Zarathustran Analytics in Video Games, Part 4: Player Input via the Silent Protagonist

L.B. Jeffries

The Zarathustruan Analytics series continues with L.B. Jeffries' thoughts on player input.

Part of the reason this analytical method is named after Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra is to do justice to the individualized nature of player input, to put aside judging a game purely by the game play or plot and go beyond that to analyzing the actual experience of a game itself. The problem is...although critics are quite capable of analyzing their own experience from playing a game, it is not quite so easy to apply that analysis to others. Indeed, this critical method is more an approach to assessing the experience creating methods in a game rather than the individual experience itself. The player input, then, is literally your connection to the game because it keeps you interested and playing. To that end, when critically judging player input, you are looking at how the game and story react to your input and the impact this has on the overall experience. Rather than go into the huge variety of ways games do this, we'll do an analysis of one of the more controversial player input methods that's prevalent in games today and use it to highlight the requirements of player input itself.
There has been a great deal of criticism over the silent protagonist in video games recently and for good reason: they're suddenly everywhere. Out of the top ranking games of 2007, almost all of them involve playing characters who don't speak. Gordon Freeman from Half-Life never utters a word. Master Chief hardly speaks, and Link does little more than grunt. It's tempting to dismiss the feature as simply a cop-out on the part of the creators, and yet there are certainly games that have used the device effectively. Why does the connection of not letting a player's character speak work in some games and in others supposedly break-down?

The silent protagonist is essentially a crutch. The argument for using them would go along the lines of, "Rather than risk our main guy saying something the player doesn't like, we'll have him not speak at all." It ensures people maintain a personal connection and are never broken out of the game experience. Yet at what point does the player's desire to speak start to work against that goal? When does being unable to speak interfere with plot or game? Andrew Bossche, in an article for Gamasutra, outlines several key flaws to the silent protagonist as an immersive quality. First, we already know what a character like Master Chief or Gordon Freeman looks like. They have a background, an identity, and a way that people react to them. People already believe they are playing someone else, why not just have them speak while you're at it? The numerous incidents of people speaking around you and handing you objectives with little discussion ultimately weakens the protagonist, and that crutch breaks the connection. Bossche ends his essay by declaring that players think of themselves as actors rather than directors in a game. They are inhabiting a role while the game designer outlines the scene and motivation for the actor. Speaking should just be another part of that role.
There's merit to that argument and yet also a distinct flaw to it. Being an actor implies you have an audience. You are communicating the idea of a person to someone else by your actions. On numerous levels, video games do that. If you've never checked out the website bonersgames, then at least watch some of his YouTube work. The man plays video games well enough that people watch them just to see the story unfold. He'll pause to let tension develop, act confused just as the main character is feeling, and essentially plays the game to emphasize the very experience that the designers meant for the player -- all for the sake of people watching his videos on YouTube. What boner's performance implies (insert snicker here) is not so much that gamers should consider themselves actors but that the outside observer is an essential ingredient to any player connection. Simply put, having someone watch you makes you connect with the game.
But how do you incorporate the idea of an audience into a game that is inherently single-player? Rather than expect everyone to be a YouTube star, games instead incorporate the player into the role of both audience member and actor. You both "act" in the game and then "watch" your actions unfold. That's one of the inherent benefits in a game where I constantly watch my avatar and it is in this setting the most successful silent protagonists exist. Both Zelda and Super Mario manage to make this dual act/watch exchange work with just body language and silent gestures. The protagonists never talk and the vast majority of players seem to agree that they never should. Yet there is still a deep personal connection with these heroes. The more you strengthen Link, the more you develop these characters, the more they become an investment. You become the actor because you're their guide and success comes from how responsibly you take care of them. If Mario dies, it's because I screwed up. If Link falls into the lava, it's because I dragged him there. And for all of these mistakes and consequences, there is the visual feedback of seeing this happen in front of you. You are the audience to your own progress in the video game.
Going back to the FPS genre, the real problem with the silent protagonist is that the player can become too much actor, not enough audience. That's not necessarily an issue of control so much as it accepts that I want to see everyone's, including the protagonists, reactions to how much I just kicked ass playing as them. The original Doom and Wolfenstein worked this in by featuring a face icon staring back at you. It reminded you of the consequences for your screw-ups and your character's happiness if you were kicking butt. A game like Halo is able to make Master Chief's quiet demeanor work because the player enjoys frequent moments of being reminded of how cool Master Chief is because of his military prowess (a.k.a. when you're playing). Scenes such as the one where the marines all point at Master Chief like a celebrity as he walks off a drop ship may be corny, but the psychological feedback that Master Chief is a badass also helps connect the cause and effect of your actions to your overall experience. This principle functions the same way in a Zelda or Mario game: the player connects by taking responsibility for them, yet they still want that audience member aspect so they can watch their progress. What this means for a game like Half-Life is not so much that Gordon Freeman should talk but that we need to see him do something outside of our absolute control as actor. The lack of satisfaction that can come from a silent protagonist is because we're not shown the results to all our playtime. If we don't get some kind of cut scene, grimace, or anything from the protagonist to watch, then the input weakens the overall experience.
I don't mean to dismiss Bossche entirely, and as I noted, I think there are players out there who can fully achieve the actor experience by simply being observed by others. But it makes little sense to think that a player should be the actor in a game and still criticize the silent protagonist. After all, what role is easier to assume than one that says nothing, expresses nothing, and merely acts? The problem with the silent protagonist is that they are a safety measure in a game, not a connection with it. It's a way to make sure I don't find Link stupid or Gordon offensive. But the silent protagonist works in a third person game because of the actor/audience hybrid experience of watching the character as you control them. It can work in an FPS, but only by occasionally reminding the player of their progress through third-person visuals and scenes. We, the actor/audience, need those moments of seeing our character to connect to the experience. It is within that structure that we define what a player input system should always provide: a way to impact the setting through the game design and a story in which those actions have meaning.

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