ImRage: Why Silent Protagonists Fail
If you’ve played Dishonored at some point this year then you’ll remember that it was a good game about an assassin named Corvo Attano who joins up with a rebel faction to avenge his Empress, save her daughter and regain his lost honour. The trappings of an emotional story no? But the baffling thing about the game is that Corvo says not a single word the entire game. In fact he even has emotional relationships with other characters yet says nothing to them. If you found this strange you’re not the only one. The silent protagonist is nothing new to avid gamers and this week I’m going to explain why, exactly, it’s a bad storytelling technique.
Before I explain everything that’s wrong with it, I should note that there are certain scenarios where a silent protagonist is somewhat justifiable. The first is when the main character isn’t significant to the overall plot or when the story isn’t important at all. Perfect example here is the Call of Duty games: in those you’re just one soldier of many fighting in a war and your character’s life or death doesn’t really impact the events that unfold. Or take Super Mario for instance: the ‘story’ of that game essentially exists to connect platforming levels so I doubt many complain about the fact that it doesn’t have an engaging narrative. The second example where a silent protagonist could be justified is when you, the player, are the lead character. Take a game like Pokemon or Oblivion for example: your character not having or a voice or not saying much doesn’t really damage the experience; but that doesn’t mean it enhances it either.
And when is a silent protagonist bad for storytelling in games? Pretty much every other time. A poignant example of where a silent protagonist actually detracted from the game is the original Dead Space. In Dead Space you play as engineer named Isaac Clarke who’s trapped all alone on a monster-infested ship to fend for himself with only mining tools as makeshift weapons. You’d except someone in this position to start going crazy at around ten minutes into the game where he watches an entire squad get massacred. But instead, Isaac just gets on with it like its a routine maintenance job; he neither speaks nor reacts to any of the horrors he witnesses which just seems bizarre. Not only does this diminish the horror of the game but it actually sticks out like a sore thumb when the game tries to make you feel sympathy for Isaac as he searches for his lost-girlfriend/wife/squeeze Nicole. Especially in the last few levels where they try to make you feel sorry for him, it just falls completely flat. How are you supposed to feel compassion for a character who neither speaks, reacts or displays even an entire inkling of awareness to anything in the entire game? Of course, they did make him speak in Dead Space 2 (albeit as a vapid and uninteresting character), but that’s another story.
You see, the main problem with a silent lead character is that goes against one of the very basic elements of storytelling: the protagonist. While not all stories ‘need’ to have a protagonist, those tend to be the exception rather than the rule. One of the most common and accepted methods of telling a story, especially in a video game, is via the use of a main character. Since we, as players, are outsiders to the story, the protagonist is essentially our window into the fictional world and their thoughts, actions and reactions colour our observations of the events that take place. In your typical story, the protagonist is also the character we are meant to grow attached to. Eventually, they have to overcome some kind of adversity in order to achieve a goal and the drama in the story is a result of us wanting the main character to succeed at achieving said goal.
In an emotionally compelling video game this is very easy to understand. You play as a character, you’re supposed to become emotionally invested in them and then you want them to succeed. In Mass Effect, you want to see Shepard destroy the Reapers and save the galaxy. In Metal Gear Solid 3, you want to see Snake destroy the Shagohod and get out alive. In Max Payne (the original two), you want to see Max avenge his family. All of these are engaging stories and perhaps you can remember feeling sympathy or elation when the protagonists went through hardship or overcame it and, the basis for this, of course, is emotional attachment; something that actually needs to be earned.
If you want your audience to feel attachment for a particular character and, thus make the story emotionally compelling, they need to be somewhat relatable or, at least, admirable in some regard. You can sympathize with Max Payne’s vengeance because you watch his idyllic life gets torn to shreds when his family dies and while Shepard might be braver and more noble (or more douchy) than you’d ever be, these are at least qualities that you can admire him for. Hell, even Goku from Dragonball Z is a beloved protagonist. It really isn’t that hard to win over your audience, you can even have a blatantly evil character and still make him/her lovable. All they need to have is some likeable definition. The problem with a silent protagonist, is that it has no definition whatsoever.
Building on from that, it’s just not even realistic. A character that goes through an entire journey without saying a single word to anyone is just blatantly unbelievable. It makes it even more jarring when other characters seem to be fine with this. Going back to Dishonored from the opening paragraph, it just seems strange that some characters admire, dislike, love or trust Corvo given that he never says a single word to any of them; the only character he ever shows emotion towards is the little girl and, even then, it’s just a pat on the head or a hug. It also distances you as a player from Corvo’s predicament. Sure you can ‘choose’ if you want to be good or evil, but how are you ever supposed to know what Corvo is thinking? And if it’s supposed to be what you, the player, are thinking, then why does Corvo make certain choices for you without your input? While Dishonored is a good game, Corvo’s silence just means that isn’t a narrative that anyone is going to remember for very long. Corvo kills a bunch of guys and some of his friends die but there just isn’t a single heart-wrenching moment in the entire game; you don’t even feel sad or happy when he gets hurt or wins. And all of that is simply because no effort is made to characterize him whatsoever and for a character who seems pretty much central to all the events that are taking place, this just strikes me as a strange decision by the writers.
To conclude, a silent protagonist doesn’t necessarily ruin the game that they’re in, but they severely limit your ability to care for the main character and, in some instances, can detract from a game entirely. If a game is trying to give you an emotionally compelling narrative or just make you care about what’s going in general, then few things do it better than a main character that we have a vested interest in. At the end of the day, love for a character isn’t just given, it’s earned, and with a silent protagonist it’s just that much harder to earn it. I hope the next time a developer tries to make us care about someone in the story, they should realize how easy the job becomes, once the character has something as simple as a voice.
See you in two weeks…