The bigger budgeted video games become, the more developers want to inject bombastic high-octane story telling into their narratives. What this requires is a rather large helping of traditional storytelling. So for the original Half-Life Valve brought on horror novelist Marc Laidlaw to pen the game. He went on to write all of the Half-Life series until he left Valve in 2016. It’s ironic then that in attempting to break the norm, Valve helped normalise the use of the silent protagonist in video games.
Resident writer Callum Marshall has helped make it clear that silence can be as vital to video games as noise. I want to do something similar, except in regards to the silent protagonist. I’ll first set out why they’re used, then how developers use them, and finally I’ll tackle just how players feel about the trope. So hopefully if you read this you’ll understand that the silent protagonist doesn’t necessarily deserve all the hate it gets.
Why the Silence?
Who are some of gamings greatest silent protagonists then? Gordon Freeman is arguably the most recognisable. But you’ve got characters like Link, Samus, hell even the main character from Myst is silent! I bring all these up because they’re used to achieve the same goal, so the developer can heighten, and I’m sorry to use this word… immersion.
Now let’s be honest, if every time Zelda said anything to Link in Breath of the Wild, he responded “excuuuuuuuuuuse me, Princess!” I think we’d all be taken out of the fantasy of Hyrule. That might be an extreme example, but my is this. Silence means the character is the player, and not entirely their own entity. It allows the player to assume emotional and physical control. So when used correctly it can accentuate a games narrative or general design.
Despite what people online might say, a user on Gamasutra puts it best:
“Personally, I think games with talking protagonists are much weirder. I take control of a character, and I might play helping old ladies across the street, returning people’s lost money, being a good citizen, then suddenly there’s a cutscene where my humble character starts cursing, says things I wouldn’t, and violently kills someone. Then I go back to being in control again.”
If a silent protagonist is used to increase a players sense of freedom, when that freedom is taken away to serve a narrative purpose the player loses connection. Games like Animal Crossing, Half-Life, Stardew Valley, and DOOM use this idea to it’s best effect. As these games are either so open ended they don’t need the character to speak, or so linear that the character not speaking helps the player to invest in what the game is trying to illustrate. They don’t sacrifice the silence for story. When you do that, people don’t like it.
So silent characters are used to help the player insert themselves, or illustrate the freedom they have in a game. But how exactly do developers make this happen then?
How Developers use the Silent Protagonist.
To start off this segment, I’m going to come back to Half-Life and Gordon Freeman. Let’s look at the start of the game as emblematic of the entire experience, shall we?
Half-Life opens in the strangest of places… a tram. For 5 whole minutes the player is given complete control of Gordon to look around and absorb the facility that is Black Mesa. So how does exactly does the silent protagonist fit into this?
Well, Gordon never says anything and this isn’t a cutscene. This is how the entire game is going to play out. Gordon’s silence, and the freedom it provides in this on rails segment, tells the player exactly how this is going to be. They now know, subconsciously, that whilst they’ll have some freedom to use the camera and explore they can’t deviate from a set path. Just as the tram can’t.
The silence is deafening, it allows the player to soak in this new type of FPS experience and become acutely aware of what is to come. Instead of some character monologue doing it for them.
Another way developers use the silent protagonist is to institute player freedom in regards to goals. Think about Animal Crossing, Stardew Valley, and especially Minecraft. The goal of these games is entirely player orientated, thus giving the character a voice in these situations would be superfluous and possibly distracting.
I think the reason people don’t like silent protagonists as much these days is because they’re placed in a ‘narrative framework’ — games that use silence to expand their storytelling technique — and the silence is then sacrificed for story. But silent protagonists aren’t just used in narrative games. That’s where the discrepancy lies. People mainly see the term as a way to describe characters in games where they could quite as easily talk, when that’s not the only games they’re in.
