As a writer currently working on his first video game, I’m in love with the idea of a silent protagonist, and not because it saves time on dialogue. The silent protagonist can be a blank slate, or more appropriately, a mirror players can project their identity on to when they pick up the controller. A silent protagonist makes a game engaging and obliterates any narrative dissonance that might occur through biased dialogue.
Or so I thought, but I'll get to that.
In an interactive medium, narrative dissonance is the enemy. Anything that reminds you that you are playing a video game can count as narrative dissonance. Bad controls, bad dialogue, noisy roommates who want to play Madden, and those little “Buh-dink!” sounds achievements make all create narrative dissonance. They remind you that the virtual world you are in is not real.
A silent protagonist keeps your disbelief suspended. They can never say anything you wouldn't say and (because you're controlling them) they can never do anything you wouldn't do. Even with a game with a dialogue system as advanced as Mass Effect's, sometimes talking PCs go a little more “renegade” than we wanted them to. Sure silent characters can't speak at all but it's strangely easy for many players to accept this limitation.
So, with Link as a silent protagonist I took him as a model for my player character. However, the more I started babbling on about Link as the greatest hero ever programmed, the more I found people who disagreed with me. Particularly a female gamer friend of mine. Here is more or less a transcript of that fateful conversation:
Me: Link is the greatest character ever.
She: He’s okay. But there’s just not that much there. I mean every girl wants to know what Link is thinking.
Me: That’s easy; he’s thinking whatever you’re thinking. Link is you. When you pick up the controller you and Link mesh.
She: YOU might mesh with Link. You’re a guy. A straight guy. A straight white guy. People in Hyrule treat Link as a straight white Hylian male. Girls fawn over him and men pat him on the back because he’s a dude. Every time Link interacts with a character we’re reminded of his gender ever so subtly.
Naturally I thought she was crazy and dumb and that I was cool and super smart. But then I actually thought about it. Dialogue is only one device that tells you about a character. There are many other elements that tell you who a character is. One of them is gender.
You don’t see many female silent protagonists but when you do there's often a convenient catch. Samus is walled up in her suit on purpose, to remove any gender signs, female or otherwise. When I first played Super Metroid, I assumed she was a man because I was. When the game said she wasn't a man I was confused because I thought she was me.
Samus is never treated as a woman by her society. She doesn’t have to deal with other characters because she's alone in the wilderness. Gender differences in society never come up.
Even Chell from Portal is in the genderless wilderness. There are other characters who interact with her but they don't really identify her as male or female, only “test subject” or “hyoo-mahn.” It doesn't really matter if Chell is a man or a woman because the robots don't recognize that difference.
Link on the other hand is rescuing maidens, chatting up townsfolk, and ultimately being a participant in society. The same goes for Chrono (straight, white, male) and Gordon Freeman (straight, white, male). Nothing in the game says that these characters identify with their socially assigned markers, but every character treats them this way.
A few people have argued that because Link tends to look a little girly or childlike, he's genderless. It's not actually a problem with how Link looks, it's how society treats him. Gender is a social construct, it only exists in society. If Nintendo made an obviously female Link but had all of Hyrule treat her like a man, then they'd be doing it wrong.
Consider: In Majora's Mask a voyeuristic male Zora requests that Link snap a picture of a sexy sexy Geurudo for him. Would he make the same request to a gay Link? To a female Link? Maybe not. Maybe he only feels comfortable asking Link because he's another bro. Society might tell him to hide his sexual foibles from a member of the opposite sex, even if he's comfortable discussing them with another man.
Silent protagonists are characterized by the society they operate in.
This blew my Goddamn mind and made me feel like a horrible person. Link and I “mesh” so well because I don’t have to make many big stretches to fit into his Kokiri boots. I was making the cardinal sin of being a white guy; believing that a white, male, middle class, straight, American like me was the default human being. This is WRONG and the very idea of a blank slate character is a direct appeal to this insidious avenue of thought. There are no “blank slate” characters.
There is no default human being.
