I want to start by saying that I, like pretty much every other gamer, have a long list of pet hates when it comes to the videogames industry and I'm not going to sit here and bore you with a ten hour rant about why I think some things are dumb or plain ridiculous, or string sentences together with lines of abuse about the annoying things that developers do. No, instead I want to explore something that interests me about in regards to game design, and touch on the use of silent protagonists within the games industry. I'd going to mostly focus on First-Person Shooters for this, mainly because I think FPSs are the area where the involvement of the main character in the narrative becomes the most crucial I doubt anybody ever queried why sonic doesn't sit down for a chinwag at any point in Sonic and Knuckles? Or say for instance why the agents in syndicate never say a word! (possibly because they're cybernetic zombies?!?! - just putting that out there). No, although plot is important to videogames in general and especially crucial to the glut of high-profile videogames that make the lion's share of the money in today's market, it's mainly FPSs where the depiction of the central character and whether they're vocal or not has the most significance to the narrative logically speaking, because as you see out of their eyes you pay more attention to how they specifically interact with other people and how other people respond to them, (and if being vocal or not has some effect on this interaction.)
Now I won't try to outline a complete history of silent vs vocal player characters in gaming and how that's effected the interpretation of game narratives over the last twenty to thirty years, because that would probably end up being a 30,000 word dissertation, and to be honest I'm far too lazy to write that much, plus I'd probably miss loads of games out, but I would like to touch on a few games (predominantly first-person shooters) and analyse whether or not I felt having a character who spoke or not added or took away from the immersion of the game.
So the question I want to ask is: Does a vocal player character exclude or include the player in the narrative? And Why?
I think one of the earliest instances of playing a game with an integral yet silent protagonist is Doom something I didn't really realise till I sat down and actually thought through all the games I'd played in my life and tried to figure out whether or not I found the main character's voice important or not. In Doom the main character simply known as 'Doomguy', is thrust into a nightmarish reality in which he fights for survival against legions of demons out to rip him to pieces, all whilst remaining (except for grunts and screams) completely silent. In the case of Doom, for me atleast, the silence of the protagonist seems fitting, all you need is the paragraph blurb from the manual about their being a demonic invasion and all your buddies getting waxed by some demonic filth and you're off racing round some little map at breakneck speed blowing zombies and imps apart. Obviously if Doom were real, then the silence of Doomguy (and his lack of name or any other humanising features) would make him seem unreal, simply because part of being human is reacting emotionally to stimuli if you see a girl you like you smile, if you find out a family member has died you cry or you swear - you express yourself in some form. If you didn't express yourself you wouldn't be human (ofcourse you can 'hold things in', but generally speaking there is a reaction even if you don't make it clearly evident.) In that sense Doom is a very easy to get into game mainly because you don't have the layers and layers of story you get with other games and because you can simply load up a level and play without anything else but it also means you don't potentially feel as much as you might if the character was more vocal.
Counter this with say Duke Nukem 3d that came only a few years later and you get the sense of why a vocal character can be important. In the case of Duke Nukem the fact your character mouthes off all the time with wise cracks is integral to the gameplay and the structure of the game in essence the thing that is Duke Nukem is this sort of overly vocal big dumb jerk who loves boobs and blowing shit up. If Duke simply shot stuff silently it wouldn't have the same impact despite the solid gameplay mechanics. So to some extent how involved a storyline a game has effects how involved, how vocal, the characters have to be compare say the brief paragraphs in the attract mode that served as the whole plotline for a game back in the days of the Megadrive (Genesis) with the hand-holding step by step narratives of todays biggest selling games. Games have developed, have become more involved, with more involving narratives, deeper storylines, and more complex gameplay mechanics, and as they have done so so too has the involvement in the player character increased, and so too has their prominence as part of the game. Most mainstream games today attract the player's attention by trying to tell a story they place you in the central role (usually as 'HERO 1') and try to make you feel a part of things in order to increase the enjoyment. You're not just repetitively pressing buttons to move from stage to stage with a progressively increasingly scale of difficulty, you're experiencing a series of events as - or through the eyes of, the main character.
Although it's unfair to say that there is one single point in gaming history where narrative became all important to the immersion and success of a game (since there were amazing games with good plots way before the videogames industry became big business) Half-life is probably the game that can be generally agreed upon when it became a big thing
for a game to have a kick-ass storyline and events. Everyone remembers the first time they saw one of the marines dodge a grenade, or groups of them work around you to flank your position, or the APC break through the garage wall or saw the AI fight between the soldiers and aliens. It brought gaming to a new level, because it tied narrative to in-game scripted action you didn't just see a FMV (which were often quite juxtaposed with the games themselves in those days) the 'events' were happening around you, in front of you, and it was cool because you
were there, you
were in it.
