Experienced Points: In Defense of Silent Protagonists

By Shamus Posted Tuesday Jun 4, 2013

Filed under: Column 155 comments

So this week I defend the notion of a silent protagonist in a videogame. You know, because there’s nothing else going on that’s worth talking about. This is something that’s been annoying me for a while.

Since the article went up, irridium tweeted this to me:

What makes Gordon (Half-Life) a good one and Corvo (Dishonored) a bad one? I think the big thing is that Gordon is new to the world he’s in and free to make up his own mind about things. Is Alyx your sidekick? Your peer? Your love interest? It’s up to you. You explore, see new things, and then decide how they make you feel. I’m exploring City 17 right along with him, and so I can assume that however I’m feeling is how Gordon is feeling.

Corvo is not new to his world. He’s been an active participant, and the problems in the game are deeply, deeply personal. I’m not exploring Dunwall with him, because he’s been here for ages and most likely already has thoughts on the place. He saw the city before it went to hell, so I have no idea how he might feel about what he’s seeing. He’s been branded a traitor, had his girlfriend murdered, his alleged daughter kidnapped, and then tortured for weeks by the guy who made it all happen. I can’t really relate to that. (It doesn’t help that the betrayal happens pretty much the instant the opening credits are done.) There’s a huge disconnect because I’m playing catch-up and he’s not helping.

Also, Corvo isn’t really mute. He does say things in little unvoiced dialogs. So instead of assuming he says things that aren’t depicted in the game, we’re left to conclude that “I’d like to buy something from you Piero” is the only thing the dude has to say. The dialogs are goofy because They don’t allow Corvo to express anything and they don’t allow us to express anything or ask any questions. It’s one thing if Corvo doesn’t talk about his life-changing betrayal because he doesn’t ever speak. It’s another if it just never seems to come up in conversation. Especially when those conversations revolve around killing the dude who did the betraying.


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155 thoughts on “Experienced Points: In Defense of Silent Protagonists

  1. bloodsquirrel says:

    The difference between a good silent protagonist and a bad one is about knowing which tropes fit with which.

    A good silent protagonist is has a story that is happening around him. The story makes space for him; it relies on broad motivations over ones that are highly character-specific. It asks itself how the player will react to a situation and doesn’t get in the way of that. It takes advantage of the lack of separation between the player and the world to make it feel like things are happening to the player, not just to the character.

    A bad silent protagonist is a just a regular protagonist that isn’t given any personality. The game still puts a character in-between us and the story, but one that we have no hope of feeling empathy for.

    Dead Space is a good example of how to do it wrong: If Isaac was a fully-realized character, we’d be able to care about finding his wife. But he isn’t, so we don’t. If you’re going to have a silent protagonist, you have to make the player care about a character, not try to rely on the player caring about a character because he or she is important to the main character.

    1. Fleaman says:

      Well said. You don’t care about Isaac Clarke finding his wife because he’s you, but she isn’t your wife. Contrast James Sunderland, who is distanced from the player by his distinct personality and motivations (and by his willingness to reach into toilets); he’s not you, but he’s another person whose story you can sympathize with.

  2. Mike O says:

    Well put. I guess you kinda have to go whole-hog with a silent protagonist.

    With Freeman, since you are so injected in the role, and that role is never overwritten by a “Freeman persona” in any substantial way, you take any dialog directed at Freeman as being directed at You the player. The responses you imagine in your head build the Freeman persona. In your mind you imagine Gordan says a lot, just sort of “off camera” so to speak. At least, thats how I felt.

    1. swenson says:

      Yeah, there’s nothing in the games that implies Gordon’s mute or anything, just kinda quiet. I can picture him talking to Eli, Alyx, Barney, etc. just fine, but I know my picture of him doing so is probably no one else’s.

      1. ENC says:

        I suppose everyone’s different. I don’t like Freeman, it’s just lazy to have someone silent as everyone talks exposition at you. The dialogue never seems to indicate that he’s anything but mute. Not only that, but everyone gets on fine with him; no one hates him, they hate the fact that he’s doing what he’s doing.

        Let alone the fact that the story just folds time and space to suit the player; if I get trapped, a door magically opens, and Half-Life 2 makes it obvious that occurs. Somehow I get the ability to operate all this equipment, run super fast, bunny hop, and be able to stand idly by as people do moronic things during in-game cutscenes (like the teleporter at the bginning?) as the game is just trolling me by making me go into to it to advance the plot.

        At least if a game doesn’t have a silent protagonist I am experiencing there story, and any failures of the character aren’t due to the game railroading me personally into doing something stupid, and is instead the game doing what it needs to do to get me where it wants to be.

    2. Trix2000 says:

      I know I’ve had plenty of times – mostly unvoiced but occasionally voiced too – where I’ll add my own dialogue to myself, out load even. It just seems to much more fun and interesting for me to play as a character and add my own personality to it, whether from scratch or even adapting the existing one (in the voiced cases).

      Unvoiced characters definitely make this easier, and I really do like filling the gaps with my own thoughts/words. I suspect its related to how much I enjoy role-playing, actually.

      1. Sleeping Dragon says:

        I may or may not be imagining personalities and interactions for my X-Com troopers (in other games too but X-Com, the original, was the first one), like who likes who, who feels exceptionally down when someone dies and so on.

        I may or may not need therapy…

          1. KremlinLaptop says:


            1. Bryan says:




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                    1. PossiblyInsane says:

  3. The issue I always had with Freeman was that the game was written around interactions with characters and supposed interactions back. In other words, people are constantly interacting WITH you … but you are either an idiot or a cipher, and neither of these are appropriate for the supposed backstory of the character. As for choosing … that is all an illusion, and since everything is scripted and pre-determined because it is a linear-ish FPS, Alyx isn’t anything she isn’t written to be, which in the end is a non-commital cute and nice young woman.

    1. Klay F. says:

      But they AREN’T interacting with Gordon. They are interacting around Gordon. Gordon is just an extra with the ability to lower the curtain and change scenes. Nobody ever says anything to Gordon which requires a response.

      1. Thomas says:

        That’s an interaction though. We’re human beings, sticking two of us in a room together mandates an interaction, which is why we’d get pissed off if the other person gave us the cold shoulder. You can’t be affected by someone else unless an interaction has taken place.

        And these people acknowledge your presence and ask you to do things and talk with you in the room clearly for you to hear. Those are all things people do when interacting with each other, except they refuse to acknowledge you properly and kind of act as though you were reacting to them in a normal manner. It’s like they’re speaking to a ghost of you

        1. Shamus says:

          “sticking two of us in a room together mandates an interaction,”

          Hello, extrovert.

          Not everyone is an extrovert. Some of us are really freaked out by the people who need to talk at us all the time.

          1. Thomas says:

            Believe me I’m as close to an extrovert as I am to a penguin =D (offline).

            What I mean is, when I go into a room and I don’t really say hi, or look at the people in the room or hold a conversation with them, I am interacting with them and actually probably interacting in a very negative way (unless they’re the sort of person who likes to be left alone, in which case I’m basically saying I understand and respect those wishes). Socially there are expected ways to behave with other people in a room and if you choose to do none of them, then the other people in the room of aware of that and are thinking of your creating opinions based on that. Barely looking someone in the eyes is just as rich and meaningful as giving them a huge manhug

            1. Thomas says:

              Actually I’m probably not introverted. What I am is shy to a fairly abnormal degree. But I’m not extroverted either which sucks.

              1. jarppi says:

                I don’t think you can classify someone being 100% introverted or extroverted. It is not a boolean grouping because the line between those types is so blurry. I’m introverted but I do have some characteristics that would fit to a extroverted person.

                1. Thomas says:

                  I get exhausted trying to stay on top of social goings on, but my mental state swings a lot more if I’m on my own, so I don’t know where that puts me.

                  1. Lasslisa says:

                    “normal”. Introverts have a need for social interaction too, it’s just preferred to be in small groups or one-on-one.

