In Defense of Silent Protagonists

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Usually when I hear people say this, it's in response to things like 'Gordon Freeman is one of the best video game characters ever'. In that sense there is some validity refuting it. If Freeman is indeed a 'blank canvas', then how can he be a good character when he essentially has no attributes of his own?

If anything it would make him a nothing character.

I've always thought of it like I'm experiencing a story through the eyes of a character within it, rather than trying to insert myself into the story. As you say, Sometimes the game might make you do something you don't want to, but if it gives me a good reason for my character to do something, then I'll feel a lot less annoyed.

I think the silent protagonists can be done well but half-life's method of having loads of scenes where people talk at you, and ask questions which are just left with awkward pauses is not he best way of doing it.

Thank you, Shamus!

Especially in regards to the voiced FPS character. Having a floating voice, seemingly out of mid air, always confuses the hell out of me. You can't anticipate it, because you can't see the body language, so it's just... there, with no real connection to the character your controlling.

I have a soft spot for silent characters in general, both in games and movies. One of my favourite characters is Gromit from Wallace and Gromit. And my favourite character in Howl's Moving Castle is the scarecrow, who is literally nothing more then a scarecrow that hops around. Something about a character just shutting the hell up really makes them likable.

necromanzer52:
I think the silent protagonists can be done well but half-life's method of having loads of scenes where people talk at you, and ask questions which are just left with awkward pauses is not he best way of doing it.

That bothers me too. It makes it seem like your character is mute, or providing answers that you just aren't hearing (through expressions, body language, etc.), rather than being a blank slate.

Chell in Portal 1 is a good way around that: Even if she could speak, GlaDOS wouldn't listen. That opening with Wheatley in the second game was painful, though; Chell was expected to speak, but you couldn't make her do so.

The problem with Freeman as a silent protagonist is that the only thing he's lacking is a voice. He isn't a blank canvas or an open book to which you can apply your own thoughts/feelings/choices. From visual appearance to his relationship to everyone in the world (and, perhaps more importantly in this case, their relationship to him), he is 100% defined and set in stone. Outside of jumping around the room or looking away when people are talking at you, you don't really have any agency at all as Freeman. You're simply a mute with a defined place in the world, which is not what makes for a strong silent protagonist at all.

"When the main character speaks, the spectrum of possible audience reactions collapses and the writers tell us outright, YOUR CHARACTER IS ANGRY ABOUT THIS. NOW YOU ARE SAD. NOW YOU ARE TRIUMPHANT."

Schrödinger's protagonist! As soon as they speak, the waveform collapses.

Thunderous Cacophony:

Chell in Portal 1 is a good way around that: Even if she could speak, GlaDOS wouldn't listen. That opening with Wheatley in the second game was painful, though; Chell was expected to speak, but you couldn't make her do so.

All Portal 2 did was play Chell's muteness for laughs, I didn't see it as being painful. That part where he asks you to say something and then a button prompt for the spacebar with the word "Speak" beside it was genuinely hilarious. I don't think there are many different ways to achieve immersion other than "I am the character", even in first person games.

Edit: You make an excellent point, StryderShinryu. Gordon Freeman is anything but a blank canvas.

There is a sort of zig zag to silent protagonists, where they only speak outside of game play. It's quite difficult to get right, but occasionally it works, like in Metro 2033 where the game is presented as Artyom writing his memoirs. During loading screens he gives his impression of the situation, whilst during the play itself he says precisely one word in the entire game.

It allows Artyom some development as a characters and to advance the story, but doesn't constantly impose a reaction on the player whilst the action is happening.

I think you're trying to understand the issue from the wrong perspective.

Why is Gordon Freeman such a good silent protagonist? Because characters you talk to just talk, you're not expected to answer. There are no rigidly defined "dialogue" scenes, and you don't see him from a third person perspective. It also helps that Gordon Freeman is never expected to talk at all.

Now take Corvo from Dishonored, characters from Vampire The Masquerade Bloodlines, or the characters in The Elder Scrolls: they're expected to talk back, make choices (and also choose what to say). They've evidently spoken before, and in the case of Corvo and the characters in Bloodlines , even have a history in the world. There are rigidly determined "dialogue" scenes, where your character talks back. Only you never hear him/her do that. It feels weird, out of place. It makes no sense whatsoever to not include a voiced protagonist in these games. Worst of all the offenders are the games where non player characters ask your character questions, pause for a short period of time waiting for your mute characters' answer, and then continue as if you spoke. Which you most certainly didn't.

