Guest Post: Silent Protagonists

Today’s guest post is by Marty X. We call him that because Marty is his name and X is the sexiest letter there is. So for today, you get to hear the ramblings of another, but I’m still in control of the captions. 

Before we get into his post, I have a bit of a disclaimer. I am personally of the opinion that silent protagonists are abhorrent. They are lazy attempts at immersion, at best. I am of the firm opinion that if you put a story into a game, you need to have a voiced protagonist. Without it, the character is severely handicapped. A silent protagonist can’t interact with the world in any meaningful way except from what you’re told, and I’m sick of being told how amazing I am by more developed NPCs. Marty X has a slightly different opinion on the matter, so I wanted to put a brief overview of mine before I handed the post over. Anyway, enjoy the wonderful tales of X. 

There are several ways to portray narrative in a Video Games, and how you choose to do it, depends on what type of game you are creating. For example, many shooters have voiced protagonists, acting out a more western narrative in the same vein as an action movie like Nathan Drake in the Uncharted series. Another type of protagonist, which I will be focusing on today is the ‘silent protagonist’. This type of protagonist is present in a huge variety of genres, but is most notable in the RPG genre. The Silent protagonist allows the player to immerse themselves in a game by making dialogue choices for the protagonist. This helps the player immerse themselves in the story, as many gamers like to feel like they are actually part of the action. Some games do it well, and use this strategy to their advantage by tugging at heartstrings, and evoking a plethora of emotions.

To be fair, I’m pretty sure Links a really raunchy guy, so it’s better he doesn’t talk.

This narrative device began when video games were but a wee child (as was I). The majority of games didn’t involve dialogue at all, and a lot of early Role Playing Games employed a silent protagonist as a player avatar. For the most part, the player only had to choose from ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers. It wasn’t so much a conscious choice of the developer as much as it was based on technical limitations. These choices were directly related to where you would go, or what you would do, but rarely made a difference. As stories became more complex, so did the choices a player could make. It has come to a point now where large swaths of dialogue can be altered, depending on how you answer questions in a game, which adds replay value, and puts a little more weight on the things you say. This has led to many games using silent protagonists as part of a morality system like the Fallout series. A player has to decide who they want to be, and many games give bonuses for sticking to one side or another. Will you be true to yourself, or will you be good/evil? Some players use these questions to build their avatar, but most games penalize you for such roleplaying. How immersive can an avatar-based silent protagonist be when you’re choosing to be good or evil to get perks?

If the devil hadn’t just gone through weight watchers, he’d have won by now.

There are many examples of games that do this well. Being silent, but allowing you to give their hero a voice is often employed by Bioware, the company that develops the Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Neverwinter Nights and Knights of the Old Republic, games. Most if not all of their early games used silent protagonists and had a focus on player choice. This allowed you to sculpt the character, building them from the ground up in order to facilitate traditional Dungeons and Dragons style roleplaying. You could be anything you want to be. Do you want to be a Space Cowboy? Maybe an Evil Wizard, or even a Twi’lek dancer? Anything! This worked really well, because it allows you to invest a lot of your own personality into the character, making you more invested in the story. In some of their more recent games, Bioware added a voice to the hero (Shepard, from Mass Effect and Hawke from Dragon Age 2). I like this style much better. It’s a lot more engaging. After all, it’s odd playing as someone who doesn’t talk (vocally), when the whole world around them is so animated. Most importantly, Bioware made the transition without cutting any of the player choice they were known for. 

Commander Shepard cares not for your roleplaying.

Not every game that uses a silent protagonist ends up as successful as Knights of the Old Republic, or Dragon Age. While it’s a great mode of story telling, oftentimes, having the protagonist act as a blank slate can be detrimental to the story. An example of this would be White Knight Chronicles. You’re told to create a character, model how they look, and you are able to sculpt exactly how they participate in battles. At the very beginning of the game you work with the real hero Leonard, and apparently you are old friends… or something. Throughout the whole story you’re there, never interacting with anyone, just a lump that follows the tide of events. You’re in the background of almost every scene, creepin’ up a storm. Just there, never saying anything. Sometimes you’ll have a cheery look on your face, while the rest of the cast voice their dreams, hopes and concerns, being melodramatic, and acting their hearts out like Anne Hathaway at Oscar season. It just got me wondering, why was my character here? Nothing would change if it was gone, and I can use every other character just the same as my blank slate, so why bother? I get that it helped implement an online aspect, and you use your avatar for that, but still.. Try harder, or just have the avatar for online only. If you’re telling a story, and you have useless tag-alongs then it’s going to diminish the effect of the story. 

In my defence, I’m a pretty awful game.

I recently played Persona 4: The Golden (loved it), but when I was going through NewGame+, I just couldn’t help wondering why they didn’t voice the main character. There’s a Persona 4 anime (came out after the Ps2 game), with a voice actor playing the hero, and it works very well. Same goes for Persona 4 Arena. However, in the main Persona 4 game, the hero is left unvoiced except for grunts and a couple of battle shouts. Persona 3 and 4 are based on free choices, every day in the game you choose what to do, who to visit and how to spend your time. It is essential to not waste time in that game, if you want to be strong. So, I can see how it would be hard to voice every different outcome/instance. When I play persona, I don’t create the main character in my image. He is nothing like me. No matter what the option is, I will say ANYTHING to make the person I am interacting with happy. It can go against ever fibre of my being,  but I will still do it, because that’s how you do well in the game. You are shady, and say what people want to hear, make them happy, and level up their social link. So, with that in mind, I feel like there doesn’t have to be a blank slate of a character, because he’s not supposed to take on your image, if you play like me (and you should: I crush the bosses in those games!). I feel like Persona could implement a voiced main character like in Mass Effect, You would still get to make your own decisions, but he (Or she!) would have a voice, and be able to participate more in the story. It would be magical.

If you’re making choices in order to make Nanako cry, you’re playing the game wrong.

It’s interesting to have a hero that you can project yourself on, but it can be a little dated at times. There are better ways to tell a story, and, frankly, I find developers play it too safe when they do that. I want to see more developers take a chance. I want to see Link, from Legend of Zelda, do more than grunt and go ‘Hi-ya!’. Seriously, that shit is getting old. If they did that, I would had to give them props, because that would be risky. Persona can stay with what it’s doing (because it is still perfection), there won’t be another White Knight Chronicles, KOTOR is dead or in MMO territory (which is as good as dead), but… Zelda lives forever. If they took a risk and added a fully voiced cast, it would be interesting to say the least, and would have everyone talking. It’s hard to give a voice to a character that has been silent for so long, but it can be done. Mario acquired a bit of a voice, though he only talks in sentence fragments. Why can’t Link?

– Marty X


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s