Silent Protagonists: Doin’ It Wrong

People seem to have two main reactions to a silent protagonist; either that the silence made the character easier to identify with, or that the silence made the character flat and boring. Both those reactions rely on the silent protagonist being an empty vessel or almost a non-character, either to be replaced by you or used as a tool, but with no inherent characteristics.
That assumption is wrong.


Some people feel that silent protagonists are great for engaging players. Because the protagonist has no voice, you’re pretty much guaranteed to stay immersed – I mean, they don’t say anything to disrupt your connection to the game! However, the protagonist’s silence is more than just a lack of words. It seems to be a lack of thoughts, of interpretations, of prejudices, so the player can fill all of that in. How does Chell feel about the turrets? They don’t hate her, but does she hate them? In the grand scheme, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t change her actions, so that detail is left up to the player. This freedom of interpretation is more powerful in unclear situations – in games where there’s a plot mystery to be solved. With a silent protagonist, I know that the character is not just going to explain it to me – the game will try to help me along, so that I reach the conclusion on my own (before other characters explain it outright). For example, look at Bioshock.

<BIOSHOCK SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS>

AtlasJack’s parentage, and “would you kindly?” were all things that the game dangled just out of my reach through flashbacks, audio diaries, and even posters on walls. I grew suspicious, and began to question Atlas’ motives. I grew curious, looking around for answers and trying to solve Jack’s parentage on my own. “Would you kindly?” began to grate on my nerves. Then this scene blew my mind; it took my growing suspicions and threw them back into my face.
<END BIOSHOCK SPOILERS>

Jack hadn’t told me to be suspicious or pointed out clues. That was all me – which made the reveal so much more powerful. Jack had become a vessel that encouraged my curiosity and interpretations of the surroundings – he never spoke up to correct me, or even to remind me that this story was about him. It’s this freedom of thought that can make a game really gripping.

This freedom, however, can easily be interpreted as weakness. Where some like the silence because they can fill it however they want, others dislike it because there is nothing to connect the player to the character or the story.In Andrew Otton’s recent article “The Problem with Silent Protagonists” he argues that silent protagonists cannot be considered “strong” because this sort of character has no substance to it; the foundation for the character is there, but nothing makes the character unique. In that situation, the protagonist’s identifying characteristics become their surroundings and their tools; Gordon becomes a crowbar, Wander becomes the colossi he fights. Otton argues that because the characters don’t express themselves audibly in any way, there’s nothing you can use to tell them apart (aside from their surroundings and tools) – if you replaced Chell with Link but kept the Portal Gun, he argues that the game wouldn’t change at all “other than some of GLAdOS’ jokes.”

In some cases, the protagonist is supposed to be a quiet vessel for you to fill with your own personality (take the Dovakhiin who tries to live as an NPC), or to be used as an exposition tool (like the Rookie who joins an ODST squad with the Firefly crew). However, in cases like Chell, Jack, Gordon, and Wander, there’s a fully-fledged character that these two points of view are ignoring. You shouldn’t think that the purpose of a silent protagonist is to be a blank slate that draws in the player. In doing so, you forget that you are playing a game; your actions and surroundings are literally “designed,” and the game’s completion relies on adhering to that design.

These predetermined actions are the character’s goals; the character isn’t a blank slate at all. When faced with a gameplay decision, (what should we do about that helicopter?), the options presented to the player are themselves the thoughts/opinions of the character. If the game says that you need to destroy the chopper before you can progress, it’s because Gordon is telling you that’s the case. Gordon can’t progress until that chopper is down, for whatever reason. The only difference between him and, say, Shepard, is that Shepard would remind you exactly why the chopper needs downed, where Gordon just gets it done. Silent protagonists do talk; they just do it through the design of the game itself and not through dialogue.

While a silent protagonist seems to be a way to augment immersion (with varying levels of success), a well-written silent protagonist can be so much more. The game has limitations and a set plotline, and you have no choice but to follow it. The protagonist doesn’t have to talk in order to have motivations or reasoning – all you need to know is that something needs done and they are ready to do it. You can fill in the blanks or not, but you have to remember that this is a full character you’re working with, not a projection of the player into this game world. He or she is a unique character with feelings, motivations, and a certain way they’re going to do things. They just aren’t chatty about it.

Header illustration by Zoe Quinn

  • BomaConer

    I don’t know if I read the article right… but this just seems like you’re just highlighting the inherent flaw in video game storytelling. There is no way to make a game truly and completely interactive, which is one of the major points of video games, which is why it forces you into a role of a “protagonist”.

    • http://twitter.com/DireMuffin DireMuffin

      While I am highlighting it, I wouldn’t call it a flaw – I’m saying that the inherent limitations of a game help to define a protagonist, which gives additional depth to a silent protagonist.

  • Tim

    You mentioned a set plot that the player has to follow … can you have a silent protagonist in a game where the gameplay is open — a game whose decisions would actually help define the character?

    • http://twitter.com/DireMuffin DireMuffin

      “In some cases, the protagonist is supposed to be a quiet vessel for you to fill with your own personality (take the Dovakhiin who tries to live as an NPC)”
      So yes, you can and you do. That’s not the sort of silent protagonist I’m talking about here, though.