Silent Protagonists: How people misunderstand or compare them unfairly

Every time I see a gamer comment on a game with a silent protagonist they love, it is usually followed by another person who thinks the silent protagonist is a boring character. This could be something as old as Gordon Freeman from Half-life 2, or current like Corvo Attano in Dishonored.


What always bothered me is how both parties are looking at the design choice incorrectly. They're each viewing this silent protagonist as a character, or they're comparing that design choice's worth with a character. I think this is largely born out of video games traditionally using fixed characters, however good or bad, to define the story of a game, when that's not what a silent protagonist is for.


Silent protagonists were an early concept born first out of technical restrictions, but kept for the purposes that they can facilitate role-play. Yes, role-playing, that concept where the player inhabits the avatar, controlling the avatar from the physic to the personality. Silent protagonists are also often designed in first-person games, to better sell the effect you are looking through the eyes of the avatar, and that avatar is you. That silent character will never argue with what you want to do, say something that doesn't reflect how you feel, and only do what gameplay systems are built for the player to utilize.


It's not a perfect setup, and implementations can vary. While Gordon Freeman in Half-life never does things the player doesn't want to, and Valve gets to tell the story they want...the player has no real means to communicate with the world past their gun, and conversations are one-way. You sacrifice true role-playing in the process, because the player has no means to form their role if they can't communicate the personality of that role, and have the game world recognize it.

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Earlier western games (and Japan to some extent) finally expanded on this through numerous dialog tree methods, alternate level routes, stealth, etc. to provide the player with a systematic voice (coining my own term), instead of a physical one. Dishonored is a game that gives you systematic voice through abilities that let you take different paths through a given level, non-lethal or lethal options for enemies, gathering information that can lead to new ways to deal with objectives, etc. Dragon Age: Origins also does the same by providing you dialog trees in conversation, with your character not having a voice.

Then you have series like Mass Effect and The Witcher, that try to match a physical voice to those dialog systems, which can add (and subtract) immersion. I say add/lose, because you run the risk, in Mass Effect especially, of your avatar's voice not matching how you feel about the statement you chose...but hey you get two-way conversations as a result.

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Still, I see gamers again fall in the same trap with this method by loving Geralt or Shepard, as though they are solid characters, when they're really still blank slate protagonists. The only difference between them and Corvo though, is that they have a physical voice, and perhaps more additional background just to better set them up with the main plot. Gamers confuse them for characters by seeing either a reflection of themselves through the avatar, the feedback they get from people calling Shepard or Geralt by name in conversation, the performance from the voice actor, or they quite literally bloat that small background contrivance into something deeper than it really is.


I think it is fine for gamers to be attached to Gordan Freeman or Shepard, but shortsighted to perceive them as designed to be actual characters...because they're nothing but vessels with excuses to put the player in the plot. I can understand people who don't like games that do this, but it's important to understand WHY they do it.

If you read this far, I welcome the feedback, and would love to know what you fellow polynauts prefer.

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