            2. Trix2000 says:

              I was sorta thinking of it this way before I actually read your reply – thanks for stealing my thoughts! :)

              Part of me wants to juxtapose that specific case as a problem with society – why should people be expected to act a certain way to be considered positively? Actually, that’s probably too broad of a way to put it, since there are some behaviors that would be reasonably considered bad, unlikable, or even crazy to anyone else. I think I just have a small problem with people who expect a level of interaction beyond a simple acknowledgement of existence/politeness.

              …Maybe all I’m really not happy about is those who have grossly unreasonable expectations for quiet, shy people. I dunno.

              1. Thomas says:

                I think your actions are always going to be judged, people taking notice of all your social cues including interaction and non-interaction are just consequences of having brains that can hold and process all this information.

                What would be nice is if the quieter interactions weren’t quite so much treated as a negative interaction. But to be fair, it does spin both ways, there are plenty of extroverted ways people can act that I might react negatively towards even though that’s just as natural for them as quietness is for me.

          2. Cybron says:

            Hear, hear.

            If you stick me in a room with a computer and a person, my first instinct is to try the computer.

            1. Isn’t it more socially forward to brazenly take someone’s computer?

            2. Humanoid says:

              Well, as Agent Josh demonstrated the other day, you are undetectable while using (or just staring at, really) a computer.

              1. Fleaman says:

                I keep a notebook around to stare at in deep concentration whenever anyone else walks by.

          3. To be fair, you also don’t own an orange space suit, a crowbar, and habitually carry an arsenal with which you mow down legions of mooks.

            I may be wrong, but I don’t think one’s predilection towards being an introvert or an extrovert applies much in the context of a video game.

            In fact, there are some games where you’re given the dialog option of “do nothing” or your response is timed, and the “correct” answer is to take no action. A lot of people “fail” that if it’s not obvious, funny, etc. as you’re playing a game where doing something is pretty much most of the experience.

            1. Shamus says:

              I was specifically responding to the idea that if two people are in a room, they MUST talk. Thomas said in a later comment he’s not extroverted, but it was a very, very extrovert thing to say.

              1. I took it to mean that if two people were in a room, interaction happens no matter the intro or extro tendencies of those present. If one of them clams up or does nothing for fear of embarrassment (sometimes called “being British”), that’s still a form of interaction.

                It’s a sort of “not making a choice can still be a choice” thing, in my view.

                1. Thomas says:

                  Yes this. ‘they MUST talk’ is absolutely not what I said/meant. I meant choosing not to talk when you’re both aware of each other is also a type of interaction.

                  1. War Machine says:

                    I get home and my sister or parents find it odd that I really don’t say anything other than a short greeting when I see them again (unless I happen to have something to say to them or discuss with them). My dad often responds engagingly to elicit a conversation from me and I abide to that implicit request for communication because I know he grew up expecting people to want to talk, but it rarely is because I want to (I don’t mind it at all, though).

                    I agree with Shamus here that a conversation happening when you’re in the room with someone else is something introverts don’t really expect (excluding, of course, general greetings or acknowledgments of the other person in the room as not actual conversations).

                    1. Thomas says:

                      But I’m not talking about conversations at all! I’m really messing up with my words, because I didn’t mean conversations in my first post and I spent everyone since then trying to explain that I don’t mean conversations.

                      What I mean is. You can’t turn your body language off. If you look someone in the eye when you walk into a room or don’t look them in the eye, both are social signals. Whatever you do in a room with someone else who is aware of you in the room is passing information, whether you choose to have a conversation or not.

                      I don’t even need to prove I’m not an extroverted person, the number of conversations I’ve had in the past 7 days beyond ‘hi’ is a number less than 4. If you remove my family, I’ve actually only had one conversation in the past three weeks. I completely know what it means to walk into a room and not talk to people, I’m am on the very extreme end of that spectrum, to a degree that is probably worrying and unhealthy. There have been days where I haven’t eaten because I’m stressed and worried someone will try to talk to me if I go into the kitchen. I’m really, really, not the sort of person who assumes that two people in a room will have a conversation with each other

                      EDIT: Whoops, well at least this time the rant itself includes clues to suggest why I was overly passionate in it

                    2. War Machine says:

                      Ok, I see what you were trying to say. That’s a fair point, but remember that not everyone picks up on every nuance of your body language.

                      If you’re projecting yourself onto Gordon Freeman, the character interactions in HL2 are general enough that not only do they account for a wide variety of non-verbal language that you might be meaning to portray, but any non-verbal language you perceive the other characters don’t react to can easily be shrugged off as “they must not have noticed” (as regular humans don’t notice everything either, like an eye-twitch, or a short grunt, etc.), and so it doesn’t break with the illusion that you’re Gordon Freeman.

          4. DrMcCoy says:

            I’m as introvert as they come, and even I get that. If someone wants to communicate with me and I don’t, I at least know how to communicate back, in some way at least, that I want to be left alone. I don’t just stand there starring glassy-eyed into the distance.

            I had the some problem with the Myst series, the intro scenes of Riven being particular vivid in my mind. People talk to you, even accuse you of being too silent, while you just stand there drooling. One of the reasons I hate Myst.

            1. Tom says:

              Some later Myst games can be pretty bad at that. Riven neatly sidestepped a lot of it by giving characters a native language that you can’t understand. Some of the English dialogue (monologue?) in Riven – not the intro, though – was rather cleverly written, I thought, in that they kept its nature ambiguous; characters talk in such a way that they could either be directly responding to something the player just said, or just figuring something out for themselves while the player stayed silent. There’s probably a limit to how often you could do this before it became laughable, though; fortunately Myst-style games generally only have a handful of character interactions in them, so they can just about get away with it.

            2. Fleaman says:

              Okay, so I get that it can feel weird to have characters talk to you and you just stand there mutely, but what’s really the alternative here? Atrus looks up and says “My friend, you’ve returned.” And then invisible Nolan North says “Hi Atrus”.

              The goal of this game is to make you feel alone in a strange world. That’s what the photorealistic graphics are for, and what the ambient sounds are for. The player interacts with the world by walking over it, reading books, and manipulating levers. You have no special powers or specific qualities. There’s no need for a character to be created to fill this role, and developing personality and motivations for one would distract you from the game’s key element, which is the setting. There is just nothing you can put in this position that would not make the game worse.

        2. swenson says:

          Maybe you don’t interact with them, but I certainly do. I look at Eli and Dr. Kleiner when they’re talking, I fiddle with things at Black Mesa East when Eli invites me to, I look at things that are pointed at… just because the game doesn’t always react to this doesn’t mean I don’t still do these things.

          This could be seen as a downside (the game won’t react if you do something hilariously wrong), but I think having the choice to choose to be attentive and “polite” is better than having no choice at all. I look at and listen to Eli, etc. because I’m interested in what they have to say, not because my character is forced to.

          1. Thomas says:

            I’m saying you do interact with them though =D Whatever you choose to do, and that’s a reply to the bit above mine discussing the oddness created with a world where you’re interacting with people and they aren’t responding, or more accurately, they’re responding really inappropriately and it gives off all sorts of social weirdness. Basically what Humanoid says below.

          2. Cybron says:

            “This could be seen as a downside (the game won't react if you do something hilariously wrong)”

            I’m pretty sure this is an upside. I believe it was on this site that I read an article about how the easiest way to get a griefer to settle down and just play along was ignore them.

            1. swenson says:

              Ha, that explains Dr. Kleiner’s complete lack of reaction when I break his mini-teleporter, then!

    2. Decius says:

      I talked back plenty as Gordon. From “I can’t find the button to start the sequence!” to “Catch your breath Alyx, that was pretty damn scary.”

      Just because they didn’t interact back, and in fact the software didn’t even detect my playing the role, doesn’t diminish my experience playing Gordon.