But Half-life also featured something else A silent protagonist. Despite being intimately involved in the events of the game (and seemingly atleast partly to blame for the incident itself) Gordon never says a word. Instead the narrative is played out in front of you through the conversations that the research staff have between one another, and to
the silent Gordon, and between the soldiers at brief lulls in the fighting, and of course through the events happening in front of you. The idea behind Gordon being silent was supposedly a sort of 'every man' theory in that as playing as Gordon anyone could feel that they
themselves were the protagonist because Gordon never said anything one way or the other.
But Gordon's silence can also has a negative effect on the narrative especially in the second game and it's DLC, as the secondary characters in those are especially emotive and pronounced in their reaction to the events of the game, whilst Gordon is just silent. Whilst Gordon's silence in the first game is awkward yet acceptable his silence in the second seems to hold the narrative back to a certain degree. Afterall as humans part of what makes events so powerful emotionally when they happen is the shared sense of reaction between individuals if you're standing on a platform and see a train crash then you share the horror of that moment with those around you, if instead you alone were the only one who responded emotionally then you would think there was something wrong with those around you. Likewise in a game with such a powerfully emotive narrative like Half-life 2 not having the characters emote upon, say, seeing the citadel explode or a portal open up, then the narrative of the game would be much more muted, but it also works the other way with Gordon's lack of emotiona reaction itself detracting from that sense of immersion for the very fact he doesn't share those same emotional outpourings.
Now I've used the Half-life series as a case in point, and actually rather banged on about it quite a bit, considering it's possibly one of the best games ever made, but there are other games where the silence of the protagonist when compared to the events going on around him seems odd/out of place. The Fear series is one of them, as although you can perhaps excuse the point man's reticence given what you find out about him through the course of the game, Becket's silence in the second one seems odd. Again, as with Half-life 2, a compelling narrative is created both by the events going on in front of the player and the way the secondary characters (Becket's compatriots) react; and since Becket never says anything you, as the player, feel less involved in the narrative, than if say he did contribute he wouldn't need to over emote or cry out or anything like that, but if he did occasionally pass comment on what was going on around him it would make him seem more human especially given some of the devastating events that form the core of Fear 2's plot.
The same can be said of Dawn of War 2, it has a similar focus on a central protagonist in this case the 'Force Commander', who can be named whatever you want, to make him feel more like your character. But his continued silence, as his brother marines snarl and whine, and generally emote, over the events of the game whilst he sits back silently does put his character at odds with the events going on around him; and I think this is the main argument against silent videogame protagonists, because if big budget games like these are going to involve the player in a moving narrative that leaves you feeling as though you've experienced something whilst really enjoying the gameplay mechanics then they're going to have to consider exactly how vocal a character has to be for him to be part of the narrative because having the main character silent throughout the game can take away from aswell as add to the immersion afterall if you were Gordon Freeman, wouldn't you react to the things going on around you...? and doesn't it seem a little odd when characters endure supranatural events without even a single word?
I think the problem becomes more compacted as the player is pressed to become more involved in the storyline as the scale of the events taking place around the player increases the ridiculousness of the character remaining silent throughout becomes more intense, more palpable. That's why the silence of Doomguy seems more natural than say Point man's, because the level of immersion is different. But I would like to point out that in some FPSs a silent main character seems appropriate, as I already pointed out Doomguy only really needs to grunt occasionally and look scared and he's done his job; Doom isn't a heavy game, you can jump in anytime and just have fun, and if somebody did add lines of dialogue it probably would sound very odd. Another personal favourite game of mine is System Shock 2, in which you play a solitary marine revived from cryo-sleep to find himself alone aboard a ship overrun with human/alien hybrids and automated defence systems gone mad, remaining silent throughout. Infact I think the only time your character ever says anything is in the final cutscene and that's just 'err, no.' The game revolves around the loneliness and claustrophobia of practically being the only living thing left on the ship, hence your character's laconic nature seems to fit the narrative better.
