March 20, 2011

The Silent Protagonist: Immersion Creator or Killer


    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.


  1. PimpmasterF - March 20, 2011 9:47 pm

    Thanks for the arti­cle IFinners, I real­ly enjoyed it 😀
    I total­ly got into Issac Clark’s char­ac­ter and I real­ly like your per­spec­tive on the silent pro­tag­o­nist, I had nev­er thought about the fact that we give them voice by being pulled in and being ani­mat­ed­ly vocal while play­ing. I got very into dead space and dead space 2 and got very vocal at times. If done right the silent pro­tag­o­nist real­ly makes the char­ac­ter your own.

  2. IFinners - March 21, 2011 5:36 am

    I am glad you enjoyed it, and thank you for putting the arti­cle up so swift­ly. Any chance of a pic­ture edit? With the white around it just does­n’t look good. I don’t know if you can do any­thing about that, as it is my fault for cap­tion­ing it the way I did, but regard­less thanks again for being a prompt poster.

  3. CharcoalCoyote - March 21, 2011 9:30 am

    This is why I am con­cerned about Phoenix Wright vs Pro­fes­sor Lay­ton on the DS. Yeah, I play DS games, deal with it.
    Any­way, in the Lay­ton games, the char­ac­ters speak aloud. It’s good, because the voice act­ing is real­ly good. In Phoenix Wright, the char­ac­ters that you DO hear have a voice act­ing vocab­u­lary of about three phras­es (Objec­tion, Hold It!, Take that!). In the crossover, Phoenix and Maya will speak aloud in cutscenes. In Japan­ese it seems fine. But they bet­ter get a damn good Eng­lish voice actor for Phoenix and Maya or I am going to be major­ly pissed.
    On that note, I’ve always loved Leg­end of Zel­da just because of text. It real­ly pro­vides immer­sion that shit­ty voice act­ing can kill. But in the Elder Scrolls games, where pret­ty much all the voice act­ing is real­ly good (except for that one black lady guard in that chapel in Obliv­ion when you’re search­ing for Mar­tin), it’s even MORE immer­sive. How­ev­er, yet again, your hero is silent. I like the voice act­ing in Mass Effect, but I get your point about the sort of lack of emo­tion.

  4. PimpmasterF - March 21, 2011 10:37 pm

    Hows that for a pic edit, thats the best I could do, basi­cal­ly i just changed the white back­ground to match the arti­cle back­ground, and your wel­come 😀

  5. IFinners - March 22, 2011 3:01 am

    That is exact­ly what I had in mind cheers pal.

  6. PimpmasterF - March 22, 2011 11:49 am

    excel­lent, glad to help 😀

  7. ScrotusKilmystr - March 25, 2011 10:54 am

    great arti­cle! intrest­ing look into the top­ic! basi­cal­ly like you wrote if the sto­ry works with a silent lead at the helm i am for it and also giv­ing lines to your char­ac­ter adding depth to the sto­ry then that works as well
    btw some­times shit­ty voice act­ing makes the game more mem­o­rable as well ie. the 1st res­i­dent evil voice act­ing was crap back still a great game.


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