      1. Артем of ЗОНА says:

        I dare say that the scene in the elevator where you first meet Alyx does the opposite of diminishing one’s Gordonxperience regardless of what you do. You can just wait for Alyx to say the expositions, standing still, or just babble like a retard while jumping at the walls, Alyx’s line, “a man of few words, huh”, works both straight and as a sarcastic response. It works in almost all scenarios, except the kind of reasonable, normal behavior a player would never really do spontaneously.
        Even then, if you (as Gordon) just stand still and converse normally, Alyx’s line could be taken as her just realizing that you aren’t the COOL MOVIE HERO WHO ONLY SAYS WITTY ONE-LINERS AND OTHERWISE JUST GLARES LIKE A COOL GUY type everyone makes you out to be. Even if you’re only enjoying a game just a little, it’s easy to come up with excuses for a lot of things in the game.

        Of course, the flipside of the coin is that, as a player, you can destroy your experience even with the best of all writing just by refusing to play along.

        1. Decius says:

          As the consumer of any media, I can destroy the experience by refusing to play along. It isn’t a failure of theater that I can heckle the actors.

    3. Humanoid says:

      Never played any of the HL games myself, but from what I’ve seen in videos, it feels like the NPCs are talking at you, in the manner a wizard might order around his golem, rather than how a scientist might talk to one of his fellows.

      Part of the problem is that it’s hard to implement the myriad non-verbal, or at least non-conversational interactions that form a large part of human communication. It’s not, as Shamus’ comment above, about people who need to keep talking, but about subtle things we take for granted – a nod of the head, or a quickly mumbled acknowledgement “mm”.

      Gordon can work as a character if the player can take it as granted the fact that the little things like that are happening despite the game not simulating them. But if a game were to implement such actions, then the complaint would move on to the issue of why there aren’t more detailed interactions. Say Valve hire a voice actor for Gordon who just says little things like “hey” and “right” – but once that barrier is down, there’s no reason not to progress to full conversations. And that I guess is the catch-22 of silent protagonists to me, where neither solution is completely satisfactory.

      1. Syal says:

        Now I want to see a game where the main character responds after every conversation but only ever says “Cool”, “Right”, “You’re neat” or “Jackass”.

      2. Tizzy says:

        The main ason that the others are talking at Gordon rather than to him is that Gordon is usually in a daze, turning his back to them and looking around the room, because he’s trying to figure put where these people are who are talking to him…

        … at least, this is what happens when he is controlled by me.

        A great improvement would be some sort of “facial recognition” scripting. Characters do not start their spiel until their face has appeared in the middle of your visual field. Until then, all they can do is cycle through a bunch of stock phrases designed to get your attention.

        I can picture it being very irritating, but long speeches coming from you’re not sure where are equally irritating and immersion breakers.

        1. Syal says:

          I can see people making a point of backing around NPCs repeatedly just to mock them.

      3. Fleaman says:

        The problem is that putting ANYTHING here moves against the concept of “the player is the one in the room”. You could make Gordon a GOOD character by developing his character and motivations, but then he’s become distinct from the player, and that goal of immersion is lost. Or you could make him just deliver really short, simple, generic responses that avoid developing him – but now you’ve just created a lousy character.

        1. CunningChaff says:

          I’d rather play a non-silent protagonist, or than a Gordon Freeman. Even DA:O/KOTOR style, where the character doesn’t have a voice actor, is better to me. If you have people talking to me, then I want to be able to interact with them in a meaningful way. Turning my torso left and right, or up and down, wandering around the room, and tossing crap around are not examples of meaningful interaction, and suddenly I’m bored and just want Eli/Kleiner/Barry to shut up and get on with it. It also stops me from feeling any kind of sympathy with the characters, so that scenes like Eli’s death are completely meaningless. Halo did a better job making me care about characters (though that might be the books’ fault).

    4. ehlijen says:

      You can actually reply. The free camera allows nods and headshakes. You can pay attention, wander off and loot the place or wait at the door to the next level, jumping up and down like a puppy that wants to go walkies.

  4. Irridium says:

    Yeah, that makes sense. Thanks for the answer!

    Although, you could say Gordon does have an established history. Before his stint in City 17, he did do all that stuff in Half Life 1 after all. Though you could probably make the case that the world was significantly changed enough that it’d feel new to him.

    It’s an interesting thing, non-voiced protagonists vs voiced protagonists. With non-voiced you get all the stuff you mentioned in the article, but with voiced you can get things like the relationship between Jenson and Pritchard, Booker and Elizabeth, the funny little taunts from the Borderlands 2 cast, the Left 4 Dead casts, the taunts from the characters in Killing Floor which add a bit of personality to the game. Of course there are really bad examples, as you said. One can think of that I really didn’t like was Jason Brody from Far Cry 3. Every time he opened his mouth I stopped caring about everything and just wanted him to shut up.

    But there’s bad examples of non-voiced protagonists as well. With the aforementioned Corvo (faux-dialog choices not-withstanding), the Rookie from Halo 3 ODST, the Pointman from F.E.A.R., and others who’s names escape me. Oh! Nathan Hale from Resistance is another! That’s another issue silent protagonists have to deal with, being forgotten because they are just a void. Just didn’t really feel connected to them. Or able to project myself in any way onto them. And if the character really doesn’t really matter, why not let the player customize them? Or at least choose what race/gender they are? Only game I know of that let you do this was Far Cry 2. Gave you a list of characters to choose from. It didn’t matter, but the fact they were racially diverse was nice. No women, sadly, but at least it was something.

    This also makes me wonder what the definition of a silent protagonist is. Is it a literal definition like a protagonist who doesn’t speak or interact with anyone in any way (Gordon – Half Life)? Is it a figurative one where the protagonist only talks through small, unvoiced, dialog choices (Corvo, the Protagonist from Persona 4)? Is it a protagonist who just talks during cutscenes but is completely silent during gameplay (Master Chief, Joseph Capelli (Resistance 3)). Is it one who communicates only using only gestures and/or gibberish (Fable, Sims)?

    Regardless of the definition, I suppose it’s just another tool in the toolbox. Can be used both well and poorly and depends on the game and what the developer is trying to do. Same with voiced protagonists. Personally I just like it better when the character has some personality of his/her own.

    Of course all this relies on me being able to connect with the person I’m playing as immediately, which is usually near-impossible for me because every time I look down, I’m reminded I’m just a floating camera with arms. No feet to speak of. But that’s just my hangup, from what I can tell plenty of other people can look over this. Wish I could, it drives me nuts.

    1. There are at least three different levels of protagonist-
      (1) Where the main player character is silent, with no personality
      (2) Where the player can express a strong personality
      (3) Where the player character has a distinct personality

      Certainly, we have more voice acting but even so not every significant and distinct character has (or needs) a voice. RPG’s often give you many options and choices to express yourself, even though you don’t have many (sometimes, any) voiced lines. And MMO’s such as DCUO or Guild Wars often give you ways to express yourself even though you may have effectively no lines whatsoever, even as text.

      Guild Wars 2 is an odd duck, where you character is something of a gormless dimwit in the few cutscenes, but where you can express a complete different personality outside of it.

    2. swenson says:

      Master Chief is not a silent protagonist to me. He’s seen to talk repeatedly in the games, he just doesn’t chatter when the player’s in control.

      By contrast, Gordon never speaks in the games, even though he can be reasonably assumed to be capable of speaking, so I do consider him a silent protagonist.

      1. Fleaman says:

        Halo’s strategy is a pretty good one. In cutscenes, Master Chief is a character involved in the action with his own personality and motivation. In gameplay, the player is Master Chief. It’s a very clean way to both develop the main character and avoid the dissonance that can accompany this in a first-person game.

    3. Vect says:

      Well, come Persona 4: Arena, the P4 protagonist is no longer silent. Of course, he wasn’t really a true Silent Protagonist in his original game.

      I always saw the Persona 3/4 protagonists as simply quiet, preferring to let their actions speak for themselves and only talking (dialog choices) when they feel it really matters.

