Silent protagonists have never been the problem: the problem is the lack of cutscenes.
Let's use Half-Life 2, the second coming of jesus in shooter form (by popular consensus), as the example.
In HL2, when I reach a "cutscene" moment, the game says "no, cutscenes would draw you out of the immersion! instead, just stand here and listen to the NPC talk until you can do things again!". THIS IS TERRIBLE
with a cutscene, you know exactly what is happening, for the purposes of plot advancement or simply a break between gameplay sections, you are losing your ability to control your character. You will now watch this thing happen, and then resume control. But this bullshit "no cutscenes allowed" philosophy instead says "oh, no, you're still totally playing, dude!" and leaves you to flail about impotently. "you are totally in control of your characters actions!" says the game, and then proceeds to force you to wait for a minute of dialogue to pass before the NPC opens the next section of actual gameplay. Instead of MY character walking up to a door and pushing the "door open" button, i have to wait for his BUDDY to do it. when they get around to it. eventually. You can't skip the conversation, you can stove in little miss chattybitch's head with your crowbar, you can't do anything, but the game PRETENDS you can. And then, sometimes the game lets you keep wandering in a huge space... but the NPC stays all the way at one spot, letting you get out of earshot when critical information pop up. other games will even limit your control by making you move at half speed and remove your other actions, or even lock you stock still until the NPC stops talking.
All this situation does is breed frustration.
So no, i don't mind that Freeman doesn't talk, I just mind the bullshit cutscenes-that-arent-cutscenes his game makes me sit through
I'm going to be blunt: were you talking about tabletop games you might have a point because those are meant to have characters built by the player with their own history and character traits along with development that comes via the players' actions. However, videogames will never, ever be able to do that. A silent protagonist, no matter what way you slice it, is a poor character. If I have to project my own ideas onto something then that's not a character. The silent protagonist in general is something that needs to go away in narrative-driven games, if not games in general. They're a lazy, borderline wish-fulfillment fantasy for players.
But you are not simply projecting your ideas onto the protagonist. By simply interacting with the game you are shaping your character's personality and how they develop. If you played a shooter and favored long range weapons then you are playing as a very cautious character. Did you project that idea onto him but there is still a character. Also just because the character has no voice does no mean the writing is lazy as the universe and storyline need to be felxible enough to accomodate all these interpritations yet still have enough definition to provide proper context.
Personally, I find that either way, voiced or silent, can work or flop miserably.
In the defense of silent protagonists, I call upon Caim from Drakengard, and The Hero from Dragon Quest 8 (Who will be referred to as Eight, as the promotional images called him).
Two characters, both from JRPGs, on opposing ends of the JRPG Idealism/Cynicism spectrum, with their own stories to experience. Now, a silent protagonist in a JRPG is a common trope in of itself, but I think these two really work well for it, in terms of why they are this way, and how they express themselves otherwise.
Caim, who was conceived as a dark rebuttal and parody of the typical JRPG protagonist (young, silent, idealistic, etc), was 24 (according to the ingame booklet), a bloodthirsty soldier in a war with the motivations of revenge against the opposing side for varying reasons (mainly, the threatening/death of loved ones caused by said side), and generally an unpleasant fellow. However, his is our protagonist, so we have to follow him around. In the briefest of moments in the beginning of the game, Caim is voiced for a short time, however, due to an instory reason within the game, the power of communication is stripped from him.
That reason being, Caim had preformed a magical and soulbinding contract with a dragon, with which the voice was his price. Alongside losing his voice, Caim was able to save his life (he was struck with a mortal wound moments prior) and gain immense power via working with the dragon. This ritual, known as a pact, is acknowledged multiple times in universe by other such pact makers, and are shown the varying ways a pact can take something from a mortal. A man loses his sight to gain power from a faerie, a woman her womb to team up with a pair of elemental spirits, a 6 year old boy unable to age in order to work with an enormous and powerful golem. These other examples help justify Caim's new mute state, as well as force him to communicate to the audience (and other characters, naturally) how he thinks and feels about his experiences. And while the games animations aren't the best, I think that they do a damn good job showing how Caim felt about a given situation.
