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In Defense of the Silent Protagonist


A thing I sometimes encounter among a certain selection of my fellow gamers—both civilian and journalist in kind—is a deep dislike or dissatisfaction with silent protagonists. The Links and the Gordon Freemans of the video game world. In their view, a fully voiced protagonist is obviously superior 100% of the time. The silent protagonist has even been referred to pejoratively as the “heroic mime”.

The title kinda gives it away, but I disagree with this view.

Complaints about the silent protagonist take a number of forms, but they all seem to boil down to two essential feelings that the complainer feels:

  1. That it is “weird” and “unnatural” that a character in this world would never speak. Surely the other characters would notice it and think it was strange or annoying! It doesn’t make any sense!

  2. That the silent protagonist must be a relic of a bygone era, where technical limitations prevented us from having a fully voiced cast and fully voiced protagonist. But we are living in the future where such things are easy now! Therefore, the silent protagonist should be taken out behind the shed.

Here comes all of my beefs.

Two Ways Of Experiencing a Narrative

We should recognize there are two ways of narratively experiencing a protagonist. I imagine the complaints about the silent protagonist make a lot more sense to a player who approaches the narratives in a video game the same way they would approach a film or a book.

Much visual media is experienced in a third-person way

This is the “snow globe” view of the game world and its characters. From this perspective, the player may be controlling characters in this game like pieces on a chessboard, yes, but the feeling is that the player is a mere witness to this world and its stories, albeit with some power to fiddle with things.

But let’s not forget that another way of experiencing a video game is to become a resident and then inhabit that world. You are no mere witness but have been pulled into the world and fused with it, just as Bastian was pulled into the Neverending Story and became himself a character there. (And those of you who have read the very excellent and superior book version will know that he created a new physical appearance and new persona for himself immediately upon arriving! That’s as video gamey as it gets, folks!)

TFW total immersion!!!

When viewing the game world through this lens, the game’s protagonist becomes an extension of the player. A self-insert. Not merely a pawn that the player is moving nor a character that the player invented, but the player’s literal sense of self in this world. And it is for THIS type of player and this mode of play that the silent protagonist is perfect while the voiced protagonist becomes—believe it or not—an irritant.

Miyamoto has described the decision to leave Mario and Link mostly mute as very deliberate. Zelda producer Eiji Aonuma appears to agree that it is better if Link does not ever speak.

And indeed, their reasoning seems to be that there is a certain air of pride, confidence, and nobility in a silent character. More importantly, it allows the player to more easily feel that they ARE Link.

They are not just watching a Link movie or reading his storybook. The player becomes synonymous with Link in the game world. And so Zelda becomes a sort of first-person adventure despite its technically having a third-person camera.

Some players don’t experience games this way or prefer to experience them the other third-person sort of way, and that’s fine! But it’s important to recognize that silent protagonists can have some real value to certain kinds of players seeking a very specific kind of world immersion.

It's not weird. It’s a narrative device.

To say that the silent protagonist is “weird” and chortle that "surely the other characters would notice something as absurd as this" is not really much of a point at all when you consider that the silent protagonist is just one of many types of narrative device. It just happens to be one particularly well-suited for video games. For sake of comparison, let's step outside video games for a moment and acknowledge some “weird” devices from theater and film that the characters in those stories “would surely notice”.

Breaking The Fourth Wall – Also known in theatre as an "aside". This is a narrative device where a character in the story turns and speaks to the audience directly, acknowledging their existence. But also secretly, because the other characters remain oblivious that this is happening.

Wouldn't the other characters notice? Isn't that weird? This “weird” behavior occurs in Saved By The Bell, Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, Fight Club, High Fidelity, Empire Records, and countless other examples. Isn’t that something the other characters would notice? Sure, it’s weird if you’re being a persnickety smartypants, but it’s also just a device. It’s fine.

Musicals - Isn't it weird that people would suddenly break out into song and dance all the time? Even in places where it's completely inappropriate?

Isn't that something the other characters would notice and comment on? Wouldn't they think the main characters were psychotic? Wouldn’t they ask them to please stop? No! It turns out it’s fine! Just a fun little device.

Dramatic Convention - This is something that happens in theater or movies where there is a special set of rules that both the audience and the characters in the narrative accept and take for granted. More generally this is simply the “suspension of disbelief” that applies to all fiction, but it also extends to strange and special circumstances where elements of a story are intentionally inconsistent with the rest of that story’s world, yet the audience and the characters implicitly accept the inconsistency for some special reason.

For example, in the tv show Family Guy, the family dog (Brian) is able to behave and talk like a human character, which the show almost never acknowledges or comments upon (except for the occasional meta-joke). In many Disney films, some of the flora and fauna have human speech and personalities whereas other flora and fauna around them are just the normal non-talking kind. Why the inconsistency? Is that even logical? Don't bother thinking about it, because the answer is the audience doesn't care! Then you have characters like Boomhauer, R2D2 and the teacher from Charlie Brown, who all speak in incomprehensible gibberish or sound effects, and yet other characters around them still “understand” and respond to them as if they have just heard ordinary speech.

In short, the fact that all of this is “weird” should really make absolutely zero difference.

The Heroic Mime – Literally!

Silent protagonists can actually be really awesome in lighthearted and comedic contexts. You can literally have a “heroic mime” and have it be fantastic. Take two of the most iconic characters in all of video games---Mario & Luigi---as just two examples.

Especially when you look at a game like Super Mario RPG on the SNES, Mario never speaks a word in the game, and yet he “communicates” with other characters using physical gestures and some lovable slapstick pantomime. They could have easily given Mario some text in that game, even if he only responded with "Eetsa mee!" But they didn't do that! On purpose! When creating this version of Mario, why wouldn’t Miyamoto and the good people at Nintendo look up to some of the great silent comedians? Here’s two of them you probably know:

The Super Mario RPG version of Mario was great silent comedy, and it actually remains one of my favorite versions of Mario.

Voice Acting Is Often Quite Bad

Some companies out there really nail the excellent voice acting every single time.

But let's be real: video game voice acting is not always so stellar...

...sometimes silence is better than the alternative.

Final Word

Some people wanna give the silent protagonist a bad rap, but I love silent Mario. I love silent Link. I love derpy-sound-effects-only Banjo-Kazooie. I don’t see heroic mime Gordan Freeman as in any way inferior to chatty Captain Shepherd, and in fact find his silence a point in his favor. Remember when Dead Space made Isaac talk instead of maintain his Gordon Freeman silence? Call it an unpopular opinion, but for all the reasons stated above, I felt it was a bad choice. After Dead Space 1, I could no longer project myself into that role as easily anymore. I could no longer feel as though I were occupying the Isaac suit because there was already some other dude in there.

Sorry! This Isaac Clark is taken!
(Sorry! This Isaac Clark is taken!)

No longer was I being personally attacked by scary necromorphs. Now I was watching this other talkative man be attacked by them instead. Now I was controlling him more like an action figure instead of like a character I was playing on stage. What do they call it? "Role playing"?

TLDR: The silent protagonist is fine! I will shout this belief like an angry drunk all the way to my grave!

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About genoforprezone of us since 8:56 AM on 03.19.2018