      Question: Does the fact that the game punishes you for choosing jerkish dialog options during Social Links be considered a form of railroading? I don’t think I’ve actually seen anyone complain about how it’s a way of limiting roleplaying. ‘Course, I’m not sure how popular the Persona games are around here.

      1. Irridium says:

        It might be a form of railroading, but when you think about it it makes sense. If you’re a jerk, people don’t like you and you can’t further your relationship with them. Nobody wants to hang out with a jerk, after all.

        The other option is everyone liking you even though you’re a massive jerk, which would be odd. Interesting way to think about it, though.

        1. Vect says:

          I just thought that because I was thinking that there’s someone who might be upset that they can’t play the MC as a douchebag and expect to go anywhere with that route.

          It makes sense within the context of the game since, as you said, no one would want to hang out with an antisocial jerk. ‘Course, I guess you can sorta roleplay the MC as a manipulative sort who only puts up with others because of the benefits it gives him and simply knows what to say at the right moment.

  5. Stephen says:

    There’s probably three levels of writing a silent protagonist.

    The best version manages to always phrase the NPC monologues as if they’re either responding to your silence or leaving room for you to have talked at the monitor. If they’re really skilled, the responses work better for the emotional state they think you’re in, but are passable for a whole other spectrum. I’m not sure that this level is attainable except in small doses.

    The middle version leaves enough room that you can think of your guy however you want. The NPC responses may mostly just assume you didn’t say anything, but they at least don’t suppose anything about what that means. You could be an idiot having to be led around by the nose or a calm and collected laconic genius who’s driving the plot and the dialogue doesn’t make an assumption about which is the case.

    The worst version makes it clear that you’re a mute idiot having to be led around by various NPCs that only need you for the fact that you’re a murder savant. The original Fable and The Secret World have this method, and are why I’m generally dubious of silent protagonists in general. I’d rather the writer put a voice in my character’s mouth, as long as it’s a voice that sounds reasonably competent and seems to have some plot agency, than have NPCs talk to me like I’m a child. It’s even worse if the camera then cuts to my avatar staring dumbly not saying anything during a break in the NPC’s soliloquy.

  6. Neko says:

    I think that it’s very much an all-or-nothing situation. Gordon never gets to say anything directly, either via voice or selectable text. The moment you add any kind of direct interaction with NPCs, you need to add a whole bunch more just to account for things other players might want to say and do to fit their idea of the character. Zero interaction works equally well for all personas, minimal interaction fails equally well for all but one persona.

  7. Bropocalypse says:

    It’s probably a safe rule of thumb to say that a good silent protagonist is one whose experiences are fully depicted with as much interaction with the player and using as many built-in gameplay mechanics as possible.

    In other words, it’s similar to other media in that “show, don’t tell” applies, but it’s more like “play, don’t show.”

  8. steves says:

    Silent protagonist. System Shock 2. Pretty much that.

    Also. “Oh my god JC, a bomb!”. “A bomb?” Probably wouldn’t have suffered from being silent…

    1. Irridium says:

      I beg to differ. If JC was silent, we would never have gotten this masterpiece.


    2. Decius says:

      Also: System Shock. We are left with only secondhand information about the character, and are free to project whatever we want onto him.

      Who aRe YOu?

    3. silver Harloe says:

      Well, the guy in SS2 is not entirely silent. He does say something in the final cutscene :)

  9. Thomas says:

    I was going to disagree and then realised I’ve actually never played a first-person game to completion. (DX:HR doesn’t count because lots of interactions take place in third-person). I’ve started playing the original DX and given up and started Resistance and gave up and got through fragments of Halo, and apart from that it’s all third-person games

    EDIT: Nope, tell a lie, I’ve played the Portals and Dear Esther, so thats 3

  10. Lame Duck says:

    A very important thing to bear in mind with silent protagonists is they can’t actually serve as the main character, because, you know, they aren’t really a character. The game need someone or something else to hang all the emotional weight from, like GLaDOS or Alyx or even Rapture in Bioshock.

    1. Peter H. Coffin says:

      This is a key point, right here, folks. The silent protagonist is an agent of the player’s will, not a character. Corvo is a character, just like Ezio is a character, Alan Wake is a character and Shepard is a character. Characters have motivation. They have story. They have various means (thematic means, not just routes or choices of weapons) of getting to their goals and choosing those means has impact on the story.

      Agents of will do not. If they have backstory, it has no real impact on what goes on. There is no real choice involved; the story progresses so long as the game is played and the only outcomes tend to be “win” (progress further) or “lose” (don’t progress/die/start over a few steps back). The Guild Wars 2 gormlessness mentioned above is how you voice an agent: there’s no choice about which side to help, no real choice as to outcome, and even the “Join Order of Whispers” vs “Join the Vigil” have absolutely no actual effect on the eventual outcome.

    2. Henson says:

      It’s always bugged the crap out of me when people list Gordon Freeman or Chell as among their favorite characters because, as you note, they have no character to speak of. We know only a few hard facts about them (age, sex, occupation) and practically nothing about their likes, dislikes, motivations, personality, etc. They aren’t characters, per se: they’re audience surrogates.

      And there’s nothing wrong with that. The audience surrogate is a very effective role in fiction, if TV Tropes is any useful gauge. I imagine it’s why women have the “Pro-Jacob/Pro-Edward” camps – they imagine themselves as Bella.

      I think this also ties into when a silent protagonist works well and when it doesn’t work; the problematic protagonists exist in this middle ground between character and audience surrogate, not quite sure which one it wants to be (Bioshock – why the hell am I shoving that needle into my arm?!). Whereas even a silent protagonist like Crono from ChronoTrigger is clearly his own character from the very start, based on how he acts. JC Denton, while silent in 1st-person mode, becomes a character in the 3rd-person conversations. Garrett’s dialogue in Thief is all monologue; when he does risk speaking with others, it changes to a cutscene.


      1. Kdansky says:

        My theory is this: People who put Chell or Gordon are their favourite characters mean something different than people who put Shepard. They implicitly say: “I could project myself better on a silent non-character than on that dummy the writers made me play at.” which makes a lot of sense for games. Games are not movies, and taking away the player’s agency by forcing the player character into certain emotions and thoughts never works out well.

        For example in pen & paper RPGs and MUDs, it’s pretty much a law that you are not allowed to dictate another player’s emotions, even as the GM. Saying “you feel afraid” is nearly always a mistake (I can’t think of an exception, but there probably is one), because you’re not the person playing said character. But that’s exactly what most AAA titles do by having a fully realized character.

        Silent protagonists make a lot of sense for many games.

        1. Shamus says:

          Oh, that’s a good point. Wish I’d thought of it for the article.

        2. Yeah, any forced emotions (“you run in fear” or “you feel at ease”) usually indicates magic/illusion, toxin, or other need to make a saving throw.

        3. Fleaman says:

          In… deed…

          So, one might say “Gordon Freeman is a good character”, not because of any merits of his characterization (because there is none), but because the characterization of everything else, the setting, the characters, the plot, meshed well enough to immerse the player into playing the Gordon Freeman role dictated by the gameplay. It might be more like the “Gordon Freeman” who is a good character isn’t the Gordon Freeman in the game (because he isn’t one), but the Gordon Freeman you invented in your head while playing (who of course is a great character to you, because he was created on the spot to fit perfectly between the mould the game’s world gives you and the mould of your own tastes).

        4. Mike S. says:

          That’s certainly the default, though P&P games being what they are, a fair number have experimented with alternatives. Going back as far as the virtues/vices and passions in Pendragon, where failing a roll means your character acts cowardly– and, presumably, feels fear– instead of valorous. Or Hero System disadvantages, where even if you want to be reasonable, a character playing on your PC’s psychological limitation may force an angry rampage.