Portal. How you're expected to talk in the beginning of Portal 2 is slightly out of place, but overall, it's a perfect example of a game where the protagonist should be silent. You just do, you're being talked at, you don't need to answer because nobody's going to listen anyway.

StriderShinryu:
The problem with Freeman as a silent protagonist is that the only thing he's lacking is a voice. He isn't a blank canvas or an open book to which you can apply your own thoughts/feelings/choices. From visual appearance to his relationship to everyone in the world (and, perhaps more importantly in this case, their relationship to him), he is 100% defined and set in stone. Outside of jumping around the room or looking away when people are talking at you, you don't really have any agency at all as Freeman. You're simply a mute with a defined place in the world, which is not what makes for a strong silent protagonist at all.

Well jesus dude, what do you want? We know who Gordon Freeman is and we get all the background information on his accomplishments. The difference is, and where we can insert our own thoughts and feelings, is that Gordon has never been described, personality wise. It only would of hurt the immersion to have Freeman monologue. All in all, the game is better for it, and so is Freeman.

Matthi205:
How you're expected to talk in the beginning of Portal 2 is slightly out of place,

It's a breaking-the-fourth-wall joke, that's the whole point. If you're sour on a harmless joke because it reminds you that you are playing a video game for half a second, I don't know how to help you.

I almost think "Protagonist" is too strong a word. The Silent Catalyst, maybe? I am perfectly okay with that. As mentioned, I would also much prefer a character who is silent versus a character who is stupid, contrived, and/or speaks just to fill a gap or be heard.

Why Catalyst? You are entity that propels the gameplay and the story. Through your actions things happen, puzzles are solved, explosions combust, baddies are beaten, people are saved, and you are in the perfect position to witness it all. No floating or disengenuous voice to rip you out of your immersion, no silly dialogue choices that contradict your own projected motivations and goals.

I'm sick of 'em.

Silent protagonists are fine in games that are entirely gameplay focussed (eg Doom). But in games with a story it's just awkward. Dishonored and the Metro games are good examples, especially since those two protagonists do technically talk (Corvo picks silent dialogue options a few times and Artyom narrates during loading screens).

Yes, fine, Valve gets something of a pass because they're really good at it.

Bioshock Infinite proved that you can have a good story and a good chatty protagonist in a first person game.

Really, if developers can't create a decent main character then they have no business putting a story in their game at all.

Mr Cwtchy:
Usually when I hear people say this, it's in response to things like 'Gordon Freeman is one of the best video game characters ever'. In that sense there is some validity refuting it. If Freeman is indeed a 'blank canvas', then how can he be a good character when he essentially has no attributes of his own?

If anything it would make him a nothing character.

I always say it because people lose their fucking minds over it.

In truth, silent protagonists aren't characters, they're roles. You know enough about Gordon so that you can fulfil a role in that universe, but that's it.

:( Shamus....:D THANK YOU!!!

I understand that people don't like it when all the other characters are talking, and you(or your character rather) says nothing/says things without sound, but you can't say it doesn't work sometimes for some people.

I liked Dragon Age 2's voice acting better than Mass Effect's, but I still prefer the silent Warden in D.A. Origins to them both.

Less to hear, but more to say.

Zhukov:

Really, if developers can't create a decent main character then they have no business putting a story in their game at all.

That is complete nonsense. Your ability or want to do one thing does not affect your ability to do another. It's like complaining about a lack of focus on secondary characters when a plot's entire point is to deconstruct its main character. They're irrelevant and focusing on them is missing the point. Same thing with silent protagonists: their "character" is not the point. Infinite using a speaking protagonist relatively well is irrelevant; your issue is with people

(And interestingly, Infinite has to invoke everyone's favourite video game trope - protagonist amnesia - to make Booker work.)

