Post-show blues/ Download festival comedown have resulted in many hours dedicated to video games. In doing so, I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the classic device known as the “Silent Protagonist.” These are defined as playable characters who lack any dialogue whatsoever, aside from the odd phrase or an occasional “HWAH!” every now and again. The main purpose of a silent protagonist is to allow players to project themselves in some form or way onto the game’s main character, and in theory enhance their enjoyment by playing as some kind of everyhero. There are times however where having a silent protagonist is not only unnecessary, but strange and slightly questionable, and at times bland. My suspicions were confirmed by none other than video game Mughal, Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw:
“it just makes you look like an arsehole who climbs on other people’s furniture, pockets the silverware and blankly stares at people when they ask you to stop. It’s even weirder when the silent protagonist has a name and an existing reputation with other characters in the world because he must have spoken at some point to introduce himself, unless he constantly wears his name emblazoned on his chest.” – Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, Zero Punctuation (Dishonored)
A prominent example of a strange silent protagonist is that of Corvo Attano from first person stealth adventure (and slight “Thief” rip-off) “Dishonered.” For the most part, “Dishonored” was and is a fun game to play through that I would gladly repeat. There is however one thing that bothers me. Corvo is initially imprisoned and in turn becomes a fugitive for allegedly murdering the Empress of Dunwall, which of course, he didn’t do (look up the plot if you want to, I won’t bore you to tears explaining it here). However, it isn’t entirely believable for Corvo to just go quietly. If we’re supposed to be projecting onto this character, then surely any sane person would have just identified the true killer and claimed their innocence. Wait, sorry, poetic license exists, my bad. Still, as fun as “Dishonored” is, it really made it difficult for me to relate to Corvo’s character when he just appears to do whatever he’s told without hesitation. It’s as Yahtzee says, giving a silent protagonist a name, an apparent personality and an established reputation really does hinder the experience and at points makes you feel like you’re doing somebody else’s bitch-work rather than assassination missions. Then again, I forgot about all of that once missions began and I could start stabbing, shooting and teleporting all over the shop. Maybe that’s what Bethesda were going for…hmmm…
However, there are cases where having a silent protagonist can most definitely enhance a player’s experience, and probably the most infamous and best example of this is Link from the “Legend of Zelda” series. Not only can players choose to name Link whatever they want, but there’s a clear relationship between the protagonist and the game’s cast of characters. Whether it’s through mundane conversation, saving another princess, training with friends, buying items or even in boss fights, Link’s emotional spectrum is always clear, making it easier for players to relate to him. Nintendo avoided the problem of awkward choppy dialogue encountered in “Dishonored”, by not giving any of their characters a true speaking voice, and instead having them on par with Link’s speaking ability (which doesn’t usually go beyond “HUH!” or “HWAH!” …apprently Link speaks fluent onomatopoeic). That and unlike Corvo, Link appears to make choices of his own accord out of never-ending heroic determinism to save Princess Zelda. This works extremely well by giving him a somewhat stereotypical (but fitting) personality, allowing for a degree of sympathy between player and protagonist. The fact that Zelda games are third person also helps this. Unlike Corvo, players get a complete view of Link at all times and even control his basic sword movements, instantly offering that connection with everyone’s favourite Hylian hero. Hell, you even get to control whatever musical instrument link is favouring in each particular game (nothing beats the ocarina but still).
I think that silent protagonists are the perfect device when utilised well and to the right effect. In some cases they work extremely well, allowing the player to immerse themselves within the world of the protagonist, especially in the case of “The Legend Of Zelda” and “Okami”, where the protagonist is on equal par with the other characters in the game. With games like “Dishonored” however, as effective as first person perspective is when creating your own character, it’s kind of pointless when the protagonist has already established relationships with the game’s characters and has some form of personality. Being the only one that doesn’t speak makes it seem a bit like, well, Yahtzee explains exquisitely I think:
“Hey Corvo, we’re sending you straight out on another suicide mission, say nothing if you’re cool with that!” – Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, Zero Punctuation (Dishonred)
‘Til Next Time Tris Out