With the release of highly-anticipated games such as Skyward Sword and Skyrim, Rory Crean ponders the role of the silent protagonist
The silent protagonist has been present in gaming for as long as the medium itself has been in existence. Originally, of course, it was the by-product of a technical limitation. We had silent protagonists for the same reason we had catchy, repetitive 16-bit soundtracks. Quite simply, the systems couldn’t handle that kind of audio overload. Just like any instrument other than a keyboard couldn’t be supported on those old game cartridges, neither could hours of dialogue. The solution? Text; reams and reams of text. Games such as the Zelda series created memorable stories all the while limiting Link’s vocal contributions to the odd grunt as he cleaved a ruby-concealing pot in twain. While the gaming world around Link melted and reconstructed itself, the Hylian in green’s voice never emerged.
As gaming technology progressed, so did the capacity for aural showmanship. Nowadays, a full orchestra murmurs underneath gameplay, roaring into life to indicate an incoming encounter or the beginning of a gunfight. The silent protagonist however, has remained. Not across the board, mind you; many have embraced the newfound luxury of voice acting, going so far as to incorporate ‘real’ acting (L.A. Noire). Yet some people believe that the character’s actions speak louder than their words. Solely text-based games are themselves becoming a rarity; instead the supporting cast of characters has found their voice, but the player is still left mute.
Having said that, there are many examples of games that rely on their quality of voice acting, Mass Effect and Heavy Rain being shining examples. The Mass Effect series represents a compromise between the silent hero and a “character”, allowing the player to choose the path of conversation. These masterpieces – developed by BioWare and Quantic Dream, respectively – provide such a level of customisation and choice that a silent protagonist is not as important for immersion, but despite this level of involvement, it still doesn’t feel quite as convincing. Mass Effect’s Commander Shepard is a character, i.e. his reaction will be different to yours. No matter who provides your voice, or how you are offered to utilise it, the very fact that it is not your own voice robs you of a certain level of immersion. Games such as Bioshock, Oblivion, and Fallout 3 require a suspension of disbelief to function, and a jarring foreign voice would do nothing but harm.
The silent protagonist not only allowed a level of projection on the player’s behalf, it also meant that we spent less time deciding whether we liked the character we were playing, and more time appreciating the finest of details that programmers spent hours creating. It’s no coincidence that Role-Playing Games (RPG) so often feature a silent hero. Along with the level of customisation they provide, RPGs like Fallout and the Elder Scrolls series invite you to play any style you want. A voice would more likely damage the level of personalisation than not, forcing your carefully crafted character in line with a pre-determined voice that may or may not reconcile with the user’s own idea of the player-character, and as such, the user’s primary role in the construction of the narrative. That is the crux, the central dogma behind the silent protagonist. In fact, that is the crux of gaming itself; the most important feature that makes it a more immersive adventure than cinema or television is a sense that your experience is unique.
In an attempt to capture that degree of involvement, this post-modern narrative style has bled into other media, most notably in cinema. You may recall 2010’s Essential Killing. It was a political thriller, exploring what one can do when given horrendous circumstances. It is relevant in this context because the main character, played by Vincent Gallo, doesn’t say a word. While the film doesn’t capture the poignancy of silence like many games do, it does allow the audience to “project”. Whereas in similar films, the lead character may explain or justify their actions through voiceover or dialogue, here it is entirely up to the audience to imagine what is going on in their head. For cinema as a medium, no dialogue may seem counter-intuitive, but Essential Killing scratched the surface of what may be a new and intriguing facet of film.
This new element of film is directly derived from it’s sister movement, most notably, the likes of the excellent Bioshock. Bioshock is, hands down, one of the best games of all time. The gameplay was solid, but it was the story that made it the legend it is. The first person perspective meant that when you jammed a hypo-syringe into your wrist, you felt it. When (spoiler) Atlas betrays you, you damn sure felt it. Bioshock was one of the few games that had me shouting at my screen during the key storyline reveals and the reason was; I felt, for a second or two, that Andrew Ryan could hear me. That is an experience that is lost once you give the player an alien voice. Rather than have the player desperately trying to interact with the scenario as they would, they sit back and wait to see what their ‘character’ says. A silent protagonist doesn’t limit a game, in fact it does quite the opposite; it opens it up to the interpretation of its audience, and that is what makes gaming the ultimate medium.