I was thinking recently about how great a game Super Mario RPG is. I love it. The music, the gameplay, everything is great. Another thing that I love about it (A common thing in SNES RPGs in general) is all the little touches and moments that make the game more interesting and fun that you remember for a long time to come (Something I could write a whole post on easily.) I just want to focus on one of those things today: The game's handling of the silent protagonist.
Square had an interesting task with Super Mario RPG. Make an RPG with a main character who historically doesn't talk. Now of course, Square had had plenty of experience with silent protagonists. This was nothing new to them. However, if you just take Mario through the story without ever expressing himself, you've suddenly made a very animated character lifeless. That wouldn't work out too well.
Mario is known for jumping however. By simply making the character jump in certain ways in certain situations, he begins to not only express himself, but to do it in a way that seems natural and easily understandable. Excitement, panic, agreement, all things that Mario expresses throughout the game with simple jumping.
But wait, there's more! Not only does Mario express himself through jumping, he uses charades and mimicry. Mario channels the most archetypal silent character of them all: The mime. By running around, assuming very postures, and seemingly shapeshifting into other characters, Mario manages to communicate to both the player and the characters around him.
Square managed to make the silent protagonist exude incredible personality in a game full of personality.
This brings us to The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.
Now one of the obvious advantages of the art design of the game was it allowed for a better looking game on a weaker system. The other advantage was it allowed for characters, including Link, to act much more animated.
Nintendo addressed the use of silent protagonist in a world increasingly revolving around voice acting in a similar manner to Super Mario RPG.
Link has always been a silent protagonist, but Wind Waker is where he seems to talk the most.
I remember one scene in particular early in the game. Link is about to fired out of a cannon into the dangers of the enemies' base. As the camera move back and forth between Link and the other characters he expresses a different emotion another time. One time it's fear, one time he's bracing for what's to come. Scenes like this demonstrate the perfect way to use a silent protagonist.
I think games that feature silent protagonists that aren't completely serious could learn a lesson from these two games.
(On another note, does anyone realize how perfect Super Mario RPG would be for the 3DS?)