In their lifetimes, experienced gamers will be exposed to a lot of games. Whether it’s from playing first-hand, watching a ‘Let’s Play’ on YouTube, or reading a distinguished video game blog (ahem), interested gamers may come across hundreds of games every year. When you see that many different video games in such a short period of time, you start to notice some glaring similarities between them. Like all other forms of entertainment, video games are often packed full of clichés and tropes.
The silent protagonist is one such trope. A game has a silent protagonist when the character controlled by the player has no voice in the game. The character may or may not have dialogue, shown in the form of text, but there is no voice acting for the character – hence the label “silent”. Many games take advantage of this type of character, including the highly-successful Fallout and Elder Scrolls series by Bethesda Softworks and Nintendo’s classic Legend of Zelda games. So what does the use of this trope contribute to the gaming experience?
One advantage of having a character without a voice is the ambiguity it creates. The things characters say and the way the characters say them have a great impact on how they are perceived by the gamer. Silent protagonists often have vague, indistinct personalities, allowing the gamer to use his imagination and mold the character into whatever he would like. This is especially important when the gamer creates his own character. Discovering that your scrawny, nerdy character has a voice that sounds like Morgan Freeman’s might break the immersion for you. You would probably be better off playing a character without a voice.
The lack of a voice also helps when trying to make a character relatable. With a less discernible personality, the protagonist could be anyone. And the video game industry isn’t the first to use this technique. Many authors of pop fiction, for example, create generic characters so that readers can easily sympathize with them.
The absence of a main character’s voice can also prevent a game from feeling linear. If a player believes that a character should act a certain way because of the things he says, the player might make a particular choice for the character to avoid breaking the immersion. In this way, silent protagonists can make games feel more open-ended. If the character’s intentions aren’t apparent, the gamer will feel no obligation to do what the character would do.
A second benefit of the silent protagonist trope is that it allows emphasis to be placed on other aspects of the game. When the played character is simple and muted, there is more room for larger-than-life, eccentric NPCs. Alternately, when the protagonist is unextraordinary, the world in which he adventures can be exceptionally so. When the emphasis is taken off what the main character has to say, more emphasis is placed on other details. Quiet main characters help to balance out video game worlds and highlight games’ other features.
The use of a silent protagonist also provides the opportunity for a unique effect – breaking the silence. Some video games introduce a silent protagonist who doesn’t speak until a particular pivotal point in the game, with quite the dramatic effect. It may seem backwards, but having a protagonist remain silent can place more impact on that character’s dialogue. It’s easy to miss an important line when a character has been chatting throughout the whole game, but if a silent character opens his mouth, the player is bound to notice.
Conclusion – Overused… for a Reason
It is evident that the silent protagonist has become an overused trope in video games today. But game creators only use it so much because it functions as an effective tool for creating ambiguous, relatable characters and placing emphasis on the most interesting parts of a game. And while it may grow tiresome to see muted characters starring in game after game, it sure beats dealing with characters who talk too much. (I’m looking at you, Navi.)