          I was just listening to game designer Robin Laws talk about that issue in one of his podcasts with Ken Hite, in relation to his DramaSystem Kickstarter, since in DramaSystem affecting other characters’ emotions and having your character’s own externally affected is a core mechanic. He observed in passing that there’s a fair amount of intial gamer resistance (which needs to be overcome to attract people to the game) to the idea of their emotional choices not being totally under their control. (Since, as you note, that’s very much a taboo in traditional RPGs.)

          1. False Prophet says:

            Part of the time with P&P games, and especially theatrical LARPs, it’s just a different kind of min-maxing. The players who emphasize “role”-playing over “roll”-playing are those who are better actors or more skilled at socializing and improvising character and dialogue. They’re more comfortable role-playing than letting some number-crunching dictate their reactions. I’ve tried to tell this group in the past that the result of a die roll doesn’t mean control of their character is taken away, but that it’s an opportunity to role-play that character in an unexpected situation. E.g., if your snarky, cool-under-fire PC is successfully intimidated, how would they respond to encountering someone who actually scares them?

            Of course, this same roll-vs.-role dichotomy imposes the notion that combat is a separate reality from non-combat where personality and character don’t matter and instead statistics are combined in a calculus that results in a victor. A dichotomy that’s only reinforced by the cutscene/gameplay divide of many video games. Anyone who reads superhero comics or watches some of the more clever action films knows that a character’s personality can shape how they approach combat. Compare Spider-man or Deadpool’s approach to fighting to Wolverine’s or the Punisher’s, for example.

      2. Tom says:

        Thief is an interesting one, in that it sort of mish-mashes just lots of different approaches to this issue, good and bad, into one game, all at once. I think Garrett isn’t actually supposed to be speaking during the missions; I think we’re hearing his inner thoughts (certainly, it doesn’t actually count as a sound and alert any AIs nearby). Perhaps oddly, that feels just fine to me. On the very, very few occasions he has to actually interact face-to-face with a non-hostile character in-engine, he actually stays in silent-protagonist mode (which feels weird, and is probably part of why the designers avoided such enounters – then there’s that one infiltration level where they handwaved it by saying he’s disguised as a person who’s allowed to be present but not allowed to talk – although memory and scripting constraints probably contributed – I hear the dark engine is legendarily difficult to script for), but then he does openly speak in cutscenes.

    3. Sabredance (MatthewH) says:

      This would be my thought as well. Gordon Freemen and Doom Marine do not strike me as “character” so much as avatars.

      I’m trying to think whether Link has character to speak of.

      The problem with Corvo is that he is obviously supposed to be a character, but he is completely uncharacterized in the game.

      1. Fleaman says:

        Link is flexible. He responds to situations as the game needs him to, but because he doesn’t talk and only communicates through actions and facial expressions, your brain is still doing most of the heavy lifting to characterize him. He has some established characteristics – he’s quiet, courageous, etc. – but because you yourself supplied the internal monologue or implied dialogue, these qualities can be percieved by you in a form shaped by your own expectations or tastes. I suspect that this makes him very likeable.

    4. Humanoid says:

      I note that Wing Commander did an abrupt about-turn one game in. After spending the first game as a silent protagonist (I can’t remember for sure if it was absolutely true or not), right from the intro of WC2 Bluehair suddenly morphed into a full-blown character – albeit at that point one not yet formally named – which continued right to the end of the series (and arguably taken to the extreme).

      Now I actually played WC2 first between the two which might colour my preferences, but I’m very much with the Bluehair-as-a-character crowd. WC1’s conversations at the bar very much gave me the same vibe as Half-Life’s “people talking at a toddler who they aren’t sure is comprehending them or not”.

  11. Brainbosh says:

    The silent protagonist allows you to put yourself in a character, and does work better when the character, like you, is new to the game setting. Half-Life 2, System Shock 2, Bioshock, all the good games that I can think of with fully silent protagonists. All the characters there were dropped into the setting. This seems to work best for games that are about the setting. This allows focus on the world without distraction of ‘your’ history.

    A vocal protagonist means that the story is, at least in part, about them. Story and setting are much more tied to the character and their history or decisions. Although most of these that I can think of are third person viewpoints, so you couldn’t immerse yourself in the character.

    Do you think a silent protagonist should work better in first person, and a vocal protagonist works better in third person, when you can see the character?

    1. Thomas says:

      One way is definite, you can’t have silent third-person protagonists (unless they’re canonically mute, like Chell (not that she was third-person)) because looking from the outside you become very aware of situations where the protagonist should be speaking, which is more avoidable in third-person because of the lack of body sense*. I guess Shamus is arguing that you can’t really have speaking first-person protagonists(? I think thats the argument. Correct me if I got that wrong, the piece is ‘in defence’ but it also contains a lot of reasoning about the badness of voicing first-person people which is where I’m coming from). So that would make it as you suggest.

      *body sense as in, you’ve got no sense of what your feet or body is doing in general and you lack the peripheral vision and awareness of your own posture etc

      1. Tizzy says:

        The positive version of this argument is: third person protagonists are obviously not you. They are parading their not-you in the middle of the screen all the time. So having them sound funny, have weird opinions, is not a problem.

        You root for the third person protagonist, but the level of identification remains limited.

      2. ? says:

        Is Chell canonically mute though? I remember one of the developers stating that she doesn’t respond to GLaDOS because she doesn’t want to give a satisfaction to crazy AI. GLaDOS calls her “mute lunatic” but she also calls her fat and plenty of other mean things that we know are not true.

        1. Thomas says:

          In Portal 2 she doesn’t respond to Wheatly even though she doesn’t particularly have a reason not to. You’re asked to speak and you press the ‘speak’ key, but don’t say anything (you jump instead). It was a joke, but if it’s also not canonical that’s opening a whole can of worms on player motivations vs implied silent protagonist motivations

          1. Well, given that she’s still at Aperture and therefore a prisoner, she might be reluctant to cooperate more than she has to with any robots present.

            On the other hand, from Wheatley’s own dialog:

            “Most test subjects do experience some, uh, cognitive deterioration after a few months in suspension. Now, you’ve been under for quite a lot longer, and it’s *not* out of the question that you might have a *very* minor case of serious brain damage! But don’t be alarmed, all right? Uh, although if you do feel alarmed, try to hold on to that feeling because that is the proper reaction to being told that you’ve got brain damage.”

            1. Thomas says:

              It would be weird if she decided to jump instead of responding to robots though =D

            2. ? says:

              Exactly. She is still inside Aperture Labs and Wheatley is another loony AI. And she doesn’t need ability to say ‘apple’ to escape, she needs ability to jump. So she checks if she can still jump after prolonged stasis and ignores bumbling Personality Core for a bit.

          2. Fleaman says:

            Does Chell really never speak to Wheatley, or is he just never listening?

            I’ll grant you that jumping when asked to say “apple” is an extremely weird response.

            1. Except that’s what the on-screen text tells you to do.

              We’re only following orders.

  12. Smejki says:

    I guess that exploring the well built world along with the playing character is one of the main reason I fell in love with the first two Fallouts so much. (F3’s world was horribly built.) New Vegas was also great and the courier was new to Mojave but not to the world. The connection was a bit broken sometimes in the vanilla but I loved and hated at the same time the Lonesome Road DLC which exploited the avatarism in a way I have never experienced it before.

  13. Torolf says:

    As you requested, Shamus, I didn’t comment in the Escapist article about spoilers. However, you didn’t say anything about doing it here. Don’t worry though, I not only have not played Half life 2, I haven’t played Half life 1 or 3, either.

    Thomas, I’d be curious to know why you think being stuck in a room with someone mandates an interaction with him/her/it/other. Would the size of the room matter? Would the length of time in the room together matter? Honestly, if people started interacting with me just because I’m in the same room, I’d start to get really annoyed.

