March 20, 2011

The Silent Protagonist: Immersion Creator or Killer


    Immersion is an important aspect of all entertainment, and video games in particular have to pay close attention to it. A film can be engrossing, you can empathise with a character or situation or perhaps be so moved or appalled that you become invested in the story. However games go further than this by granting you control of the protagonist and thus making them somewhat of a conduit between yourself and the world the character inhabits. Games utilising a first person perspective amplify this connection further, and this is why a slip into uncanny valley, a glitch or even something as simple as an incoherent plot is often far more jarring than problems in any other medium. To this end the job of the protagonist is a multi-faceted and difficult one; they must drive the main story arch whilst giving the illusion of absolute freedom, they must represent the player almost as much as they represent the game. And so, amidst the swathe of brutes spouting clichéd patriotism, the convoy of silent protagonist enter into the fray, with Gordan Freeman at the helm (for me at least), shouting there silent battle cry.

    There are characters that are so grandiose, so outlandishly crass that immersion is achieved in spite of them. The Duke Nukem games, including (and it feels strange writing this) the upcoming Duke Nukem Forever, are gloriously gratuitous in all aspects, and I would never have a silent protagonist replace the foul-mouthed Duke. However somewhat ironically (though it is closer to wordplay than true irony) there is a lot to be said for the silent protagonist. Metroid: Other M was hyped as being somewhat of a revival of a fantastic franchise, and the decision to grant the mysterious Samus Aran a voice hit the gaming world with equal measures of excitement and trepidation. As I am sure you are aware the game not only gave her a (terrible) voice, but also managed to turn her into a submissive character with the potential to de-emancipate women everywhere. Like so many other women she should have stayed silent (please read this comment for the pathetic excuse of satire that it is) but at least, if nothing else, giving her a voice has given me a fairly contemporary example of the potential ills of vocalisation. The problem, in cases less severe than Other M, stems from the fact that the characters thoughts rarely match your own. No game can truly encapsulate the breadth of human nature; even RPGs like the highly successful ( and enjoyable), Mass Effect games, that offer various dialogue options covering an array of emotions, are unable to truly compensate for the individuality of people and their idiolects. But can a silent protagonist really represent anyone? Surely if you were a theoretical physicist, who is surprisingly adept with weapons, you would have something to say whilst a headcrab cracked open you co-workers skull. Does a protagonist with no voice at all kill the immersive nature of a game for all but the mute?

    No. It does not. Rather it enhances it by allowing you to project your own opinions onto the character, to coalesce with their mind and become, to a certain extent, them. I did not find myself sitting silently when playing as Gordan Freeman or Issac Clarke or any of the other silent protagonists. I was mentally and, frequently enough that my sanity was brought into question, orally involved. With Gordan as my conduit I felt an array of emotions and even managed to developed a somewhat unnerving love of an inanimate object; my relationship with Gnome Chompski may have started out as an inevitable consequence of my completionist nature, but by the time I had placed him onto that rocket I cared not for the achievement notification currently gracing my screen but for Chompski himself. And whilst there are many examples of well voiced and immersive protagonists, a category that the aforementioned Issac Clarke may now have fallen into after recently finding his voice with some success in Dead Space 2, the silent protagonist is, for me at least, the epitome of immersion when done well. And whilst not all roles lend themselves to the silent treatment, as miming a rousing pre-battle speech or using semaphore to give detailed instructions is almost impossible; if you have a character who is able to say everything without uttering a word, and a plot and supporting characters that are robust enough to facilitate your silent presence then you have a truly fantastic game. And I for one will play episode three, should it ever arrive, with either a characteristically silent Gordan Freeman, or devoid of any sound whatsoever.


  1. ScrotusKilmystr - March 25, 2011 10:54 am

    great article! intresting look into the topic! basically like you wrote if the story works with a silent lead at the helm i am for it and also giving lines to your character adding depth to the story then that works as well
    btw sometimes shitty voice acting makes the game more memorable as well ie. the 1st resident evil voice acting was crap back still a great game.

  2. PimpmasterF - March 22, 2011 11:49 am

    excellent, glad to help 😀

  3. IFinners - March 22, 2011 3:01 am

    That is exactly what I had in mind cheers pal.

  4. PimpmasterF - March 21, 2011 10:37 pm

    Hows that for a pic edit, thats the best I could do, basically i just changed the white background to match the article background, and your welcome 😀

  5. CharcoalCoyote - March 21, 2011 9:30 am

    This is why I am concerned about Phoenix Wright vs Professor Layton on the DS. Yeah, I play DS games, deal with it.

    Anyway, in the Layton games, the characters speak aloud. It’s good, because the voice acting is really good. In Phoenix Wright, the characters that you DO hear have a voice acting vocabulary of about three phrases (Objection, Hold It!, Take that!). In the crossover, Phoenix and Maya will speak aloud in cutscenes. In Japanese it seems fine. But they better get a damn good English voice actor for Phoenix and Maya or I am going to be majorly pissed.

    On that note, I’ve always loved Legend of Zelda just because of text. It really provides immersion that shitty voice acting can kill. But in the Elder Scrolls games, where pretty much all the voice acting is really good (except for that one black lady guard in that chapel in Oblivion when you’re searching for Martin), it’s even MORE immersive. However, yet again, your hero is silent. I like the voice acting in Mass Effect, but I get your point about the sort of lack of emotion.

  6. IFinners - March 21, 2011 5:36 am

    I am glad you enjoyed it, and thank you for putting the article up so swiftly. Any chance of a picture edit? With the white around it just doesn’t look good. I don’t know if you can do anything about that, as it is my fault for captioning it the way I did, but regardless thanks again for being a prompt poster.

  7. PimpmasterF - March 20, 2011 9:47 pm

    Thanks for the article IFinners, I really enjoyed it 😀
    I totally got into Issac Clark’s character and I really like your perspective on the silent protagonist, I had never thought about the fact that we give them voice by being pulled in and being animatedly vocal while playing. I got very into dead space and dead space 2 and got very vocal at times. If done right the silent protagonist really makes the character your own.


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