Now, on the opposing end of the spectrum, we have Eight. Probably in his early 20's, and always silent. Like the Gordon Freeman mention before, I think Eight is supposed to be a projection, as you can name him, and the game actually does a pretty good job to skirt around the fact that you named him, with an in universe nickname, or dialogue that doesn't require his name to be used at all in reference to him. However, unlike most blank slate protagonists, Eight does in fact have a bit of a personality to him, even if it's not as well rounded as the other cast of characters. He's kind, altruistic, and a bit on the snarky side (just watch him if you pick no on any "But thou must" choices). Furthermore, he shows a willingness to forgive others for past deeds, but not to the point of stupidity. And I think it is there he really shines, and deserves his mantle as "The Hero", especially in this scene here:
Now, if you didn't watch that, I'll try to summarize it. Essentially, one of your travelling companions left his filthy hometown in hopes of escaping the life of crime that is expected of residents there, only to find he began stealing again to survive. Enter Eight, who is a retainer of his king, their cart and horse; who are trying to cross a bridge that the thief character had taken and demanded a toll from. Eight defends his king, the cart and the horse, and gets himself, said king and their possessions across safely. However, in the scuffle on the bridge, the stability of said bridge is compromised, and the thief falls, barely holding onto a rope for dear life. Now, while the king says (grossly paraphrased) "Ha, Karma bitch!", Eight turns around and goes to help out the thief, even when his KING, the man he is serving and protecting, as well as just saved from an attack, tells him "What are you doing? This thief was about to kill us!" And yet, Eight saves him anyway. Furthermore, his kindness to the thief turns out for the better, as the thief will become one of your best assets to your team in game, as well as the most reliable of Eight's comrades. But Eight didn't know that. He probably didn't think that the thief will be of any help to him. His own King tells him not to, and says that it's the thief's just deserts, but Eight did it anyway.
And it's because of that, I don't find his silence irritating. In fact, his movements and actions speak far more than words ever could for him; without coming off as hollow or puppetlike.
And it's for characters like that, I can endure and sometimes enjoy a silent protagonist.
EDIT: Wow, I Really should have read the other posts before my own. Oh well... But looking back at this, I realize I may be coming off as favoring one over the other, but in my post above, I was merely trying to show how a silent protagonist can work, and work well. That does not mean I don't care for voiced protagonists. In fact, I love protagonists with their own story and development, that's why I love RPGS!
Silent protagonists aren't a deal breaker for me but I'm not a fan of the concept, I just don't find it working.
I know your supposed to fill in the silence yourself but its no dialogue and has no meaning as the world doesn't react to what you imagine the Silent protagonists says, It can't possibly do that. Whether you imagine Gordon Freeman is rude or friendly to the person he's talking to that person will always say the same.
I can tolerate a Silent protagonists but I don't think I would ever find it a positive.
I generally play FPS these days, which is thus what I relate to most. I agree that protagonists are better left silent. Dishonored never really felt weird, the guy was angsty to begin with, why add pithy commentary? It was a little off that he didn't talk to the kid who's supposed to harbor an ardent adoration of him, but maybe he speaks through actions. As Shamus stated, it allows me to feel what I'm currently feeling, which is tweaked by the in-game scenario, rather than have a mood superimposed, as it were. Games like Arkham are okay for voices because we could all tell you what Batman's going to say 3 seconds before he says it; he's an established character. Even Fallout/Elder Scrolls sometimes leave me at a loss when the 3 [text] answers to a question do not encompass my desired retort.
Sadly (this may well be ingrained) I think talking protagonists work best in JRPGs, which are essentially a movie-game. You have little to no choice over how the character or story will progress, so just sit back and watch these eccentric teens (and token ethnic character) do their thing.
You know I don't think its fair to call them (silent protagonist) actual game characters. Characters have well...characteristics. And the Doom Marine doesn't have any. He might have a face(can't remember) or he might have a helmet. Chell and Gordon have faces and names, but because they don't speak we really have no context for whats going on or why we should care. Chell was sorta a non-character, a convenient plot device to get us from one GLaDOS scene to another. Likewise Gordon just moves the camera from one room to another and occasionally shoots(at least the player does) enemies blocking their paths. I remember this older Machima series where this dude voiced over Gordon Freeman through the first game and it was really good. You got the sense there was a person working at Black Mesa, not an emotionless objective-driven robot. I remember when the aliens showed up, said dude AS Gordon Freeman yelled and cursed and screamed and made witty jokes, all of which endeared me to Gordon until I realized that the game designers hadn't put those in the game. A fan did. For all we know, Gordon freeman is totally cool with the alien apocalypse and Chell loved being in a underground facility doing portal puzzles. We only have the reactions of NPCs that there's even a person at all! Were it not for Chell's occasional glimpses in mirrors, one could make a compelling argument that there was no such character and GLaDOS' faulty wiring was causing her to see ghosts. Or that Gordon Freeman isn't a free man; he's a Borg that's been programmed to think its thinking and making choices.