    1. Thomas says:

      I’ve clarified upstream. And definitely the size of the room and the people in it would matter. What I mean is, when two people are aware of the others presence and actions, then whatever you do sends off a social signal. If you choose to not talk to them then that is also a form of interaction because you did it in knowledge of them being in the room and they noted and reacted to that choice.

      If you’re two people who know each other well and are comfortable with each other, then not talking can be a sign of your comfort with each other. If you don’t know each other, you’re telling the person that you don’t want to be bothered and something about your levels of privacy. If you know each other, but the other person is an extrovert and tried to engage you, then it’s a bit abbrasive. But these are all forms of human interaction, positive and negative, even though they don’t involve speaking

  14. Spammy says:

    You know where having a silent protagonist went really badly? Far Cry 2. There the protagonist is dead silent and it drove me nuts, because the character was making decisions the player wasn’t.

    If I’m playing Half-Life 2 or a Legend of Zelda game, I don’t get mad at Dr. Freeman or Link because what they do is close enough to what I want to do or matches with what we get of their pre-established character.

    In Far Cry 2 you have to try to play both sides in this African civil war and… why? When did I decide this? Why did the character decide to do this without the player’s involvement? What were his/her reasons? I the player am apparently not privy to that information and the more the plot kept annoying me the more I kept coming back to that point.

  15. Vagrant says:

    Shamus, how do you feel about the new “spawning in” feature coming to Starcraft 2?

  16. swenson says:

    I’m pretty much okay with silent protagonists. What gets me is when the protagonist is explicitly not silent–but yet has no voice. I’m talking about Dragon Age and KotOR. You can choose dialogue, you clearly speak it aloud, but there’s no voice actor, aside from the occasional minor comment or grunt of pain.

    It’s weird.

    1. Thomas says:

      Oh, now it’s my turn to defend the silence. I much much prefer that over voiced stuff in create-your-own-character RPGs(although the Dragon Age approach of letting you choose a voice which gets used in certain things is the best of all worlds).

      Once I started playing ME3 and I spent absolutely ages in character creation, I was matching backstory to powers and designing her looks and history to fit with this character I was building up for her in my head …and then she spoke and the tone of voice was completely different from anything that character would choose and the illusion was shattered. When the voice acting is very bland like male shep, it can work, but if the voice acting is good it ruins the characters I create. and from a practical sense it limits the flexibility of the writing to voice it.

      Dragon Age dialogue is pretty much my perfect roleplaying experience at the moment, but the circumstances couldn’t hold if it were voiced. Since I skip through the voiced dialogue as fast as I can read, I don’t even notice the lack of voice work. I guess if you didn’t have subtitles and you were listening to every word they say, or they were going for a more cinematic style, like in Mass Effect, then it would be really strange

      1. Brandon says:

        To be fair, Mass Effect is a series where you get to make your own Commander Shepherd. You really don’t get enough input in the character creation process to actually make your own character.

        1. Thomas says:

          This is the realisation that ME3 brought on and not only did I go on to enjoy the game but I went back and actually enjoyed ME2 this time round with that in mind. The thing is, the way the game works and the way the choices work and how they let you choose even the reason you came to fame and the place you were born, along with the RPGness sets it up so that it looks like you can make your own character. But once I realised you couldn’t and stopped caring it made everything a lot more fun.

          It also fixes the dialogue wheel, because once your realise it makes sense to top right or bottom left practically everything, the inaccuracies of the summary’s and the schizophrenia inducing dichotomies without an adequate middle choice s top becoming a problem too. When I played ME2 I thought it was a game with infinitely varied playthroughs and I grew to hate it because everything seemed to get in the way of me doing that. Then I realised it’s a game with basically two playthroughs and the enjoyment went up hugely.

          Dragon Age on the other hand, genuinely does have infinite playthroughs. It’s a shame it’s so long

    2. Irridium says:

      That’s actually never bothered me all that much. Then again I’ve been playing games that do that for many years, so I’m probably used to it. If they were voiced, it’d either be something like Mass Effect/Dragon Age 2 where I’d pick a summary, and the character would speak it’s a 50/50 chance the two would be similar. Or it’d be like The Witcher where the main character just repeats what I just read, meaning I’ll just skip all the parts where he talks making his speaking voice rather pointless. Or, that’s at least what I do.

      Besides, I like imagining my character with the voice of Patrick Stewart. Or Morgan Freeman. Or some other beautiful voice.

      1. Cinebeast says:

        Really, you skipped Geralt’s dialogue? You say this is because he just repeated the text you chose, but did you also skip Lee Everett’s spoken dialogue? He usually repeated the chosen text as well.

        I’m just curious, since I’m wondering if maybe there’s a difference between something like the Witcher (an RPG through-and-through) and the Walking Dead (which is a piece of cinema in addition to being an adventure game).

        1. Irridium says:

          I did not skip Lee’s dialog. Mainly because you can’t skip his dialogue, or anyone else’s. At least on the PC.

          Even if you could, I probably wouldn’t though. Because Lee emotes and inflects and does all that fun stuff that makes him interesting to watch/listen to. And he rarely says more than a sentence. Compared to Geralt, who just stands there and talks in a very monotone voice and does nothing interesting when speaking.

    3. Humanoid says:

      In games like that I appreciate the option to also not have any voiced dialogue outside of conversations, such as combat taunts. Of the several characters in NWN2 for example, I always choose “none” as the character voice.

      1. Cyanide says:

        Yeah, it seems like everyone I know complained about the silent protagonist in the first Dragon Age. But to me, he/she isn’t silent. You pick a combat voice at the beginning to get an idea in your head what they sound like. And when you’re in dialogue, why should they repeat what you just selected? I’ve already mentally read the dialogue I’m going to pick, and did so with my character’s voice in mind.

        This method basically means every character you make can have a separate voice. I had a lot of trouble with ME/DA2 replays since it was just the same two voices every time with different faces.

  17. Tizzy says:

    I swear I’m fine with not seeing Gordon go to the bathroom. Honest…

    But the article just made me realize how much I want to see Gordon sleep once in a while. It pains me to see him go on and on like this, watching sunrise after sunrise together…

    1. Syal says:

      That’s a common problem with games that simulate time, almost none of them simulate fatigue.

    2. Humanoid says:

      Going to the bathroom has much more scope for character interaction and development than sleeping though! Is Gordon one of those guys who is happy to have a chat with a colleague if they happen to be in the bathroom at the same time? Does he just swap a couple pleasantries and get out of there? Or does he just shuffle in silence to the stall not acknowledging anyone?

      That’s a trick question obviously.

      1. Mephane says:

        I prefer absolute, utter silence in there. Don’t even dare to greet me. Or talk to anyone else. I flinch when I am sitting in a stall and suddenly hear people, like, start a conversation at the sinks. Can’t you just wait until you have left this sacred temple of silent contemplation and bodily functions?

        1. Daemian Lucifer says:

          That reminds me of a joke:

          A guy walks into a stall,and sits down to do his business,when he hears a voice from the next stall.
          – Hi there.
          – Um..hi…
          – How are you?
          – Err…ok,I guess.
          – What are you doing right now?
          – Ok buddy,enough with the weirdness.I dont want to talk details here.
          – Ill have to call you back later,some idiot from the stall next to me keeps responding to my questions.

      2. Syal says:

        The correct answer is ‘use the gravity gun and throw everyone else out’.

    3. Tom says:

      Sleep, in a game? Pet hate of mine. I live for the day that a game actually depicts a character sleeping properly. Why is it that still games that do think it’s perfectly acceptable to have a character simply lie down, fully clothed and/or armed, on top of a mattress and become an inert mass for a while? No tossing and turning, no insomnia (Thief gets some credit for at least having a bit of amusing sleep-talking), no grogginess waking up (or annoyance that you wake them up!), no *anything* that real people do when they’re asleep.

      But the thing that really gets me the most is the “on top of the bed, rather than *in* the bed” thing – what is it about blankets/sheets/duvets that makes them impossible to do? Games started making a big deal about showing off fabric simulation bloody ages ago.