From a story telling point of view its difficult to understand why Freeman doesn't speak, why the NPCs all treat him as if he's always been that way. Is he mute? Has he gone the distance in NDA terms and taken a true vow of silence? If so to either of those proposed ideas, why?
To me Gordon seems to be an empty shell controlled by whatever force deigns to take over his processes. It barely passes muster to me that a physicist is proficient in military grade weapons, athletics and survival. I am aware there ARE people out there who are cerebral and physically fit at the same time (I personally feel that the body's physical state directly affects mental agility) but its not widespread or common. We usually see the "nerdy" (for lack of better terms) type as either skinny, overweight or just relatively out of shape.
So what makes Gordon different? No background on him other than the proposed "He's a scientist" makes for weak character development. EXCEPT when you choose to give him a background yourself. But still you are confined to the dialogue at hand with NO way to interact with the other people involved in the story. In that it is absolutely linear and shows no matter what you do there are only two ways the story can go, either Gordon submits to the plot or dies.
No interaction means he is predetermined to navigate the obstacle course of Half-Life's arc, and thus becomes G-Man's puppet and then the resistance's puppet. He's a shell, and all the crazy antics you can have him do during NPCs one-sided actions around him do not change the state of the story. No one reacts to Gordon's strange antics with exception of the microwave in HL1. Its as if every strange thing you decide to do as Gordon is all in his head and the exposition surrounding him supports that theory.
It holds your hand while fooling you into believing you give Gordon a voice. I would support this article if and only if the actions you do (Deus Ex's Womens Restroom comes to mind) have even a minor effect on the living world around him.
I still love the Half-Life series but that doesn't mean I agree the Freeman is the best silent protagonist ever. It feels like being trapped in one of those theater productions that instead of being on a stage are rather happening as you travel from room to room in a building (I forget the term).

Shamus Young:
In Defense of Silent Protagonists

Shut up, already.

Read Full Article

Ok. Now admit that Master Chief is a rich and nuanced character. No I am serious. Also a protagonist does not need to speak for me to hate the decisions they make. Does anyone remember the end of Fallout 3?

I'm unconvinced it's an introvert-extrovert thing. I'm quite introverted, and I'm not confused when a first-person character starts talking; I usually play with subtitles, I pay attention to the story (even if the game tries to distract me), and designers generally have the decency to put dialogue in scenes where it's obvious who's talking (except Bethesda).

In light of that, I like FPSs that try to characterize their lead. The new Call of Juarez: Gunslinger did a magnificent job at it (though, to be fair, the protagonist is also the narrator). The lead character had both colorful panache and a subdued melancholy in his narration, and it all showed in the gameplay. FPSs are a genre in need of such quick, intense shots of characterization--since they tend to be short and intense themselves--and I don't think they can afford go with silent protagonists as a default. I think they are only justified for a very specific kind of story, and it's one most FPSs don't have.

The silent protagonists I've liked have been in RPGs and open-world games; however, in such a game I know the focus won't be on the internal emotional turmoil of the protagonist, and instead on exploration, discovery, and telling the story of a place or a time more than the story of a person. I, or a projected ideal of me, can be the protagonist, but there is an intimate emotional dimension that is completely lost in the process.

In some cases, it doesn't matter: Deus Ex: Human Revolution was the story of a time more than that of Adam Jensen, and it lost nothing; in fact, it wold have been fine if Adam had been a silent protagonist (though his half-whispered rasp really grows on you after a while). But if the story had been about Adam Jensen, newly-minted post-human cyborg coming to terms with his transformation, then having a silent protagonist would have been crippling for the game.

The silent protagonist is like the documentary-style shaky-cam - they're both immersion-building tools that can work wonderfully. But if you use them habitually or thoughtlessly, they're horribly out-of-place, and the audience notices.

Hear Hear!

These same points (though there are others, too), are why I was much more connected to my Grey Warden in Dragon Age: Origins than I ever was to Hawke.

Voiced != Interesting, and Silent != Flat.

Woodsey:

Zhukov:

Really, if developers can't create a decent main character then they have no business putting a story in their game at all.

That is complete nonsense. Your ability or want to do one thing does not affect your ability to do another.

I was referring to this part of the article:

"Also, - and I know I complain about this a lot - but your average game writer really isn't up to the task of creating an interesting, deep, and noteworthy protagonist."

If a developer is using silent protagonists because they don't have the chops to create a decent protagonist then I have absolutely zero fucking interest in experiencing whatever dross they would produce in place of a narrative.

