Games

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.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.


20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta



19. Antwood: Sponsored Content (Planet Mu)

Sponsored Content is a noisy, chaotic, occasionally beautiful work with a dark sense of humor that's frequently deployed to get Antwood's point across. For instance, throughout the aforementioned "Disable Ad Blocker", which sounds mostly like the creepy side of Tangerine Dream's early '80s experimental output, distorted slogans and recognizable themes worm their way into the mix. "I'm Loving It", we hear at one point, the Sony PlayStation startup music at another. And then there's a ten-second clip of what sounds like someone getting killed in a horror movie. What is there to make of the coexistence of those sorts of samples? Probably nothing explicit, just the uneasiness of benign and instantly-recognizable brand content in the midst of harsh, difficult art. Perhaps quality must to some extent be tied to sponsorship. That Antwood can make this point amidst blasts and washes of experimental electronic mayhem is quite the achievement. - Mike Schiller



18. Bonobo - Migration (Ninja Tune)

Although Bonobo, a.k.a. Simon Green, has been vocal in the past about not making personality driven music, Migration is, in many respects, a classic sounding Bonobo record. Green continues to build sonic collages out of chirping synths, jazz-influenced drums, sweeping strings and light touches of piano but on Migration sounds more confident than ever. He has an ability to tap into the emotions like few others such as on the gorgeous "Break Apart" and the more percussive "Surface". However, Bonobo also works to broaden his sound. The electro-classical instrumental "Second Sun" floats along wistfully, sounding like it could have fit snugly onto a Erased Tapes compilation, while the precise and intricate "Grains" shows the more intimate and reflective side of his work. On the flipside, the higher tempo, beat driven tracks such as "Outlier" and "Kerala" perfectly exhibit his understanding of what works on the dance floor while on "Bambro Koyo Ganda" he even weaves North African rhythms into the fabric. Migration is a multifaceted album full of personality and all the better for it. - Paul Carr


17. Kiasmos - Blurred EP (Erased Tapes)

The Icelandic duo of Olafur Arnalds and Janus Rasmussen, aka Kiasmos, is a perfect example of a pair of artists coming from two very different musical backgrounds, finding an unmistakable common ground to create something genuinely distinctive. Arnalds, more known for his minimal piano and string work, and Rasmussen, approaching from a more electropop direction, have successfully explored the middle ground between their different musical approaches and in doing so crafted affecting minimalist electronic music. Blurred is one of the most emotionally engaging electronic releases of the year. The duo is working from a refined and bright sonic palette as they consummately layer fine, measured sounds together. It is an intricate yet unforced and natural sounding set of songs with every song allowed room to bloom gradually. - Paul Carr



16. Ellen Allien - Nost (BPitch Control)

BPitch boss and longtime lynchpin of the DJ scene in Berlin, Ellen Allien's seven full-length releases show an artist constantly reinventing herself. Case in point, her 2013 offering, LISm, was a largely beat-less ambient work designed to accompany an artsy dance piece, while its follow-up, 2017's Nost, is a hardcore techno journey, spiritually born in the nightclubs and warehouses of the early '90s. It boasts nine straight techno bangers, beautifully minimalist arrangements with haunting vocals snippets and ever propulsive beats, all of which harken back to a hallowed, golden, mostly-imagined age when electronic music was still very much underground, and seemingly anything was possible. - Alan Ranta

It's just past noon on a Tuesday, somewhere in Massachusetts and Eric Earley sounds tired.

Since 2003, Earley's band, Blitzen Trapper, have combined folk, rock and whatever else is lying around to create music that manages to be both enigmatic and accessible. Since their breakthrough album Furr released in 2008 on Sub Pop, the band has achieved critical acclaim and moderate success, but they're still some distance away from enjoying the champagne lifestyle.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image