're followers. From Gordon Freeman to Link to the amnesiac hero of Bioshock, the silent protagonist is one who takes orders. They're told what to do and how to do it. This makes perfect sense. If we can't talk, we certainly can't give orders, so we may as well be the one taking them instead.
Battlefield 4 breaks this mold, giving us a silent protagonist that others often turn to for advice. It's awkward, bizarre, and unintentionally funny, but also kind of fascinating when you try to piece together what exactly makes it so awkward and bizarre and unintentionally funny.
Things first get awkward at the end of the second mission in Battlefield. We're sent to Shanghai to extract some very important person and things naturally go sideways. In the end, as we're escaping the city by water taxi along with several boats of refugees, an EMP bomb goes off and knocks out power as far as the eye can see.
Our teammate Irish starts freaking out and shouting at the refuges to follow us, that we'll give them shelter and protection. Our other teammate, Pac, tries to interfere. The strange part is that we're the one in command. We're the leader of this squad. These two men shouldn't be squabbling with each other. They should be looking to us for orders. The game subtly acknowledges this chain of command when Irish looks directly at the camera while saying, "We can't just leave them here, Pac." He's still technically talking to Pac, but by looking at us, the game makes us complicit in his actions. Our silence becomes agreement.
Yet not five minutes later, when we're back aboard our ship and the refugees have been saved, we get a one-on-one conversation (or would it be a monologue?) with Pac in which he laments that Irish broke the chain of command. "A unit member should never overstep what the leader decides. That's just bad for unit cohesion... When it comes down to it, that was your call to make, not Irish's."
We're repeatedly told that our ship can't support this many refugees, but with war breaking out in China, should we just leave them behind? The game wants to put us at the center of this moral issue, but since we're a silent character and we can't actually comment on the issue, the game tries to comment for us, only ending up awkwardly placing us on both sides of the issue: We give our unspoken permission to Irish, only to be told later that Irish overstepped. The actual morality of the issue gets lost in the confusion over our voice. Our silence forces us, and the rest of the characters, into conflicting roles.
(And note that I'm not saying Battlefield 4 needs some kind of branching narrative. When I talk about "our voice" I mainly mean the voice of our avatar -- his voice, his beliefs, his personality. If the game wanted to create a branching narrative that allows the player's voice to be heard that would be fine, but if our avatar just said a couple things to establish his own moral baseline, that would be fine too.).
Irish wants to help the refugees, in this he becomes the Voice of Morality. That’s a fine role, and it’s certainly good to have a voice of morality amid all of the the action and bombast, but just one mission later, he loses that moral high ground when he berates a woman, Hannah, who joins your squad. Irish becomes an asshole, and his only attempt at justification (“You haven’t done anything for me. Trust is earned.”) makes him out to be even more of an asshole.
Pac is supposed to be the Voice of Reason, the one who reminds us of the logistics of taking on too many refugees, but he’s forced to become the Voice of Authority when Hannah and Irish bicker over their forced trust issues. You may be the actual ranking authority figure of the group, but you don’t talk, so you have no real authority. As a result, you come across as incredibly poor at your job.
The game clearly wants to set up its cast so that you represent Authority, Irish represents Morality, and Pac/Hannah represent Reason. Ideally, you’d be forced to do some morally questionable things throughout the campaign, your squad would argue over the ethics of the situation, and then you/your avatar would make a decision. In this way, the game could create some sort of thematic commentary on these events or these philosophies. This never happens because we’re unable to take on our desired authoritative role, so other characters are forced into it instead, and thus the balance between the cast falls apart.
Our silence prevents us from ever becoming an active participant in this world. We can only ever be a free floating camera that’s either ignored or lectured to, and when we're addressed with complex issues, we can only ever respond with a blank stare.
Silent protagonists will always be awkward, but there’s one easy way to avoid a lot of that awkwardness. Don’t make them a leader.