Voiced characters in first person games bother me. The only game that it worked well is Mirror's Edge, because I always knew who was talking. Probably because Faith is a girl, and thus has a girl voice and not the normal run-of-the-mill male macho voice.

I remember several times in Call of Duty: Black Ops where I was confused because I had no idea who was talking when there was more than two people in an area. Throw in the fact that the voice actor tended two flip between two different dialects when he was speaking, and it was a nightmare at a few points.

In short, I agree with Shamus. I don't mind when FPS characters talk in cutscenes--like, say, Halo or Resistance 3--but having them talk while I'm playing bothers me.

At the same time, a character that seems to communicate solely through grunts is extremely annoying to me. At the end of a game, when you've managed to unlock the True Ending and trigger a boss battle with a fallen god and your buddies are getting completely psyched up for it, it is somewhat... out of place when the main character responds to their boasts with a monosyllabic grunt.

Teammate: "YEAH! It's the last battle! This is going to be awesome! I don't care if you're a fallen god or a demented cosplayer, we're going to kick your butt back to the stone age!"

Main character: ".....Hmmmm!" *nod*

I don't care if the main character was designed to be a blank slate to project yourself onto, that's just bad writing.

Zhukov:

Woodsey:

Zhukov:

Really, if developers can't create a decent main character then they have no business putting a story in their game at all.

That is complete nonsense. Your ability or want to do one thing does not affect your ability to do another.

I was referring to this part of the article:

"Also, - and I know I complain about this a lot - but your average game writer really isn't up to the task of creating an interesting, deep, and noteworthy protagonist."

If a developer is using silent protagonists because they don't have the chops to create a decent protagonist then I have absolutely zero fucking interest in experiencing whatever dross they would produce in place of a narrative.

Writing a good character and writing a good plot are two different things.

Woodsey:
-snipped for space-

Writing a good character and writing a good plot are two different things.

Good characters drive a good story, bad characters can break a good story. The point is that if you actually came up with all the other characters and can't be assed to give the player an actual character to control, your story is going to be ruined anyway. Or you're Diablo, in which case: everything happened offscreen anyway, you're just the one doing the cleaning up once everybody else is dead.

Ashoten:

Shamus Young:
In Defense of Silent Protagonists

Shut up, already.

Read Full Article

Ok. Now admit that Master Chief is a rich and nuanced character. No I am serious. Also a protagonist does not need to speak for me to hate the decisions they make. Does anyone remember the end of Fallout 3?

But the Master Chief does speak.

Besides, he's not saying that because Gordon Freeman is good, that all non-voiced characters are good and that silent protagonists are inherently better than voiced ones. It'd be like saying because Booker DeWitt is a good voiced protagonist, all voiced protagonists are good.

It's a tool in the toolbox, and some use it better than others. Same goes for voiced protagonists. Personally, I prefer voiced ones. I'm just not able to connect to voiceless ones. And it's especially hard for me to connect to any protagonist who has no legs when I look down. All that does is tell me I'm not controlling a character, but just a floating camera with arms. But that's just me, I know others don't have the same problem and have no issue connecting with them. Wish I could...

See we can have silent protagonists which honestly doesn't make sense to me. Especially in terms of Gordon Freeman his silence when appearing in the dystopian future, sudden appearance of aliens, and all that crap while just silently standing by confused me.
Why can't we have a MUTE protagonist? One that is actually incapable of speaking, but can still communicate hand gestures, facial expressions, slapping someone when they do something stupid? Instead of Silent McQuiet standing idly by while the plot happens at them?
Eh, maybe it's just wishful thinking.

I don't like voiced protagonists because their voice usually sucks and sounds all the same.

Like, right now I can only remember two voices protagonists I liked, Max Payne (in Max Payne 2) and Ezio.

I even prefer Dishonored having silent protagonist than a voiced one even if it feels wrong.

Also, this article together with Jimquisition's last video is why I am totally against people who want Link to talk in next Zelda game.

Like every storytelling devise, silent protagonists work when used properly, and there'll always be some that never warm to it no matter what. The same goes for having a voiced protagonist.

Also, you can have good and bad use of both devices in the same game. For example, for the most part a silent Greeman works, but there are a few scenes in Half Life 2 that feel akward due to his silence. On the opposite spectrum, having Shepard in Mass Effect speak worked (even man-Shep in the first game), but there were a couple parts where the choice of what to say didn't match up with what I thought (s)he should say.

