In every form of entertainment, it’s just about expected for the protagonist to speak, or at the very least have their input shared and feelings felt. Even silent movies where characters had no voices at all had their emotions and dialogue shared with an audience. Of course, reading the inner monologue of your favorite characters in books is also part of the agenda as well. Even if the film stars a mute character that has no dialogue or emotions transcribed to the audience, that would be a rare occurrence indeed. For gaming, a Silent Protagonist is one you cannot hear speak. They stand out amongst other characters as either having no dialogue at all or simply no voice. It’s a mechanic that has been going on since the early days of gaming, and has been present in every generation.
Beginning in the early days of video games, it was very difficult to fit audio onto the small cartridges that games released on. You would hear dialogue as a small chirpy sound effect, repeated to mimic the cadence of speech by characters in a world. Even as CD-ROMs were added in the Playstation era, it was just more efficient storywise to continue with text dialogue and this method. Not to mention that as games have become longer and more complicated, fully voiced characters are becoming more and more expensive.
There’s more than technical and budget restrictions to the usage of a silent protagonist in gaming. They have their own charm, either through being completely silent or simply unheard. When employed correctly, it can become an effective storytelling technique, pulling players in and adding depth to the world. It’s an almost dignified existence to some degree, and one that has had a number of memorable characters. Throughout the essay we’re going to explore how it’s been used and its effect on modern gaming.
Immersion Through Silence
Video games face an entirely separate issue than other mediums such as books, television, and movies. They’re 100% interactive, requiring keeping the player engaged in what’s happening at all times. While every game is different, the people who play these games are even more so. Creating a character that appeals to the broadest spectrum of players has always been a challenge even for the greatest storytellers in gaming. As such, the silent protagonist has been a method to counter that.
In The Legend of Zelda series, Link was always the silent hero of his own adventures. Being called upon by powerful forces within Hyrule to defeat evil was a monumental task. Not everyone would have accepted and gone along with everything he did. Who would be willing to brave the innards of a whale god or lose 7 years of their life trapped in time such as Link did in Ocarina of Time? Keeping gamers solely focused on the events and Link completing them diminishes the gap between the player and the narrative.
Initially, the method was cited as a way to save resources. Why create voice acting in a game that really doesn’t tell a story. Mario only needs to jump on poor turtles and devour mushrooms like a maniac. Doomguy just needs to unload on the denizens of hell with his B.F.G. As gaming has continued, more games are taking different routes to reach the same goals. But when gameplay is the key factor for a development team, keeping the player as focused on game mechanics as possible is the main objective.
- System/Platform: PC/Mac/Linux, 360, PS3
- Publisher: Valve
- Developer: Valve
- Release Date: Nov. 16th, 2004
Gordon Freeman was a theoretical physicist working for a large research lab called Black Mesa. During an experiment, hostile aliens were summoned into their facilities and all hell broke loose. In Half-Life 2, the game takes place 20 years after that initial incident, with Freeman being dropped into City 17 by the mysterious G-Man. It is a desperate world, having been taken over by the alien forces Gordon Freeman saw unleashed that day. Joining forces with his ragtag group of allies, Gordon Freeman is tasked with saving the world and stopping the ruling extraterrestrial force known as the Combine.
One noticeable thing about Gordon is he almost never has a chance to speak. The dialogue and events are written in a way that he’s just not given the opportunity to. For an FPS, it was very narrative-heavy for its time, yet it was constantly shown through the first person perspective. You could completely move around during most dramatic scenes with a large degree of freedom. While it may have been just as effective if it had cutscenes and interjections from Gordon, it worked exceedingly well as it was, and might have stood out all the more because of its nature.
They Do Have Dialogue
A silent protagonist doesn’t always have to be as mute as characters like Link and Gordon Freeman. The criteria for them only comes from not being voiced, making them stand out amongst other characters in the game. This is a prominent feature in visual novels and RPGs. Sometimes it’s more immersive to create a character’s voice in your mind than to hear the voice actor given their role.
Dragon Age: Origins
- System/Platform: PC/Mac, 360, PS3
- Publisher: Electronic Arts
- Developer: BioWare
- Release Date: Nov. 3rd, 2009
The Grey Wardens protect the world from evil in the medieval fantasy world of Ferelden. As one of the last few remaining heroes left in the world faced with the upcoming onslaught of an entire army of evil, players guide their main character on a perilous quest. Over dozens of hours, you will journey across the map gaining allies and making enemies. Some noteworthy characters are voiced by prominent voice actors and actresses, and every scene they’re in is engaging and progresses the plot.
As the hero character in Bioware’s medieval fantasy RPG, you shape the fate of your character and the world. Almost all scenes were voice-acted, except for your main character’s. You had options to select dialogue, but you could only read it yourself and see NPCs’ reactions to it. This method has been employed in Visual Novels in the past, as well as Bioware’s previous games. However, it can be argued whether it was more or less effective, as when more resources were devoted, Bioware had fully voiced scenes with their next series, Mass Effect.
One notable advantage of a silent protagonist over Commander Shepard’s portrayals is diversity, or lack thereof. No matter your race, age, or ethnicity, the voice actor and actress are the same for both variants. If your character’s voice in your own head doesn’t match how you see them, it can create a subtle disconnect. Another point of contention is that when selecting options in Mass Effect, Shepard ad libbed. He often went more positive or negative than you intended. In Dragon Age, you selected your statement precisely, knowing exactly the emotion to convey.
The last high profile game with a silent protagonist was 2016’s DOOM. Everything else may have been propelled into the modern era tech-wise, but the tried and true quiet-but-deadly protagonist remained unchanged. While it was a noteworthy game, the series was never known for immersive storytelling, but was praised for high octane action. More and more genres of games have been inspired by techniques perfected by studios like Bioware. Even open world action adventure title Horizon: Zero Dawn added dialogue options to influence the story. It’s becoming a rarity to see strong, silent characters like Link.
Even funny, caricature-type protagonists like Mario and Crash Bandicoot are becoming scarce. Sonic the Hedgehog was probably the most noteworthy casualty. As the series has gone on, he’s begun talking more and more. It’s up for debate whether this is an improvement, but the change is irrefutable. Still, if they were to all disappear, we would definitely miss them. Do you have any favorite games with silent protagonists? Let us know in the comments, we’d love to hear them!