There’s so much room for these protagonists to be in different contexts that the term silent protagonist has many different meanings. But with that said, they’re mostly evaluated by players in terms of narrative experiences like Bioshock. Okay Bioshock is an unfair example, as that uses the trope and twists it.
But my point is this, silent characters aren’t just used in story driven games, and when they are, people expect them to be entirely mute. When that doesn’t happen, people don’t like it.
How do Players Feel?
When asking the question “How do we feel about Silent Protagonists?” it would be remiss of me to not include actual players opinions. After all these are the people who’ve played the games. It’s all well and good to read an editorial about why they don’t work, but that can leave us out of touch. So what’s the consensus?
A reddit thread from a few years ago poses this:
TL;DR — “A Silent protagonist is boring, doesn’t develop bonds with other characters, lazy writing, boring to watch really and I don’t care about their struggles. Agree or disagree? Post below.”
This statement places silent protagonists in the narrative framework, as it’s concerned with their interactions. So it supports the idea that players and developers only really think of them in terms of complex stories, and having a silent protagonist in these stories creates opportunity for problems. As any deviation can break the immersion.
But let’s see what people think.
One user said this:
I prefer the more Zelda style, where Link is largely “silent” but he has implied dialogue. He talks to people, it’s just not written in front of our faces.
I feel like filling in the blanks is a better style than dancing around the silentness.
What this player prefers is where a silent protagonist allows the player to insert themselves, but conversations aren’t left blank. Link will clearly say ‘something’ to keep the conversation moving. The player can then fill in the blanks and give the character personality, but not so much that it takes them out of the experience. It’s a difficult balance to strike. Giving the character enough to say to progress the story, but leaving them silent enough to immerse the player. Players don’t always seem to like the idea that a game is asking you to recognise its a game.
There are a fair amount of people who say that it takes them out of the experience though, which is understandable. They come from the point of “if this was real they would talk” — which in turn breaks immersion. From reading online players don’t like how, for example, you can name/create your character but they then have their own voice. Essentially most don’t want their sense of immersion lost at the sacrifice of the story.
It’s difficult because you can’t have it both ways. Your character can be silent sure, but this isn’t real life. For it to work certain concessions needs to be made. Be that the Zelda style filling in the blanks or the use of cutscenes where they say very little. It depends on what the game is trying to achieve.
One user disagrees though:
“You’re gonna be stuck with them from the beginning of the game to the end of the game. Having them be silent avoids the risk of giving them a really unlikable personality and also serves the purpose of letting you insert your own thoughts and feelings into that character.”
So in narrative games the purpose isn’t quite as cut and dry. Whilst some feel it breaks immersion others suspend their disbelief enough to insert themselves into the character. The player character can be a ‘tourist’ of the world around them, the world itself can be the story (Breath of the Wild style). In keeping them silent you let the world speak for itself. But then there might be no point letting the world speak for itself only for your ‘silent’ character to go “wow, so cool!”
In a way, the silent protagonist isn’t about being completely silent, but placing them in a context where the overall experience isn’t sacrificed by their lack of speech. Why do you think the Doom Slayer never says anything? Because he doesn’t need to, the gameplay speaks for itself.
Obviously this was only the tip of the iceberg, there’s a whole mass of opinions you can find. A reddit thread discussion is here!
Where Have They Gone?
You don’t see too many silent protagonists these days. If you do, they’ll typically speak up for cutscenes or story segments. They only truly exist in the aforementioned games about excessive player freedom. Mainly because in those contexts they don’t need to speak, ever. Their speech, if at all present, boils down to basic player decisions in text form, as to not sacrifice that freedom.
So they haven’t exactly disappeared, but it seems they’ve changed so much that online they are met with some negativity. As the frameworks they are placed in either sacrifice the silence itself on multiple occasions, or being silent on those occasions just doesn’t work. So players feel their immersion is then broken.
As the culture of games has changed, the place for a silent protagonist has mostly been lost. It seems developers and players alike struggle to understand their place. It also doesn’t help that they can’t stick up for themselves.