(Contains spoilers for Dishonored and minor information about Crysis 2 and Outlast: Whistleblower.)
Although it doesn't spark the same amount of controversy as topics like sexism in video-games or quick-time events, the usefulness of silent protagonists has always been a point of dispute in the gaming community. Some people love them, others hate them, and then you have people who don't care either way. Many of my favorite games have silent protagonists, but I've always held a certain amount of distaste for the concept. I finally decided to sit down and write something where I can work through why I dislike them so much, and perhaps even discover some of their uses.
There are definitely some instances where having a silent protagonist can add to the game, such as in last year's Outlast. There's no reassuring chatter or smack talk coming from the main character to break the oppressive atmosphere. You're constantly surrounded by an eerie silence that is only broken by the insane ramblings and movements of the inmates. The only sounds your character makes is his labored breathing and cries of pain when he's caught by one of the enemies. In one of the most memorable scenes, you're required to step out into the rain and pitch black darkness surrounding Murkoff Manor with only your night-vision camera to guide you. Because of the game's use of a silent protagonist, I felt like I was really there and having to force myself to step out into the darkness.
Skulking around in the shadows just wouldn't be as much fun with a voiced protagonist.
Unfortunately, Outlast is more the exception than the rule when it comes to silent protagonists. You don't have to go far to find examples of silent protagonists damaging immersion; in fact, we can just look at Outlast's DLC expansion Whistleblower. The first mission highlights perhaps the biggest problem with silent protagonists—they can ironically rip you out of the experience just because they're silent.
I start Whistleblower and the first thing I notice is that there's more dialogue. Unlike in the main game, where characters like Father Martin would usually only speak briefly before disappearing, Whistleblower features several full blown conversations at the beginning. A shady scientist is telling me to get my ass over to a computer and fix it if I want to keep my job. Silence. I'm being beaten by an asshole in a suit and his cronies because I did the right thing and exposed the Murkoff Corp. Silence. I can't help but cringe at the awkward pauses and abrupt shifts in topic as the game's writers and actors awkwardly try to work their way around one-sided conversations. The whole game thankfully isn't like this, but it illustrates what might be my biggest problem with silent protagonists—the dialogue almost always has to be twisted in unnatural ways to allow for a silent protagonist.
Your one-sided confrontation with Jeremy Blaire at the start of Whistleblower is nothing short of cringe-worthy.
In a normal conversation, there's back-and-forth. Each person asks questions, makes statements, challenges things the other person says, etc. You lose almost all of this with a silent protagonist, especially when you have one-on-one conversations because the other person has to carry the whole conversation. The hero doesn't confront the villain and demand to know why he's done so many evil things, rather the villain decides to do a long-winded and one-sided info dump because he felt like it. The fantastic drama that can come from an intense or emotionally charged conversation between two people becomes near impossible because one of the participants might as well be a brick wall.
Oftentimes, you need real conversations between the protagonist and the other characters to make the story work. This wouldn't be so bad if having a silent protagonist fit within the story or added more than it took away, but more often than not, it doesn't. To illustrate this, let's take a look at Dishonored.
Depending on whether you choose the low chaos (good) or high chaos (evil) route, Dishonored reacts to your actions and changes aspects of the story and game world. If your chaos level is high enough, it's implied near the end that the protagonist Corvo's ruthless actions influenced Emily into becoming a tyrant and all around terrible human being. The problem is that this twist feels hollow and forced thanks to Corvo being a silent protagonist. There are some limited dialogue options, but they don't do much to flesh out Corvo or his relationships with those around him. His relationship with Emily could have been the emotional core of the story, but it's nothing more than a painfully forced plot device in the high chaos ending because there's no buildup to Emily's sudden change in personality and worldview.
For instance, if Corvo could talk, they could have had a conversation where a troubled Emily asks Corvo if the others are telling the truth when they say he's a murderer, and Corvo explains to her why he believes his actions are justified. I'm not much of a writer, so I'm sure the game writers could have come up with something better, but you get the idea. Scenes like this would create some great drama and make the final twist that much more impactful. Unfortunately, the setup in the actual game is that Corvo finds the occasional odd drawing and finally comes home one day to find Emily ranting like a psychopath.
Pictured: Not a replacement for actual character growth
I should feel guilty for corrupting Emily. Instead, I laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation and start gearing up for my next massacre. Not exactly the intended effect that scene was intended to have, I suppose.
I still love Dishonored though, and I can understand on some levels why they made Corvo a silent protagonist. Even if they failed at it, they wanted players to be drawn into the world of Dunwall and to become invested in their choices, which is a noble intention if nothing else. Sadly, I can't say that about a lot of other games with silent protagonists.
I'm sure we've all seen those games where the choice to have a silent protagonist made no sense whatsoever. For an example of this, let's examine Crysis 2.
Crysis 2 was unique in that the main character Alcatraz is the only silent protagonist in the series. In a rather odd transition from the colorful trash-talking Psycho in Crysis Warhead, we were given a faceless character whose backstory was only ever developed in the book series. I assume this was done to help players immerse themselves in the game, but I can't agree with this choice.
As fans of the game will know, Crysis 2 was a highly linear shooting gallery with next to nothing for player agency in the story. If I could put my own stamp on the story, be it through something like the chaos system in Dishonored or even a few dialogue choices, I could see some value to the use of a silent protagonist. Instead, you're shepherded from A to Z as Alcatraz follows his orders and saves the world without saying a word. It's easy to tell me to imagine myself as Alcatraz, but I struggle to do this since I have no say in what goes on in the story. My control of events only extends to determining how exactly Alcatraz will plough his way through the hundredth wave of alien invaders to reach the next pre-determined cutscene or set piece. Unlike characters such as the Warden in Dragon Age, where I'm invested in my avatar's choices and backstory, Alcatraz is just an empty shell I use to fulfill my power armor fantasies.
That's not to say I'm not having the time of my life living out those fantasies.
Admittedly, giving Alcatraz no voice or face makes it a little easier for me to immerse myself as a power-armor wearing super-soldier. However, it also puts me in this strange world where people are always having one-sided conversations with me and they're a lot more accepting of mutes than I'd expect. Any immersion that I gain from being able to imagine myself as the main character is immediately shattered by amusingly illogical dialogue. I could try imagining filler dialogue for my character, but I don't know what my conversation partner will say next and I'm hardly a professional writer, so any dialogue I come up with will suck anyway.
I still enjoyed Crysis 2, but I'm convinced that they could have improved the story just a tiny bit by giving Alcatraz a personality and voice. Just making him like the subdued and obedient Nomad in the first Crysis would have been more than enough.
Since this post is getting lengthy, I'll wrap it up here. Since I still have a lot of ruminations on silent protagonists floating around in my head, I'm planning on writing a follow up post exploring a few additional ways silent protagonists have been done and explaining how I believe they can be done well. In the meantime, what are your thoughts on silent protagonists? Am I being too hard on them, or do you dislike them too? Let me know in the comments.