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The Future: The silent protagonist will win

7:00 PM on 01.16.2010 // The Silent Protagonist

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People make a big fuss about presentation these days, but I've always been a big believer that less is more. Essentially, I feel the more voice work that's put into a game these days, the less I'm given a chance to use my imagination or be a part of the experience and interpret things. I hate it -- not with an insane passion, mind you, but I hate being force-fed "heroes" that wear their heart on their sleeve.

I think one day gaming will come full circle and we'll come to grips with some of the old ways being the best ways. The Silent Protagonist will win, because he or she always does. They're persistent like that.  needed.

Right now, interpretation has become a waning skill amongst gamers since we're seldom allowed to interpret things any more. People get baffled by characters that are a bit more aloof because they're spoonfed these emo J-rock archetypes or grizzled space marines.

Yet we're often expected just to watch what happens in stories with these Captain Obvious types. People hail Mass Effect's Shepard as a some kind of innovation for being able to interrupt a conversation. I don't like him any better than Tommy Vercetti because I've been taken out of the picture. I liked GTA III guy and the KOTOR protagonists better. I get to be the star.

Let's be honest: There is an extent to where games are about gratifying your own ego. If you're going to argue otherwise, then let's just go over all the trophy/achievement collecting, the speed runs, Hard Modes, the online FPS or MMORPG all-nighters. You play games because they make you feel accomplished, for as temporary as that feeling may last. You play to feed your ego, but you also play to feel something from the stories.

So why upstage the real star here? Why should you be reduced to a passenger? And how does someone else speaking for your character make it feel like you? In real life, people who assume to speak for me get a dirty look.

All that stuff takes me out of the game, it doesn't help me get into it more. Its one thing when the character started out with a voice and mind of his own, like Solid Snake, but its entirely another to make a bunch of silent/unvoiced characters and suddenly plug voice into them.

Some people think its cheesy or lazy to have the protagonist not speak, and yet, I think its rather important they often don't. Since starting up in the early 80s, I've just grown up with characters being this way and really don't like it when I get ejected from the main character's head.

I know there are those of us that have played Ico, Out of this World, Metroid II, Super Metroid and Shadow of the Colossus. If fact, if you haven't played one of them, stop reading right now, save your breath and go play one of them. Super Metroid and Shadow of the Colossus are probably the easiest in that list to obtain, Super Metroid being on Wii's VC channel, SotC from a PS2 used bin.

It's one of those "You had to be there" things. If you never went there, you can't know what the appreciation for those games are. It probably also helps if you grew up with it and played it in-context to the times, but if you don't restrict what you play by graphics and such, you probably won't have a problem.

Now, in many of these games, you had a handful of lines that communicated anything and it wouldn't have filled an entire page. All you had was action and observation. More or less, the developers gave you enough credit to figure out what was going on there. They went about communicating the story with many subtle elements just left to be interpreted.

In the case of Ico, its all about survival. It evolves from that idea into a lot more.while remaining almost entirely unspoken.

You're tossed in this castle, left to die for who knows what reason other than village superstitions because you grew horns growing up. As fate would have it the sarcophagus the village guards stuffed you in falls loose from the wall just after they exit the chamber.

You begin to look for a way out. You come upon this spire and you ascend the stairs, thinking you'll spy a way out. You come upon the cage at the time and find this older girl in it. Another prisoner, so you go about setting her free so she can escape with you.

You try to speak to her, but she doesn't speak your language, so that's out. You at least get her name -- Yorda. And you both start to make your way around, you realize she has powers to take down magical barriers. Well, that's handy, she'll be useful. She can get you out of here.

Along the journey, you begin to realize many things about Yorda. She's very weak. Not stereotypical, feminine weak -- she's just not conditioned for physical activity and she's going to need your help. How long was she in that cage?

Not only that, as you leave her to her own devices and scout out the next obstacle, you see she has a curious nature. In fact, its so curious you begin to wonder if she's ever seen the outside world, been in the sun, been close to birds and things of that nature. To her, everything seems new and interesting. What kind of life has she had here?

And she's a real wanderlust, which can be a bad thing. See, not too long into the adventure, you also encounter these shadows that seem bent on taking her back. They don't seem to care about you at all, but as you've come to realize things about Yorda, you become very protective of her and fight these shadows off with whatever you can get your hands on, even if its usually just a wooden staff. You feel an urgency that's not just because of the impending Game Over screen if they get her.

Its because the game made you care.

And its because you've not only observed and inferred things about Yorda based on the way she acts, it is also because you've felt the touch of her hand, you've felt her heartbeat. What started as your ticket out of this castle has become someone you feel a strong need to protect. She's bonded with you and you feel an almost knightly passion for her, you've gained a sense of honor in protecting her.

There's a bit more to it and you come to more of these realizations on your own -- the nature of what you've been fighting off, Yorda's reasons for being prisoner and why you were brought to the castle. Some of this you pick up on before there's finally some dialog to confirm your feelings.

Its the best way to tell a story, no large budget for voice overs could have told that story better. It wouldn't have been the same story because I would have been taken out of the experience to a great extent by not being Ico. Its because the game sought to bring all these feelings out of you through its design.

And its because we were allowed to step into the protagonist's shoes, it couldn't have been more effective any other way. Nothing they could have spoken would have drawn those same emotions out of you because it became personal. The idea of Yorda, as ethereal as she is, became real.

Why take that potential away from games? It something no other form of media can achieve.

I've heard some people say they want to hear the Main Character speak in Persona games, citing Mass Effect as an example of how it could be "better." I don't see it. I would be ejected from the experience. The MC's feelings would have to be defined by an actor. Even if I was choosing the emotion he goes with, its still a defined voice and might not be the one I had in mind.

Its like reading Batman and imagining his voice in the comic, then watching George Clooney or Christian Bale blow it. It might not be as damaging for a one-off Main Character, but imagine the trouble of giving someone like Link a voice. Actually we don't have to imagine, we've had rather unpleasant animated versions. Remember this one?

And while I'm not a big Dragon Age fan, those I know that love it cite this as one of their reasons for enjoying it: "Unlike Mass Effect, I get to be the main character again, I feel like I'm part of this."

There certainly seem to be people that don't want to be ejected from the main character seat and just be some Hand of God influencing the protagonist, they want to be the character and part of the experience. The silent protagonist is a simple device that brings in the player more easily. Its an inclusive element.

There's also the factor of budget and how complex dialog branches can really get. I mean, if the MC in Persona 3 starts talking, then they're going to want all the people in the social link portions to talk, too. That means more actors, more money spent and lengthier localization times. I prefer quick localization turnarounds, thanks.

That's why Dragon Age had silent protagonists (well, minus the localization thing). You had the races, genders for each race, multiple models for each race. If we had full voice-overs for each version of the protagonist, it might have broken Bioware's budget and put the game on multiple discs. And if they go the Mass Effect route, it becomes less of a fantasy RPG because you're eliminating classes, races and so on. You need that stuff.

Sometimes, its just better to keep it simple.

So I don't think the silent protagonist is going anywhere. He's the past, present and future in video games. So long as players want to be included in the experience and get to experience the emotions for themselves in a genuine way -- or its just not in the budget -- the silent protagonists will be

The Silent Protagonist,
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