Because games are about more than headshots

Who Am I? An exploration of silent protagonists in games

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Are you Gordon Freeman? Or do you merely control Gordon Freeman throughout his improbable escapades? Although it of course varies from title to title, the question of identity (and by extension, immersion and narrative) and the degree to which we are the protagonists in First Person game is one of the most hotly debated issues within the industry. At this point in time more developers seem to be moving towards the ‘player as protagonist view’ within the first person space, as can be seen with the increasing number of games adopting the ‘Silent Protagonist’ approach, such as Clint Hocking’s flawed gem, Far Cry 2 or the critically acclaimed Bioshock, while more heavily characterized protagonists seem to have migrated to the third person perspective, especially after Cliff Bleszinski’s magnum opus; Gears of War. Today’s post will be less opinionated than the majority of my content, instead being focused upon exploring the effects of having mute protagonists, in terms of both narrative/characterization and player immersion within a title.

At the center of the issues surrounding the silent protagonist divide is the question of whether the player is the protagonist in the game. Many designers and consequently many titles take the approach that increased player involvement in the game and the game’s narrative will involve the player more and thus can create more moving experiences, whereas other developers believe that having the player carry out the actions of a well defined character can affect them more, both by creating situations where the player’s interests diverge from the protagonist’s and by creating a more complex narrative.

The idea of ‘Player as Protagonist’ was born out of early RPG’s which gave the player the ability to name their characters and then later customize them. The early games had no dialog, so for all intents and purposes the only expression of the character within the world was player defined, what items to wear, which enemies to fight and the character’s name, the only identity the protagonists given. Due to the minimalist settings (jail, dungeon, wilderness all infested with foes) it was often fairly easy for designers to perfectly align the protagonist’s and the player’s interests, in many of these early cases survival was the only option open to either. Although players were in fact more limited in these early games than in many modern titles, the low fidelity settings made it a lot easier for designers to focus the player’s interests on very simple objectives, while in games with higher fidelity the player expects more options within the world, causing the old model of having the player truly in the world to fall apart.

By and large, designers have had to abandon the ‘Player as Protagonist’ in absolute terms, as the fidelity of modern titles has increased at a much greater rate than the level of interactivity has. However, many developers still adhere to many of the principles of the player protagonist and try to craft an experience which is as catered to player immersion as possible, with the mute protagonist being one of the main techniques still employed by designers such as studios such as 2k Boston, Valve, Retro Studios or the Ubisoft Montreal team.

History aside, what does having a mute protagonist actually do for a game? Well, the most obvious effect of having a mute protagonist is that the player will never be yanked out of the (hopefully) immersive setting by a line which the player doesn’t agree with, whether it be because the protagonist says something that the player disagrees with or merely uses language which the player wouldn’t use. Furthermore, one of the logical extensions of this is that player will begin filling in the conversational gaps where it seems logical to them, whether consciously or unconsciously. This dialog that the player creates will (by it’s nature) always remain consistent with the player’s impression of the protagonist, never resulting in a situation where the player feels put off by his protagonist’s reaction. By virtue of the protagonist having no real personality, the player will just imagine the protagonist to be reacting in the way they think most appropriate, which logically is as immersive as a world can be without reacting to what the player is directly thinking. Player will inevitably also project some of themselves onto the protagonist in this scenario, endearing the protagonist to the player and investing the player further within the world.