Silent protagonists are cheap because it requires the gamer to fill in key plot points by themselves. Its like having a jigsaw puzzle with only the borders and were told to imagine an epic, emotional and compelling picture to fill in the rest of it. And all I see is my coffee table.
as with most things, you can't say for every game whether silent protagonists are good or bad
but when there's many "dialogues" with NPCs, like HL2, being silent doesn't make much sense; it's just kind of awkward. at least text-options à la Vampire Bloodlines or BG2 would've been nice, and also more immersive; especially when asked questions it's really weird that my character doesn't say anything (again, voiced or not doesn't matter much to *me*)
especially when the story is linear the game is something like an interactive movie (which usually are linear, too); now imagine a movie without the main character saying (or signing in case of mute character) anything, when they nod or shake their head at best - in my opinion it doesn't make much sense to give the viewer a canvas to project oneself or one's imagination onto the main character, it only would be kind of weird *usually* - of course it can be done well (Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control, for example, comes to mind), but it really is a case-by-case thing, and not something that fits well often
so in general i don't like silent (as in cannot/doesn't give a reaction in any form, voiced, text, whatever) protagonists, but i guess it's a personal-taste-thingy, as usual
edit: that goes for more or less story-heavy games, not so much for "pure" shooters or RTSes - again, case by case
There can be semi-silent protagonists i guess, characters who do sometimes talk but not/arely whilst you're controlling them. Artyom or Strelok (although he says about 10 words) are characters you can project yourself on but still don't have the mantra of "Absolute silence", hell Artyom won't shut up whilst the game is loading but once you're in his head you are him.
I still think it's possible to project yourself on a character if their identity is more of a background thing. Personally i think Master Chief could have benefited from LESS character. Once he got semi-fleshed out and started to be judged more as a character he didn't hold up. As an empty vessel with hints of an identify he was much more interesting.
I started playing Poker Night At the Inventory 2 since reading this and noticed the other characters were conpicuously calling me mute, a concession I found disappointing.
In the original Poker Night, it was left more ambigious, and as Mr. Young notes, I could choose to tell my own story, whether I imagined having snappy comebacks to their japes or to be the quiet, stoic player, more focused on crushing their hubris by way of their pocketbooks. It was sad having it decided for me that I was incapable of speech, ergo it wasn't a matter of choice that I was quiet.
I had thought it would be amusing to imagine myself as Chell or Gordon Freeman (especially Chell, given her past history with GlaDOS). I had figured Chell didn't engage with GlaDOS in the Portal series much in the same way that Dave stopped engaging HAL in 2001: GlaDOS was a toaster gone buggy, and engaging her as a person was only giving her undeserved credit.
Of course, GlaDOS' introduction in one case Gentlemen...and Claptrap... implied I was also male...or maybe just GlaDOS refused to acknowledge Chell / the player. Everyone else's comments were gender neutral throughout the experience.
I used to lean this way, until the profusion of sandbox games helped me realize that this is the opposite of art.
You are a player. You are playing a character. Just like a player in a play plays a character. If you wanted to be the protagonist of every movie you ever watched that would cheapen the experience of every movie irrevocably.
Just because you are in control of a character doesn't make that character you. You are the puppeteer pulling its strings. Influencing its destiny, ideally because you are bored and want it to do something else. But it isn't you.
Stories are wonderful because we get to experience other lives. Not just a tinted version of our own life. Which lets face it, for most of you is very tedious and uneventful.
That said. Dialogue decision trees are the worst. Just like everything else about the sandbox genre.
I'd say that for Half-Life 3 Valve should hire Ross Scott to do Freeman's voice (spoken out loud to himself or heard inside his head by you, pick your interpretation) as an unlockable feature just for fun haha