      1. Daemian Lucifer says:

        “But the thing that really gets me the most is the “on top of the bed, rather than *in* the bed” thing ““ what is it about blankets/sheets/duvets that makes them impossible to do? Games started making a big deal about showing off fabric simulation bloody ages ago.”

        Not impossible,but really bloody hard.The fabric they are bragging about is usually not pressed against a moving object.Its just curtains,sleeves and such.And Im actually glad that they arent doing it for sleeping,because it would be like the thing they used for laras hair,only for something that isnt on the screen majority of the time.

        As for how unnatural it seems,plenty of things game characters do look wonky and out of place.Its a slow moving process of improving them,but its at least moving.No need to rush it,or else we will get games populated by character shotting their guns randomly while talking to you,dishonored style.

    4. swenson says:

      Considering that City 17 and environs have incredibly short days and nights, I think it’s perfectly easy to just pretend he took a nap at Black Mesa Cardinal-Direction-I-Always-Forget or the church in Ravenholm.

      Or at least I have to believe that. Otherwise I just feel so bad for poor sleep-deprived Gordon!

  18. Brandon says:

    One key thing about Half Life over Dishonored is that early on in Half Life 2, they lampshade the fact that Gordon doesn’t talk. A little throwaway line from Alyx saying “Not much of a talker are you?” or something to that effect. It has the effect of explaining that this is just a character trait Gordon has for whatever reason. He’s not mute. He’s just shy. Or maybe he’s not shy, he’s just stoic. Or any number of other reasons, it really doesn’t matter. He doesn’t talk, and the other characters acknowledge and respect that.

    Compare that to Dishonored, where it makes no sense that Corvo doesn’t say anything and no one ever mentions it. Instead of being out there and understood it becomes the Corvo-shaped elephant in the room that no one talks about.

    Side note: It would have been funny if Bioshock’s main character starts out with a couple of generic, frightened lines and then Atlas asks him “Would you kindly shut the hell up?!” and that’s that.

    1. Syal says:

      Compare that to Dishonored, where it makes no sense that Corvo doesn't say anything and no one ever mentions it.

      My theory: the mask deliberately prevents talking, and everyone that talks to Corvo knows it.

      1. Tizzy says:

        That’s actually the only reason why the conspirators outfitted him with the dumb mask in the first place.

      2. Cybron says:

        Doesn’t he take the mask off between missions, when he has most of his conversations?

        1. Syal says:

          It has two parts; only the top part comes off.

    2. swenson says:

      That would be a hilarious way to handle it in Bioshock.

    3. X2-Eliah says:

      You know, Shamus also likes the lampshading excuse, iirc. Personally – I don’t really agree. So what if there’s a random tiny lampshade somewhere? Does it in any way actually change the silent-ness thereafter? No. Does it remedy any of th issues that cause the lampshaded-problem? No. So.. idk. Giving a free pass for something bad just because “oh but they lampshaded it if you paid attention at that exact moment” feels really cheap and illogical.

      1. Shamus says:

        Lampshading is odd sometimes. I think it helps less with the story and more with the all-important “trusting the writers” issue. It’s not that I think lampshading is a cure-all. It’s the LEAST a writer can do. Like, you should ideally make a story that fits together right. And if you can’t do that, don’t make the seams obvious. And if you can’t do that, then at least lampshade the problem or I’m going to assume you didn’t notice or care.

        “Hey! Where does the Umbrella Corporation get all the money for these high-tech underground facilities when the only product they make is a virus that kills their own employees? Oh, someone in the story noticed this problem, too. Maybe this is part of the mystery? I’ll keep playing to find out.”

        Note the above example is of a problem that should be lampshaded in Resident Evil and never, ever is.

        When something gets lampshaded it makes two things clear to the audience:

        1. The author recognizes that this is a thing in the story. We know that we’re dealing with a writer capable of thinking about the setting and not just randomly making cool shit happen.

        2. The characters themselves are smart enough to notice these problems, so we don’t hate them for never asking our questions.

        It’s not a magical cure-all, of course. It won’t save a horrible story that’s riddled with plot holes, but it can smooth over some rough edges and keep us in touch with the characters.

        When it comes to lampshading Gordon’s silence? I dunno. That’s a different kind of problem. I mean, if you just can’t bear the thought of a silent character I don’t think the lampshading can help. It’s more a joke for people who are already on board with the idea.

    4. Jokerman says:

      Ha, i love that for Bioshock, that really would of been some really smart lampshading.

  19. Wedge says:

    I like the reasoning you give here, it makes a lot of sense. In the XP article, you come dangerously close to throwing the baby out with the bathwater condemning all NON-silent protagonists in first-person games. I think your point that “it’s a design choice” is equally valid either way–sometimes a silent protagonist is the right choice, sometimes it isn’t.

    Also, the way you wrote the XP article made it sound like the silent protagonist is in danger of vanishing from the FPS genre, when right now it’s very much the opposite–silent protagonists are used overwhelmingly, even when they’re clearly not appropriate (c.f. Dishonored). So yes, there are really good arguments in favor of silent protagonists. There are also really good arguments in favor of *voiced* protagonists in some cases, and that’s the mistake developers these days seem to be making, more often than not.

  20. RockPops says:

    I can’t believe there’s no real discussion going on about Bioshock Infinite, the biggest game in recent memory that had a talkative first-person protagonist. How do you feel about the way Infinite handled its chatty character, Shamus?

  21. Daemian Lucifer says:

    *sigh*Half life 2 was not the original half life.Gordon did not start in an unfamiliar place and had to explore it,he started in a familiar place,his work place.And he was mute there as well.And it still works,even today.

    I dont think there is a distinction between gordon and corvo.Neither one of them are good or bad characters.They are blank sheets.However,the difference is that gordon works,but corvo doesnt,because of the places they are in.

    Corvo is put in a place where humans are dominant,where you hear them talk everywhere,where you can even engage them in a conversation plenty of times.Sometimes you even get to bluff your way past some people.And thats why having a silent protagonist here doesnt work.The game constantly floods you with dialogue,and asks for your input,but you are never allowed to give it.

    Half life(1st and second mostly,episodes are on the edge)puts you in a world populated mostly by beasts you cannot understand.Sure there are some conversations here and there,but rarely are they directed towards you.And you are never asked for an input,you are only given instructions.But most of the time,you are alone,with no one to interact with.And thats why a silent protagonist works here:You are left alone to absorb the world around you and think about it in silence.

  22. mwchase says:

    This reminds me of how weird Curly Story mode was in Cave Story+. Suddenly, the player character has opinions (broadly compatible with being a player character, and her canonical characterization), but now whenever she talks to Quote, she has to rephrase everything he says because it doesn’t show up in the subtitles.

    (It’s also weird because, so far as I’ve gotten, none of the easter eggs have changed, particularly not in the Sand Zone. I dare anyone who has played any version of the game to explain to everyone else why that’s so awkward, because I sure don’t want to. For reference, in Curly Story mode, Quote lives with the Colons. Yes, in that house, with that room in it.)

    1. The Rocketeer says:

      So you steal Quote’s undershorts. So what?

      1. mwchase says:

        Not in the version I played, you don’t. That item is exactly the same.

  23. Phantos says:

    Skyrim has the worst of both worlds.

    The main character is mostly silent, but it also gives you rail-roadey dialogue options that makes them seem like a naive doofus.

    For some reason I’ve never had a problem with Crono in “Chrono Trigger”. Even though I’d be happier with the silent protagonist if there were a canonical reason for WHY they’re silent. Maybe the game was so good around him that it didn’t bother me if he was so dang quiet.

    1. Daemian Lucifer says:

      Silent?They keep shouting throughout almost the whole game.

      I preferred the streamlined dialogue of skyrim over oblivion and morrowind though.Bethesda never was that good at making dialogue,so giving up on trying and focusing on other aspects of the game was a good move.Though maybe they shouldve focused a bit more on the inventory.

