Last week, I wrote a post exploring some of the problems in how video-games use silent protagonists. I originally intended this article to be a direct follow-up to that piece, but it ended up being more of a stand-alone work exploring a few flawed ways games have done silent protagonists and how I believe game writers should avoid those problems. So, without any further ado, let's explore a few ways silent protagonists have been done over the years.
The Overly Developed Silent Protagonist
There's a lot of games I could use as an example here, but I'll use a less obvious choice and talk about the JRPG series Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga. The games' main character Serph is a silent protagonist, but he's not a completely blank slate. If you bother to read the manual, his defining trait is his leadership skills. His silence in the actual game makes this difficult to demonstrate though, since he stands there spacing out while his companions make decisions and drive the story forward. Generally speaking, your companions hash things out amongst themselves and then declare what the group's next step is while Serph stands around looking stoic. As a result, it feels like Serph (and thus the player) is just a passive observer along for the ride instead of an engaged participant in the narrative.
When you are called upon to make decisions, your choices usually boil down to binary right or wrong dialogue options that change little, so true role-playing is off the table. An early dialogue choice that asks the player to make a decision for the rest of the group on where to go next exemplifies this problem. Your options are either to go where the game wants you to or express uncertainty and have one of the other characters decide for you. If there is only one correct dialogue option or decision in a game, they may as well give the main character some minimal dialogue where he makes the decision instead of pretending to give the player some say in the matter. Giving the player only one correct or canon choice (or one choice total, as I've seen some games do) is basically giving the the main character unvoiced dialogue and pretending it isn't so.
Furthermore, there are a lot of problems created by Serph being an awkward cross between a silent and regular protagonist. Unlike complete blank slates like Alcatraz in Crysis 2, Serph has some depth to his character. He is a man in a position of power who has a rather interesting backstory, and parts of the plot rest upon his interactions and relationships with other people. For example, one of his companions grows increasingly irritated with Serph's leadership over the course of the first game, and this sparks a conflict between the two of them that isn't resolved until the end of the second game. Serph also has a love interest in the first game, but it never goes anywhere because of how difficult it is to create compelling romance when one of the characters involved has all the personality of a stuffed doll.
With Serph, it feels like they wrote a standard protagonist and then ripped out all of his dialogue and agency and passed it onto other characters. This leaves us with a half-baked protagonist who doesn't work as an empty shell or as a compelling lead and instead just kind of exists. Digital Devil Saga isn't the only game to suffer from these problems, since game writers are often forced to burden their silent leads with backstory and drama in order to make the rest of the story work.
So why did Digital Devil Saga have a silent protagonist? If I were to guess, since Shin Megami Tensei games traditionally have silent protagonists, they probably made Serph silent to follow tradition. And that's a horrible, horrible idea.
The Technically Silent Protagonist
This is what happens when you have writers who want a silent protagonist but can't handle the idea of keeping the main character completely silent. To fix this, they split the difference between a silent and developed protagonist by keeping him or her silent in the gameplay and developing them through other means. I hate to keep going back to Outlast like I did in my last article, but it's such a fantastic example of things related to silent protagonists.
The frantic writings Miles makes in his journal throughout Outlast establish him as a shit-talking and determined journalist who will stop at nothing to find the truth and escape Murkoff Manor. We don't get to learn a whole lot about his backstory, but his personality shines through in these entries. We witness his mental deterioration as his situation grows grimmer, and he gets a few memorable moments such as when he makes a snide joke about the death of one of the antagonists. He never demonstrates this personality in the gameplay itself though, which creates this odd disconnect between the silent person I'm controlling and the rather interesting individual I'm reading about in the game's journal entries.
Miles is only one of many leads that inhabit this grey area between silent and developed protagonists. Although not nearly as lengthy as Miles' writings, the journal entries in the first Dead Space depict Isaac as a calm and focused individual despite the horrific things that are happening to him. More annoyingly, we have Metro 2033, which inexplicably kept Artyom silent in the gameplay despite featuring melancholic voice-overs from him during the loading screens.
What all these characters have in common is that the writers weren't willing to commit to a fully silent protagonist and instead found sneaky ways to give them bits of dialogue or internal monologues without technically breaking the rule of silent protagonists not talking in the gameplay or cutscenes. This method is often preferable to keeping the main characters completely silent, but it also creates its own set of problems. It can work against the purpose of silent protagonists since the primary reason behind having them is that they won't intrude on how the player would react or act if they were in the character's shoes. Half measures like these can build an awkward divide between the empty shell I'm trying to project on and the person he or she is apparently supposed to be.
The Quiet Protagonist
This brings us to my favorite kind of silent protagonist, even if they aren't technically silent. These are the leads who only talk when it's absolutely needed, such as in the case of Nomad from the first Crysis.
Nomad wasn't much of a character and had next to nothing for backstory, but this approach works surprisingly well because it makes him a solid combination of a silent and traditional protagonist. He doesn't speak much, but he reacts when it's appropriate, which helps prevent one-sided dialogue. He's generic enough that his personality and actions will rarely clash with the player's own idea of who Nomad should be, but he's developed enough that there's no awkward exchanges. I've spoken to people who completely forgot that he talked in Crysis, which is a testament to how unobtrusive this approach can be.
I was delighted to see Destiny take a similar approach. The main character is silent during the vast majority of the game, with your Ghost providing most of the chatter, but your character speaks a few choice words during a crucial conversation in one of the early cutscenes to help keep the threat of one-sided monologues at bay. My immersion was never broken in this cutscene because this method kept the dialogue sounding natural, but I also still feel like the character is firmly mine since he isn't chatting up a storm or displaying a personality different from my own.
All that said, the quiet protagonist approach only works in games like Crysis or Destiny where the motivations and backstory behind the main character don't matter much. Story-driven games like Digital Devil Saga that call for a strong protagonist should either integrate large amounts of player choice and agency or more simply use a traditional main character in order to not damage the rest of the story. Strict reliance upon silent protagonists as a cheap and easy way to increase player immersion is misguided, as it has many disadvantages and may work against player immersion if it's not done properly.