In an effort to make Link accessible, we’ve given him these qualities that he doesn’t need time and time again. Why haven’t we seen a female Link? Why haven’t we seen a black Link? Why haven’t we seen a Gerudo Link? For that matter, why not Asian? Nintendo is a Japanese company after all.
Why? Because of an effort to appeal to the idea of the blank slate through the default human being. Even after a heaping handful of “Hero of Time” reincarnations we have the same markers of identity. Link is still bound by his maleness, by his whiteness, and by his (assumed) straightness.
And if Link is gay, we don't know. He's treated like a straight male by every person he meets. I mean, except Tingle.
But now we're not bound by the idea of the blank slate! Because I just told you that human blank slate characters don't exist. Besides we just found something better. We can learn what it's like to be in someone else's shoes. So we have choices here.
Doing nothing is always a choice. After all there's nothing really wrong with Link being white, straight, and male, but there are a lot of characters with those same markers of identity out there. Maybe it's time game writers stretched a bit.
And I absolutely do not mean characters who are characterized entirely by gender stereotypes. Game writers should write characters who society treats as women. Players can decide how they meet, exceed, or disregard virtual society's expectations. The same goes for any other marker of identity.
On the other hand we can discard gender and race and sexuality and go with a completely neutral character. One that has no markers of identity and isn’t even recognizable as human. A robotic claw, for example. Samus fits this description pretty well. We don't see her gender at all even if she is a woman. This doesn't make for very interesting societal conflict though and I don't think this “true blank slate” appeals to gamers. Most of us can at least identify with humans. Most.
We can discard society as a whole and set our game in a wilderness where the only human is you, a la Super Metroid. Many games do this. After all if society can't impose boundaries on Samus for being a woman, who the hell cares? She can't rise above, deny, or accept the assumptions that her fellow human beings have placed on her. There's no societal conflict and the game becomes mere survival. This solution is tempting and its easy but I'm not sure it makes for an artful game or a game that makes much of a useful statement on the human condition. We want those. We do.
We have to prove Ebert wrong after all.
We can have the player craft their character so they can eliminate dissonance for us. This solution makes players comfortable but if I make a character who essentially looks like me and has all of my markers of identity then I don't really learn anything. Art dips too close to realism in this scenario. I learn what it's like to be me, but I do that every day. See Warhol's Sleep.
And maybe that's why I liked Link so much. Because I was comfortable. That friend I was talking to loves Zelda. She cosplays as Link all the time. But she also felt, at least a little bit, what its like to be a man in society. Maybe not the whole picture. Maybe not an accurate picture. However, every man ever feels pressure from society to save the world and get the girl.
I have almost no idea what it's like to be a girl. I don't think I'll ever get the complete picture but I still want to know. Games can put you in a situation that is not your own. Maybe games are a great way to teach us about things that are not us.
If I make a character that is just me, I learn nothing. Conversely, if I make a character with none of my markers of identity I'm either consciously looking for differences in societal interaction or I have accepted dissonance and identified my character very clearly as “Not Me.”
The goal is no longer the mesh, but the exchange. The character gives me as much as I give the character.
Finally, and I think this is the best choice, we can make a silent protagonist who operates within a society who isn’t a white, straight male for once. We can make a character who, by not speaking, can characterize the player instead of themselves. We don't have to obliterate white, straight, male characters from the face of gaming but by only making these characters we're being unfair to everyone. I would never get to see how I'd be treated if I was anything but me and people who aren't me wouldn't get to feel the mesh I feel with Link.
I like video games for two reasons; I get to be someone else and I get to learn about myself (also I like fun).
If video games are going to start striving for more artistic elements in terms of narrative, maybe its time that old boys like Link start leading the charge. Nintendo has pioneered so many innovations in gameplay and story over its lifetime. As fans, we shouldn't let Nintendo rest on its retro laurels. Nintendo can keep pioneering. They aren't done yet.
We gamers are responsible for the trends in the video game industry. Let's prove that we're mature enough to handle something that stretches our perception of the world.