Silent protagonists are a thing, and they’ve been a thing for a hell of a long time, particularly in the early decades of video games. The problem with them being a thing, in addition to understanding why they are, is that they--quite frankly--frustrate and kind of annoy me.
I say that because I reached a point in my video gaming passion about a year ago where I had a bit of an epiphany regarding silent protagonists, and it happened during a playthrough I was watching of the Crysis sequel, Crysis 2.
I won’t spoil the scene in great detail for those who have yet to play the game, but there’s an incident where the main protagonist is caught as being the imposter of someone else. Because the character is silent, he can’t explain to the other guy who he is and why he is in the attire of someone else.
I remember thinking at the time something along the lines of, “well, just tell him what’s happened, guy! Jeez!”
From that initial seed of thought, I’d look back every once in a while to any game I’d played within the past six years plus and refresh myself with titles that featured a silent protagonist, such as the original Dead Space or the Half-Life series.
I had a similar discussion with my partner soon after the epiphany, and she explained--from her point of view--that a silent protagonist is there for the player to project themselves onto said character.
We continued the discussion until we concluded between ourselves that a character can be silent so players can conjure up the character’s own personality and background by using the game’s narrative as an influence.
While this is most likely true in the larger scheme of things, I can’t help but feel still quite annoyed at silent protagonists. Sure, games like Dead Space and Half-Life are pretty good games in their own right, and they didn’t necessarily need a talking protagonist at the time, but it’s a subjective preference of mine that I think would’ve helped flesh out the character even more.
Of course, I can’t rule out the consideration of there being some sort of narrative-driven explanation for the character being silent, or whether or not it was the stylistic choice of the developer, because that would be unfair. You want your characters to be silent? Okay. Do have an explanation as to why they’re silent? Event better! Plus there’s the consideration of development costs for voice acting.
While these points are indeed valid when fleshing out the protagonist of a game, I can’t help but render silent characters obsolete in the wake of protagonists who have a character of their own (not to mention a voice in which to express said character as well). You can be fine with playing a silent protagonist, that’s totally okay--I’m just saying I’m not.
This switch in perspective happened when I first played Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine, where every character--including the main one--had a voice. Of course I’ve played games where the main character actually spoke in-game and not just in cutscenes--the Mass Effect trilogy, the Grand Theft Auto series after GTA III, Prince of Persia and so on--but the switch in perspective made me actually pay attention to the main character and his companions in Space Marine a lot more, because rapport and conversation would happen throughout the entire game.
Having been spoiled by such a thing, and by games featuring talking protagonist thereafter, I found that I soon enjoyed playing games with characters who actually spoke their own character instead of me having to project an aspect of my own personality onto said character.
Having said that, that doesn’t mean projecting aspects of yourself onto a character shouldn’t be ruled out entirely, as little influences of yourself in an already mostly-fleshed-out character can help you become more attached with said character and the narrative the character is in (case in point the Mass Effect trilogy)--that I’m okay with.
What I’m not okay with is playing a voiceless character who’s told what to think through NPC interaction rather than given an option to choose what to think or have said character state their thoughts.
I guess you could say I’m kind of tired of projecting myself on to a blank slate of a video game character, because “I am the character”.
Fortunately, games that usually do feature a silent protagonist--at least in my experience--have pretty engaging and memorable background characters (case in point Half-Life 2), so they make up for the fact that I have to play as “me” in said game, with an addition of narrative-driven influences that help flesh out the main character for me. Perhaps maybe that’s the point in some games? Possibly.
For the record: I’m not saying games that feature silent protagonists are bad, I’m just saying silent protagonists that feature in games are a little annoying. Thankfully, games that do have a silent main character usually feature pretty awesome backing characters, so that’s good.
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