      1. Phantos says:

        Yeah, I get the feeling their strengths lie more in making that big, open sandbox world and lore, rather than populating it with something vaguely passing for human.

        Maybe if they made the next Elder Scrolls in the future, and everyone was a robot, their static behaviour and dialogue might make sense.

        1. mwchase says:

          … This is almost enough to make me want to see a mashup of TES and Portal.

          I mean, beyond that Space Core mod or whatever.

  24. arron says:

    I just clicked on the XBone link. I noticed that the tag for gaming is described as “How it Games” Ugh, *shudders.

    It feels like a suit in marketing trying to dress as a hipster wrote that site.

    Reminds me of this. “Today’s game isn’t about gaming. It’s all about selling.”. Check out the pathetic suits trying desperately to appear street and cool to their staff *facepalm*


  25. Ace Calhoon says:

    The problem I have often had with silent protagonists, is that silence in and of itself is often a powerful character choice. When Gordon Freeman doesn’t pause to ask why the Vortigaunts who were killing his colleagues are now on his side, that says something about the character (at the very least that he isn’t very inquisitive).

    This problem is often worse in games that aren’t made by Valve. In the first Dead Space, you spend quite a bit of time listening to people who are desperately trying to reach out for help and other people while they deal with the isolation typical of horror environments. What kind of person listens to this kind of stuff, without even thumbing on his radio?

    Silent protagonists work fine, as long as they’re not put in a situation where silence defines them. Once that happens, you have the worst of both worlds: a character distinct from the player AND a lack of communicated personality. We’re left with someone who does inexplicable things, but no explanation for why they’re doing them.

    Even for introverts (and I definitely am somewhere on that side of the spectrum), sometimes the best course of action is simply to say something. And a good silent protagonist has to find a way to tell their story in a way that makes their own silence natural.

    1. Jabrwock says:

      It depends how it’s written. As Shamus says, sometimes you don’t notice that your protagonist is silent because your brain is busy filling in the other half of the conversation.

      If the conversation is just others spouting exposition at you, you don’t get much chance to interact. But if the pauses in the conversation a just right, you can imagine yourself responding, which pulls you in.

      1. Ace Calhoon says:

        It’s not really about the pauses in the conversation (although they can help). It’s not whether the supporting characters are shouting or not. It’s not even about the exposition level (I’d even argue that silent protagonists need more exposition).

        It’s about whether or not the silent protagonist does something that contradicts the mental model that’s been formed.

        And that’s what makes silent protagonists hard. You have to write towards a worst-case, where your main character is extremely genre-savy, and extremely inquisitive, while writing to a genre and somehow not drowning the player in exposition.

        All of that on top of the obvious writing challenges of a silent protagonist (making one-sided dialog believable, for example).

        The problem is made even more pernicious because you can give the same game to two fairly similar players, and one will think it’s awesome (because all their expectations were met), and another will think it’s lame (because some of their expectations led to dissonance).

        Anyway. My point is this: Silent protagonists are hard. When you do them right, they can be awesome. And there are some awesome ones out there.

        BUT, there are a lot of games that do silent protagonists wrong. And at the same time, people (particularly critics) often write posts advocating them.

        We don’t need “more” silent protagonists. We are awash in nameless, faceless, voiceless, killing machines. If anything, we need people to make stronger commitments towards or away from silence for their main character.

        Do it because it fits your game and you’re willing to invest in it. Don’t do it because it’s the “in” thing to do, or because “muting the protagonist’s voice channel will totally make this game more ‘immersive!'”

  26. Jabrwock says:

    I imagine Gordon doing a lot of communication by body language, facial expression, etc.

    Similar to Longshot from Avatar: The Last Airbender, and to a lesser extent (and possibly lampshaded) by SnakeEyes.

  27. Jabrwock says:

    “Freeman’s Mind” (and other “‘s Mind” series) is a great example of the kind of thing you can do with a silent protagonist.

    But imagine if the game writers had already written and recorded all that dialog for you…

    1. Thomas says:

      Well if you mean as in ‘Freeman’s mind wouldn’t be possible’ what you do is you turn the dialogue volume down to 0 and the problem is solved. I’m pretty sure almost every game has a dialogue volume, even Portal did =D

      1. Jabrwock says:

        I mean possible in the way it is currently written, in that all the NPCs dialog and sound is the same, but he has filled in the protagonist speed and inner monologue to “complete” the conversation. Same thing you do when you play the game yourself.

        If you already have all of that provided for you, then you’re not filling in the blanks, you’re writing “What’s Up Tiger Lily”.

        1. Thomas says:

          Oh, good point

  28. Drew says:

    I’m on board with the silent protagonist. I’m finally playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and every time Jensen opens his mouth, it makes me hate him. The rest of the game, I’m having a great time. It’s a combination of what I consider awful voice acting (though there’s decent voice acting for some of the other characters) and a total disconnect with the character I want to play.

    And yes, dialog wheels only make it worse, because if you’re going to give me options, then I’ll be angrier when the option I want isn’t included. Whereas no options at all at least doesn’t make me hate the choices; I can step back and try to enjoy it as a movie, rather than any kind of role-playing experience. The other issue with dialog wheels is it makes me wonder what would come of each option, and leads me to want to read about the consequences before choosing (because I’m not a multiple-playthrough kind of person).

    1. War Machine says:

      Deus Ex HR always follows the idea that you’re playing as Adam Jensen, not as yourself. Your choice in the matter boils down to how you expect Adam to react to what happens to him (is he resentful of his enhancements? Does he want more enhancements?). Notice that Adam is given a full background into his life (some side-missions and documents reveal his past before the events of the game), and characters that have existing relationships with him (his ex-girlfriend Megan and the feuding co-worker Zeke). Your choice in the game is how you expect/want these predetermined situations to play out, not to replace Adam with yourself or anyone else.

  29. Crystalgate says:

    I’m not sure disliking silent protagonists has anything to do with being extrovert. I’m very introvert myself and I still don’t like them.

    The whole projecting my own thoughts never works for me. The characters I play are never me and if they don’t speak, they come of to me as extremely quiet people. They do get some personality though due to their actions, personalities which inevitable derivate from my own.

    That said, I prefer a silent protagonist over a poorly written. However, it doesn’t take a good writer to make a decent characters, just don’t make the character an idiot.

  30. ACman says:

    On a completely unrelated topic: Those Spoiler Warning – Bioshock episodes? Is Josh just going to upload 3 and then wait until you guys finally get around to doing Tomb Raider and as such don’t need the content.

    Don’t mean to sound entitled to free stuff but I want to see the episode where Mumbles starts yelling about bees.

  31. Stranger says:

    You know who else is a “not really silent” protagonist who I actually enjoy? Adol the Red from the Ys series. He’s never voiced and only ever explains things in blocks of text such as “Adol explains what he found…” while everyone else is rather robustly capable of speaking.

    But at the same time, like Gordon he finds out things as they happen, not already knowing it. He’s a stranger wandering through the areas and seeking adventure . . . helping people and then moving on.

    Is he good? Bad? I dunno, I like him though. The fact the games grew on me considerably as I delved through them.

    (I wasn’t originally fond of Ys 3 when I played it at a friend’s house on his SNES until I learned I was using a broken controller. I played it again much later and found it more fun than “bah this game sucks”. I gave the NES YS1 game a try and was so wrapped up in the simplicity of it I wrote a Walkthrough.

    Currently I have gone out of my way to purchase the games as they are released in the NA market. Because the graphics, gameplay, and music all mesh well with what I find enjoyable in an action/RPG. It may be blasphemy but I find it far more entertaining to play than the Kingdom Hearts games (while still REALLY enjoying those).

    Anyway, up for your consideration: Adol the Red from the Ys series. (I highly recommend the recent PSP ports if you own one of them, or the PS2 version of “Ark of Napishtim”. Despite the weak voice acting.)

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