Woodsey:

Zhukov:

Woodsey:

That is complete nonsense. Your ability or want to do one thing does not affect your ability to do another.

I was referring to this part of the article:

"Also, - and I know I complain about this a lot - but your average game writer really isn't up to the task of creating an interesting, deep, and noteworthy protagonist."

If a developer is using silent protagonists because they don't have the chops to create a decent protagonist then I have absolutely zero fucking interest in experiencing whatever dross they would produce in place of a narrative.

Writing a good character and writing a good plot are two different things.

Reeeeally...?

Because I'd say there's a lot of crossover between the skills involved in writing a good character and a good plot.

I'm trying to think of good stories with crappy characters and I'm not coming up with anything. Do you have some examples?

Personally, I see this whole issue of "voiced vs silent" protagonists as a Morton's Fork. On one hand, you can make a voiced protagonist and end up disconnecting the player from the character (like Shamus said). On the other, you can make a silent protagonist but this has it's own set of problems; either the dialogue is meant to include responses from the character (which will disconnect the player as they won't respond) or everything is carefully worded so that the character never is supposed to respond - which can lead to a disconnect because the player is being railroaded. Either way, you are going to disconnect the player at some point.

So this whole issue is a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" scenario.

Irridium:

Ashoten:

Shamus Young:
In Defense of Silent Protagonists

Shut up, already.

Read Full Article

Ok. Now admit that Master Chief is a rich and nuanced character. No I am serious. Also a protagonist does not need to speak for me to hate the decisions they make. Does anyone remember the end of Fallout 3?

But the Master Chief does speak.

Only a few times and what he says is not exactly enlightening. What both Gordan and Master Chief have in common is that they are always 'talked at' by everyone in the game. I do not really see a difference since there is dialog going on very often. My issue is getting sick of PC gamers uplifting their characters as being these super awesome and interesting and at the same time decrying console characters as shallow and one note. Keeping in mind I am a PC gamer. All these characters are defined by how other react to them. They are not blank slates.

Zhukov:

Reeeeally...?

Because I'd say there's a lot of crossover between the skills involved in writing a good character and a good plot.

I'm trying to think of good stories with crappy characters and I'm not coming up with anything. Do you have some examples?

Because I've had to read it again recently: The Odyssey is a fun collection of events following an almost entirely uninteresting dude and the recent events in the lives of his almost entirely uninteresting chums. But then, those guys aren't really the point. Freeman is exactly the same, he's unimportant.

Ashoten:

Irridium:

Ashoten:

Ok. Now admit that Master Chief is a rich and nuanced character. No I am serious. Also a protagonist does not need to speak for me to hate the decisions they make. Does anyone remember the end of Fallout 3?

But the Master Chief does speak.

Only a few times and what he says is not exactly enlightening. What both Gordan and Master Chief have in common is that they are always 'talked at' by everyone in the game. I do not really see a difference since there is dialog going on very often. My issue is getting sick of PC gamers uplifting their characters as being these super awesome and interesting and at the same time decrying console characters as shallow and one note. Keeping in mind I am a PC gamer. All these characters are defined by how other react to them. They are not blank slates.

I'm probably not the best person to get into this debate with you. Mainly because I agree. I'm just of the mind that it can be used well, and poorly. I'm not the best to decide when it's used well and poorly, since I don't really like it at all.

Thank you Shamus for putting to print what I've been saying for years.

I find it annoyingly hypocritical of the anti-silent-protagonist people when they say such things as, "This one example of a silent protagonist is bad, therefore all silent protagonists are bad and the games and stories they're in are badly made."

Yet, if one were to bring the same argument against voiced protagonists, the "ASP" people would say your overgeneralizing. That you're an idiot.

Just...no. Fuck you. A silent protagonist, when compared to a voiced protagonist, is an equally valid and just as creative story telling device. (when done well)

Besides, for me, when the character I'm playing in a game suddenly starts speaking it too often breaks my immersion. Especially when the character starts saying things that I never would were I in that situation. Even more so when the voice acting is generic, bland, or simply bad.

While that won't hold true for everyone, it does for me. So who the hell are you to tell me my preferred method of story telling in a game is "wrong"?

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