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Do Games Still Need the Silent Protagonist?

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Anthony Burch wrote an article on Kotaku titled “We Were Wrong To Make Borderlands 2’s Heroes So Quiet.” Having finally purchased and completed a run of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, I completely agree that the additional characterization of the newest Vault Hunters helps make the game.  While I enjoy the second game more than the newest installment, the more vocal characters was a definite improvement. This led me to think of other times when I’ve wanted more characterization, and I only got a -slate protagonist.

Dragonball Xenoverse gave me a customizable character, with an option that included choosing a voice. I use that voice only for grunts, groans, and yelling the name of my beam attack. When I think about the Portal games, I know GLaDOS, Wheatley, and even Cave Johnson’s characters better than I know Chell. Link has been saving Hyrule and other areas for my entire life, yet the closest thing I have to understanding Link is that he’s a very patient boy/man that puts up with prattling sidekicks; I’ve spent more time with Link than some members of my family, yet he’s still a stranger.

Now, some would argue that it’s a form of immersion. That you (the player) are supposed to be Link saving Hyrule, Chell escaping the quite-potentially fatal tests, and the Future Warrior keeping time on the correct course. However, these are characters that are addressed in their respective games and still never say anything at all. Link is the king of the “…” response and head-nod. Chell never says a word in response to GLaDOS, fine, but Wheatley openly tries to converse with Chell and gets nothing. The Future Warrior says nothing while Trunks speaks to him, and the game acts like you agreed with something when your character clearly just stared at the screen. If there isn’t a choice, why not let the character respond to it?

Sometimes, I think this guy has more personality than Link.

Sometimes, I think this guy has more personality than Link.

That doesn’t give me any sense of real immersion. In Skyrim, you never have a voiced conversation with others, but you can at least interact through dialog menus. In such a game where the character is a custom avatar that I make, allowing me the choices of things to say lets me have an immersive feel. Let’s call-back to Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, where I know Wilhelm is quite amoral because he vocalizes agreement with the outrageous murders, loves his cybernetic implants, and doesn’t like being crossed, just for starters. Whether a game allows for creation of an avatar or gives the role of a predetermined character, playing the static being in a living world is sometimes going to pull you out of the immersion. Even the champions in League of Legends have lines and personality, despite the game having no story-mode.

However, I still think that the silent protagonist has a place. Horror games, for example, can do well in leaving out characterization. Dropping you blind into a strange and frightening environment is an excellent tool when it’s more about affecting the player than the character. MMOs do perfectly well with minor characterization for the player’s character, as the story generally flows around NPCs while the player interacts with other players.

None of the games I’ve mentioned have been bad games though. Games can be successful using very minimalist characterization to use Burch’s words, and he notes that it has worked for games like Bioshock and Half-Life.  I think he says it best though, with the following quote regarding player characters in Borderlands 2:

“These focus testers were irritated because, in a game full of colorful characters and gags and monologues long and self-indulgent enough to give an editor an aneurysm, there was a weird black hole of nothingness where our player characters were concerned.”

Gaming has come a phenomenal way in a short time. It’s evolved from the very basic games that killed time to this grand storytelling medium. When you make a world so colorful and dynamic as the world of Borderlands, where everyone has an opinion they’re going to share with you (probably through violence), having empty voids for your main characters doesn’t work. I don’t remember if the characters from Borderlands 2 were even mentioned in The Pre-Sequel, but the original Vault Hunters are still present, no doubt in part to how strongly they were defined the second game as opposed to the new player characters who only had fleeting tidbits of characterization around them. The balance seems pretty clear: your characters should match the characterization present in your world.

You mean people complained about no personality in a world with people like this guy running around? Nonsense.

You mean people complained because they have no personality while the world has characters like this guy running around? Nonsense.

The Silent Protagonist is not something that needs to just disappear, but it does need a world where everyone else in the game isn’t more interesting than you; that only makes you wish you were playing as someone else. In the older Zelda games, I think Link works fine as a silent protagonist. As we’ve come to games like Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword though, we get really unique supporting characters to go along with that same-but-not-same mute boy from town again. The increased character interaction is why the protagonists of Diablo III were similarly more talkative; the balance between protagonist and world was maintained. That’s the simple truth that gaming needs from its storytelling—balance. If you’ve got a world with quiet antagonists, my character doesn’t need to talk all the time and give me his story. If you’ve got a world where everyone has something to say, be it plot-relevant story or a dick joke,  let my character chime in with an innuendo or two.

Your protagonist is the player’s way of interacting with your world; whether silent or Claptrap-level noisy, let the protagonist be an equal part of it.

 

About David A. Reeves

David is a 25 year old graduate with a BA in English, and he's wondering how all of this adult stuff crept up on him. He has a large love of Fire Emblem and Final Fantasy, a lack of budget sense during Steam sales, and is involved in an abusive relationship with the MMO genre. Outside of gaming, David can be found reading books with swords and magic, suffering from writer's block on that story he said he'd write, enjoying a hookah or a beer with friends, and trying not to say anything inappropriate despite the overwhelming urge. He's an odd fellow.

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