March 20, 2011
The Silent Protagonist: Immersion Creator or Killer
ARTICLE WRITTEN BY IFinners
Immersion is an important aspect of all entertainment, and video games in particular have to pay close attention to it. A film can be engrossing, you can empathise with a character or situation or perhaps be so moved or appalled that you become invested in the story. However games go further than this by granting you control of the protagonist and thus making them somewhat of a conduit between yourself and the world the character inhabits. Games utilising a first person perspective amplify this connection further, and this is why a slip into uncanny valley, a glitch or even something as simple as an incoherent plot is often far more jarring than problems in any other medium. To this end the job of the protagonist is a multi-faceted and difficult one; they must drive the main story arch whilst giving the illusion of absolute freedom, they must represent the player almost as much as they represent the game. And so, amidst the swathe of brutes spouting clichéd patriotism, the convoy of silent protagonist enter into the fray, with Gordan Freeman at the helm (for me at least), shouting there silent battle cry.
There are characters that are so grandiose, so outlandishly crass that immersion is achieved in spite of them. The Duke Nukem games, including (and it feels strange writing this) the upcoming Duke Nukem Forever, are gloriously gratuitous in all aspects, and I would never have a silent protagonist replace the foul-mouthed Duke. However somewhat ironically (though it is closer to wordplay than true irony) there is a lot to be said for the silent protagonist. Metroid: Other M was hyped as being somewhat of a revival of a fantastic franchise, and the decision to grant the mysterious Samus Aran a voice hit the gaming world with equal measures of excitement and trepidation. As I am sure you are aware the game not only gave her a (terrible) voice, but also managed to turn her into a submissive character with the potential to de-emancipate women everywhere. Like so many other women she should have stayed silent (please read this comment for the pathetic excuse of satire that it is) but at least, if nothing else, giving her a voice has given me a fairly contemporary example of the potential ills of vocalisation. The problem, in cases less severe than Other M, stems from the fact that the characters thoughts rarely match your own. No game can truly encapsulate the breadth of human nature; even RPGs like the highly successful ( and enjoyable), Mass Effect games, that offer various dialogue options covering an array of emotions, are unable to truly compensate for the individuality of people and their idiolects. But can a silent protagonist really represent anyone? Surely if you were a theoretical physicist, who is surprisingly adept with weapons, you would have something to say whilst a headcrab cracked open you co-workers skull. Does a protagonist with no voice at all kill the immersive nature of a game for all but the mute?
No. It does not. Rather it enhances it by allowing you to project your own opinions onto the character, to coalesce with their mind and become, to a certain extent, them. I did not find myself sitting silently when playing as Gordan Freeman or Issac Clarke or any of the other silent protagonists. I was mentally and, frequently enough that my sanity was brought into question, orally involved. With Gordan as my conduit I felt an array of emotions and even managed to developed a somewhat unnerving love of an inanimate object; my relationship with Gnome Chompski may have started out as an inevitable consequence of my completionist nature, but by the time I had placed him onto that rocket I cared not for the achievement notification currently gracing my screen but for Chompski himself. And whilst there are many examples of well voiced and immersive protagonists, a category that the aforementioned Issac Clarke may now have fallen into after recently finding his voice with some success in Dead Space 2, the silent protagonist is, for me at least, the epitome of immersion when done well. And whilst not all roles lend themselves to the silent treatment, as miming a rousing pre-battle speech or using semaphore to give detailed instructions is almost impossible; if you have a character who is able to say everything without uttering a word, and a plot and supporting characters that are robust enough to facilitate your silent presence then you have a truly fantastic game. And I for one will play episode three, should it ever arrive, with either a characteristically silent Gordan Freeman, or devoid of any sound whatsoever.