However, in many cases a silent protagonist is a barrier to immersion. There are quite a few game’s I’ve played which have silent protagonists where the dialog felt awkwardly written, as some poor writer trained in a any other form of narrative had to attempt to learn how to make conversations which only involved one character speaking. There were certainly instances of this in Bioshock, where it seemed entirely to of place for he protagonist to be completely mute considering the events going on around him. Not a single question for Dr. Tenembaum regarding the nature of his mind after the game’s mid-climax. Not a single exclamation of outrage or fear during his tumultuous confrontation with Andrew Ryan? It simply doesn’t ring true to how any person would react given the circumstances and divorces you from the character. While games with less dialog and more action/visual storytelling can often avoid such pitfalls, in more complex, verbose narratives it often becomes very difficult for writers to seamlessly integrate a silent protagonist into the dialog. What works for the minimalistic Far Cry 2 does not work as well in Bioshock. However one has to wonder how a protagonist for Bioshock could even be written and whether an awkward and unbelievable silent protagonist might not merely be the lesser of two evils. Perhaps worse than the moments where your character speaks but doesn’t, are the occasions in these games where character’s monologues to your silent protagonist include reactions to words it’s assumed your character has said. Not only does this detract from immersion since your character has not, in actuality said anything (bringing the oddness of that to the player’s attention), but often the character’s dialog will imply that your character has spoken in a way entirely different from that in the player’s mind, another large blow to player immersion.

Furthermore and possibly a greater handicap, having a silent protagonist forces writers into certain kinds to stories. Silent ‘protagony’ (yet another neologism) prevents writers from being able to create truly involving stories which are focused on interpersonal relationships, for example. Imagine a first person adventure written in the fashion of a Jane Austin novel, which featured a silent protagonist. Unless it was the touching romance of a person afflicted with mutism, the story would be impossibly awkward and very difficult to immerse oneself in. It is pretty much impossible for mute characters to be as complex as characters who have some form of self expression, crafting a narrative which is less interesting. However the video game space has a very long way to go in general towards crafting complex characters, so perhaps this shouldn’t yet be an overriding concern.

Finally silent protagonists prevent writers from creating characters which take the initiative in games. A silent protagonist will always be reactive to something, an order from someone or some event happening. This cramps narratives, making them far more predictable than tales in which the protagonist himself is an unreliable force. It also severely limits the roles in which a player could play in a game, for example, it would be pretty much impossible to tell the story of an lone silent antagonist, such as a rapist or murderer, because if the protagonist was a complete emotional void and didn’t have anyone to order him about there would be no motivation for such acts. Voiced protagonists are the only way to really have a game in which the player is forced to commit acts which they feel uncomfortable with, which is going to be one of the themes over the next decade which I believe will help video games rise into an interesting artistic medium. In games where the protagonist is silent and players have options, they logically cannot act in a way which goes against what they’re comfortable with and I feel that a game where a player was forced into a role they were not comfortable with (like rape, murder or being a member of the Gestapo) would come off as gratuitous and an abuse of linearity on the designer’s behalf. If the player cannot find a legitmate reason to do what they’re doing they won’t which is why situations players would prefer not to be in can only come about as a result of well defined player characters.

But then on the other hand, silent protagonists cannot make one liners, which would be a huge leap forward in the medium’s aspirations to art.

There a number of additional issues surrounding silent protagonists, such as player association with their silent protagonist and how many attributes can be grafted onto a silent protagonist before a disconnect starts to occur with the player, but all of those are firmly within the realm of implementation, not design. The increased difficulty of maintaining player interest in the story is another curious phenomenon that has been noted with a lot of silent protagonist games, particularly the Half Life series and the question of whether so many players would spend their days bunny hopping off Kliener’s head if Gordon interacted with the story somehow is an important one but sadly not one I can rant verbosely on.

This article was inspired by Dead Space: Extraction, where the very strong characterization of almost every character made me wonder about the differences between the well voiced protagonists in Extraction as opposed to the mute protagonist in the original Dead Space. Anyways, that’s my time up. A Beyond Good and Evil post is still on the agenda but has been sidetracked by Okami for the moment, which is my current shine thing. Alongside Dead Space: Extraction, my love for which is now branching off into the irrational. Also, Radiator + Korsokovia are still coming, my interest reignited by this article, particularly for the first chapter of Radiator, which is about relationships with a non silent protagonist, but to be perfectly honest I can’t remember whether he speaks or not, so that part clearly didn’t leave much fo an impression either way. However, that’s more of a mood piece anyways, which silent protagonists are good for.

Don’t worry, it’s over now


Written by Aonshix

October 4, 2009 at 7:22 pm

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