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mechayakuza avatar 9:33 PM on 10.05.2009  (server time)
Nothing is sacred: The silent protagonist

Since Monthly Musings has moved to the topic of sacred cows, I figured there was one that I just had to make a stab at slaying: the silent protagonist. You know who I'm talking about. That guy, mainly in RPGs, who says absolutely nothing during the course of the game because he's supposed to be "you."

I really hate that guy.

The common refrain we hear from video game developers is that the "silent protagonist" never speaks because it's supposed to help with the immersion and make you feel like you're part of the game. Sorry, I have to call shenanigans on that. Personally, I find that nothing breaks my immersion in a game more than having characters interact with a mute. There have been plenty of them in many genres over the years, but one that strikes me as particularly annoying is the Hero from Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King. What annoys me about this guy (aside from the silence) is the lengths Square Enix goes to to shut this guy up. Throughout the game, there are simply parts where this guy HAS to talk. So what do they do? They show him from behind talking and moving his hands. It really sticks out to me every time that it happens, thus breaking my immersion. Big surprise, right?

Another more recent example is the Ghostbusters video game. It doesn't bother me that you don't get to play as Venkman or any of the other established character. However, you play a literally nameless rookie (your uniform's name patch actually says Rookie). When the other Ghostbusters interact with you, you either look flabbergasted or throw up your arms. I guess this guy is a mime or something. What I'm about to say is very lame: breaking the immersion here is a case where bustin' doesn't make me feel good.

Why does this bother me? I guess I reject this whole idea that the video game character is supposed to be an avatar for me. Playing a game is no different than watching a video game or reading a book. I don't watch Blade Runner and pretend that I'm Harrison Ford, or watch 24 and imagine myself as Kiefer Sutherland. I play a video game because I want my main character to interact with other characters and be a part of the story.

Of course, there are times when immersion and characters aren't really necessary. When I'm playing Unreal, I just want to shoot people. In a game where the characters and story don't matter, this is fine. But it just really bugs me in a game where a named character who is part of the story doesn't say a word. One last example that sticks in my mind is Isaac Clarke from Dead Space. Here you have a really creepy game where a bunch of crap jumps out at you from everywhere, and all you get from this guy is some text on a log screen. As scary as the game can be, it really stands out that this guy just walks through the game in silence, and you don't get a sense of his fear or the tension in the atmosphere.

So my message to developers is this: kill the silent protagonist. It doesn't help the "immersion" and serves to do only the opposite.

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