Probably one of the most articulate expressions of this Vocal Vs Silent Protagonist argument is the difference between the original Dead Space and it's sequel, Dead Space 2. The original Dead Space was a balls-to-the-wall, super intense, Sci-Fi horror classic a mix and match of countless science fiction references, with a fist full of gaming pop-culture throw into the mix, to create a thrilling, slightly shocking at times, and annoying on atleast one occasion (I'm talking about you asteroid shooting mini-game! GRRR!) but overall fun game. For a lot of it you were very much alone, with this loneliness interspersed only on occasion by the odd conversation or disturbing audio log. What topped it off was the fact that Issac never spoke, infact you only saw his face possibly twice; so it left the principle narrative (ie the events going on around Isaac) to become the driving force behind the plot rather than the plot developing through the player's character's interaction with other characters.
Now in making Dead Space 2 they obviously took into account a lot of the criticisms levelled at them by gamers about the original dead space, some of these added to the game and I have to admit some of these additions/changes seem a bit dumb to me (ageing Nicole so she looks like somebody's grandma probably being my main grievance). But definitely the biggest change was Issac metamorphsis from a mute character into a very vocal, articulate and emotive protagonist, he pretty much went from simply gesturing mutely at scary things to emoting and (usually) shouting at or about everything
that happened. The result was that Isaacs presence became much more pronounced, he became less a spectator and more an involved participant in the narrative. And really even from the initial scenes you get a sense that Isaac is horrified by the things going on around him and as you experience his fear it contributes to your fear, but Isaac's contribution to the narrative also takes away from the narrative to some extent. I didn't exactly count but for the first half of the game Isaac must have shouted 'Dana!' atleast FIFTY times, and then for the second half of the game shouted 'Ellie!' another fifty times. He also shouts fuck a lot, and has a comment on pretty much everything that happens.
In essence the nature of Isaac as this somewhat stoic character who endures unspeakable horrors literally without a word is totally turned on it's head, and I'd probably liken Dead Space 2 Isaac to a chatty 10yr old school girl - which is not a good thing in a game!
To a large extent the annoyance about Dead Space 1 was that Isaac didn't react to anything, except maybe to grunt, and visa versa one of the potential grievances with Dead Space 2 was that Isaac said too much, and to some extent this detracted from the enjoyability of the game - personally I really got annoyed after awhile that he spent so much time running around like a lost puppy after those two girls, when in the end he didn't really know either enough for it to make sense.
I think the common thread between all these games and why their characters work or not being vocal is just how important speech is in the context of the narrative if you play someone abandoned in the artic for instance, alone and desperately looking for escape, or a man trapped alone aboard a starship overrun with semi-human monsters who want to mercilessly beat you to death the fact your character doesn't say much can be excused, indeed it would probably make a lot of sense, but when you play a Delta Force member, surrounded by a team of hard-ass soldiers who don't stop talking whilst a city burns under a nuclear blast around you the fact you never say 'today really sucked'
seems a bit odd.
Stoic characters within games, even as the protagonist, do work but it depends largely on the type of game and how involved in the narrative the character is, for example a simple 8-bit like platformer doesn't necessarily need a mouthy main character indeed it might detract from the game, but in say the big-budget FPSs of today, where narrative is key, who your character is and how well they fit into the relations between characters is vitally important. Silence can be detrimental to a narrative, but the opposite can be true just as much a vocal character can be to a game's detriment, and of course there's the pitfall of 'what sort of character does the player want to be...?' that developers have to cope with if they do decide to make the protagonist a specific kind of vocal individual what voice sounds right? What lines sound right? Does the character have enough lines? Does he have too many...?
The key here is context, in some situations a silent character is all powerful in others he can be a weakness to a game. Compare for instance Doomguy from Doom and his spiritual successor in Doom 3, in the original Doomguy doesn't really have a need to speak, but in Doom 3 the protagonist's silence detracts from the gameplay because you expect him to react somehow to the horrors he faces, especially in the cinematics indeed he does react, but he only pulls faces instead of crying out, which seems odd. Likewise, I don't know if anyone remembers this but the protagonist of GTA3 was silent, but to a large extent this didn't really seem to detract from the narrative primarily because he wasn't the centre of events so much as just a part of them, where as in Vice City where you play as Tommy your character is front and centre, and the necessity of your character speaking becomes evident as the narrative attempts to pull you further in than GTA3's did.
In the end silence can be a key component in immersing the player in the story and making them feel as though they're in the game but just as an annoying protagonist can ruin the immersion for the player so too can a silent one have a detrimental effect in how engaged with the narrative the player feels, so it's integral that developers consider the kind of immersion they want, and also too the kind of immersion the players will want before they decide whether to make someone a chatterbox or a mute.