Sunday 1 July 2012

Silent Protagonists: A Unique Opportunity

I'm not the only person who wonders whether silent protagonists in games have overstayed their welcome. On the one hand, it's easy to see why they're so popular. Ever since Half-Life we've been convinced that players can better inhabit a virtual identity when there's no pre-scripted personality with which to compete for expression. Without a strong protagonist to make decisions and harbour motivations we can leave the player to fill in those gaps. Perhaps your Gordon Freeman wants to save the world, perhaps he's just interested in surviving the various unlikely scenarios he finds himself in. Maybe he's just shy.

Avatar's are also cheaper and 'easier'. With an unspeaking central character we don't have to worry about whether the player is standing on the other side of the room talking to a wall during a dialogue, nor do we have to take control away from them to prevent as much. We don't have to worry about whether the player knows who's speaking, or think about breaking to third-person. This is definately a view I've come to question.

What do avatars achieve?

I'm certain there are good contexts for avatars, and less good ones, but from experience it seems as if uncharacterised protagonists have simply become the default for first-person games. That should worry any writer, because often enough its results would seem ridiculous to anyone not bred on its rules.

Do avatars really help players to identify with their character? How does something like The Witcher 2 (where players are given control of their character's decisions, even though Geralt very much has his own personality that can't be overwritten) compare with Mass Effect 3 (where lines are written much more neutrally) and Half-Life 2 (no control and no dialogue)?

For me, the presiding feature isn't so much about character as about control. I don't feel like I'm competing with Geralt for expression in The Witcher, and I feel closer and more involved with his story than with Gordon's. I'm pleased to say that game mechanics have more say over my emotions than script delivery. Personality isn't something we're accustomed to being easily able to change in real life; the same is not true of the decisions we make.

In avatars' defense

However, the silent protagonist has a place in the grand scheme, and that's the point I want to make here. I'm currently working on an indie game that I hope to announce in the next month, and on that we began with an assumption of a silent protagonist, assessed it, and decided it fit nicely with what we were trying to do. There's a minimalist tone to this game, the soundtrack is ambient and the NPC dialogue un-voiced; but further, questions of identity and independence are central to the narrative. A silent protagonist (or, perhaps, one who can't / won't speak through most of the game) sits well with those ideals.

What struck me, though, was this: how many other narrative mediums offer this sort of flexibility in stylistic choice? Could you make a film in which the central character never speaks? Perhaps, but I think you'd struggle.

We talk a lot about the limitations of games as a narrative medium - lower quality visuals, player autonomy etc - and not so much about what makes it uniquely exciting. Silent protagonists may be over used, but they have a time and a place. I think it's pretty awesome to be in an industry that allows us to try crazy stuff like this and to discover just where that time and place is.


  1. How do you react toy the Gordon Freemans and the [insert Rage's player character here]s of this world?

    What hits home for me is that as long as we're continuing to do these very linear, movie-narrative-like games removing talking heroes from our dramatic toolbox is a pretty drastic move. Those traditional plot lines are meant to have a hero at their centre with motivations and goals and relationships which interplay with the plot arch, and these are all much harder to do when you've only got NPCs to do the dialogue work.

    More abstract and less linear experiences which provide the player with meaningful decisions to make naturally are less well suited for a pre-scripted protagonist.

    How do we feel about games in which the player isn't the protagonist at all? I'm thinking about certain strategy games. Do we have this need to express our personalities, and does it comes into conflict with how much we can enjoy a story?

  2. Speaking as someone burned out on cinematic linear game, I think what you call avatars (protagonists that are all about player control and identification) should be much more prevalent than they currently are. It's a case of something being much cheaper than the alternative (no big-time voice-acting) thus allowing developers to instead concentrate their efforts on building a world and refining the gameplay.

    Speaking generally, innovation and creativity in games often come with diminished graphical fidelity or cinematic bombast. There's a lesson to be learned here, I wager.

  3. I LOATHE silent protagonists in games. It is just stupid as hell. It was stupid in Half-life, FEAR, BIoshock, does not help my immersion at all. It damages it actually.
    In Crysis 1, Nomad, main character, spoke. Only rarely, and only when the situation warranted it - and I felt completely immersed ! And then they introduce Crysis 2, where character is silent all the time, despite the whole plot being based around the fact that all characters mistake you for someone else!


    Seriously idiocy of Crysis 2's narrative pisses me off anytime I think about it, especially after nicely simple, but logical narrative of Crysis 1 and Warhead.

    I wish developers would stop using silent idiot in main role already.