As gamers we’ve all, at one point or another, come across this type of character. They’re often stoic and mysterious, mostly keeping their thoughts and opinions to themselves; in fact you don’t recall them saying much of anything at all even though the NPC’s react as if they had. This is the silent protagonist, a character ranging from a blank slate to one with their own back story but whose words and motivations are determined by the player. It’s a character type that’s existed ever since gaming’s inception, something that’s successfully spawned several iconic, well known characters like “Gordon Freeman” (Half-Life), the “Vault-Dweller” (Fallout), “Link” (Legend of Zelda), and until recently “Samus Aran” (Metroid). Most of us recognize this type of character when we see them, but do we really know what they are? Do we understand the reason for their silence? Haven’t we all wondered what the game would be like if they were able to speak? Interesting questions to be sure, so let’s take a look under the hood and see what makes these characters tick.
So what is a “Silent Protagonist”? Simply put, a silent protagonist is any player character (PC) that has no spoken dialogue. They don’t talk; you never hear them say a word. It sounds boring but, as mentioned above, some gaming’s most iconic characters haven’t even made so much as a single sound. Far from dull, these characters have managed to capture the imaginations of most gamers who have the chance to step into their shoes. A silent protagonist that is handled correctly, rather than winding up being largely ignored, instead becomes a vital part of their game’s appeal, the thing that makes it unique and interesting. A silent protagonist can be more than a simple shell; rather it has the potential to be the one part of a game and its lore that we shape ourselves, our own personal touch to an otherwise already defined world.
This is the reason why the silent protagonist has proven to be so versatile over the years; we are the ones who define them, not the developers. It would stand to reason that the relationship the player builds with this sort of character is seen by a developer as a great reason to use a silent protagonist in a game instead of a voiced one. That alone is a great reason for a game developer to use a silent character, but there are other potential benefits. A silent character can be more cost effective in that the developer doesn’t have to hire a voice actor to bring the character to life. A silent character could also be less labor intensive; if they don’t talk then the writers don’t have to work as hard to write them consistently, since the job of characterization is handled mostly by the player. This leaves the writers more time and energy to devote to the rest of the story/plot/characters; a silent protagonist isn’t a “lazy” decision but instead a choice to give the player further influence over one element of the story, ideally to better develop the rest of it. However, our attachment to our own personal vision of a silent character is not necessarily always beneficial to the developer or even ourselves.
It is because we each define our own version of a silent character, that a decision to give that character a voice is often met with harsh criticism. To give a character a voice is to give them an identity, and odds are that the writer’s idea of who a character is and how they would talk is different from yours. This is likely why “Metroid: Other M” was not received by fans as well as it could have been. In giving Samus a voice and even a new back-story, the developer (Team Ninja) created an identity for her that clashed with the one the majority of Metroid fans had created for her themselves, and as we all know, those fans quickly made their displeasure known. Whether or not it was a bad choice is up to debate, but bad or not it was still a significant (and controversial) change for both the character and the Metroid franchise. This is perhaps why silent characters tend to stay silent, as cool as it would be to hear them speak, it would likely alter how you see them and it may even feel like a change for the worse, disrupting enjoyment of the game as a whole.
While giving Samus a voice will always be something of a controversial decision, it’s a decision that made sense in the context of the type of game “Metroid: Other M” was. It was a more fast-paced and cinematic game than its predecessors, so keeping the main character (Samus) silent in that format would have been difficult to pull off. This situation touches on another aspect of the silent protagonist: they don’t work well in every game format. A silent character can work well in a game that’s built largely around role-playing/environment rather than story/characters, but becomes more of a liability when a game focuses on the latter group. Games like Mass Effect, Uncharted, and Ratchet and Clank (just to name a few) are all constructed in a way that calls for the main character to have a response to other characters and the surrounding environment, they simply wouldn’t work as well without it. Think about Uncharted without all of Nathan Drake’s cheesy remarks and action-hero bravado, it suddenly becomes less engaging, and even kind of dull; it’s an environment and story that calls for someone to guide the player through it, someone to bring us into the action. It’s situations like this that make silent characters seem obsolete, and for these types of games it’s a valid sentiment; they could not exist as they do without modern video game voice acting.
The silent protagonist isn’t really an obsolete device though, just one that has strengths and weaknesses just like every other element in a game. They can create a bond with the player that most voiced characters can’t, but become dangerous if eventually given a voice. They can draw you into the realm of “Oblivion” (Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion), but often hinder the delivery of an epic, character driven story. This is the silent protagonist, a character device as old as gaming itself, but one that still has merit in the era of modern games.