Is Silence Golden?

Throughout the years, I’ve become familiar with all manner of games, presented in a myriad of ways and told from many different perspectives. One particular method of delivering a gaming experience to the audience has always captured my attention, and that is through the use of the silent protagonist. At times, I feel this technique works perfectly, but on other occasions, it just doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense.

The silent protagonist was not always an intentional device. Back when gaming was young, and technology was… primitive, putting voices in video games was barely an option to be considered. It wasn’t until CD-based software that speech could be included on a grand scale. Now, the capacity of game media has grown so much that character voice-overs are a somewhat ubiquitous feature. Why, then, do developers still choose to keep certain lead characters silent? Furthermore, why are there games without voice-overs that still don’t include even written dialog for the main character?

It is true that sometimes players are meant to feel like they are walking in the protagonist’s shoes, but how effective can that be in the types of games that most often feature silent heroes? Putting a voice to a character may hinder a player’s ability to properly identify with them, but oftentimes the plot itself is enough to do so. For some reason, silent protagonists tend to show up in games that rely on heavy narrative and storytelling.

Role-playing games are notorious for their silent heroes, and it just doesn’t make much sense to me. Here is a genre whose main focus is to tell an epic tale, from beginning to end — like a novel. As such, character development is paramount in these games, so how does one justify skimping on the most important character in the game? You may argue that in silence, character development can still be achieved, but without a voice (be it spoken or written) these characters INSTANTLY lose a measure of personality and also distance the audience from more completely understanding their thoughts, motives, and behaviors.

Perspective is important. When you play Chrono Trigger, for example, or even The Legend of Zelda, you are essentially watching a story unfold before your eyes. The entirety of the game is viewed from a third-person perspective. There can be little fusion of identity if the player is never allowed to actually embody the character in question. The presence of the character in the player’s visual field acts only as a barrier. I am me, Link is Link, and can I see where I end and where he begins. We are not one.

On the other hand, sometimes the idea of a silent protagonist is very effective. Gordon Freeman of the Half-Life series (and others like him) is a very loosely defined character, and is therefore very easy to “turn into.” Gamers know only a few things about him, and the rest comes via gameplay — through interactions with other characters and participation in the game’s events. The silent lead experiences and, more importantly, responds to it all no differently than the player does.

Perspective is still key. The first-person point-of-view is the most effective for use with a silent protagonist. Players share their eyes, ears, hands, feet, and, of course, voice. Again, the stimulus and the response for both the player and the character are equivalent. These games don’t play like storybooks.

Of course there will be stories where the main character is actually a damn mute, but barring all of those games, I feel the silent protagonist should be implemented only where it makes sense. When the gamer is meant to become a character, a voice is unnecessary; when the gamer is meant to behold a character, he or she should speak.


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Author: Eddie Inzauto View all posts by
Eddie has been writing about games on the interwebz for over ten years. You can find him Editor-in-Chiefing around these parts, or talking nonsense on Twitter @eddieinzauto.

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