Silent Protagonists: Behind the Controller or Nose in a Book

E3 2015 has come around again and brought us a plethora of new game announcements to anticipate in the next year. New games, DLCs, sequels, remakes, re-mastered editions, all your gaming needs from Nintendo, Bethesda, Blizzard, Ubisoft and other big names and independent publishers. Of particular interest was Bethesda’s announcement: that they would be making a sequel to the highly successful Dishonored.

I’m so far through the moon about Dishonored 2 that I blasted out the dark side and landed in another galaxy. I know little about the game thus far, but the trailer shows that Empress Emily Kaldwin will be one of our playable characters alongside Corvo Attano, both having been betrayed. Talk of a Dishonored sequel was floating around the internet for a while, a lot of it spurred by a fake leak called “Darkness of Tyvia.” Throughout all of this, speculation, ideas, and suggestions were made in various gaming forums.

One of those suggestions plays relevant to the topic today: the silent protagonist. It’s always been a fairly well-known factor of video games, allowing the player to better feel like the actual protagonist. However, from a story standpoint, a blank slate makes for an uninteresting character. One thing some gaming forums demanded of a new Dishonored game was a protagonist who actually spoke.

Silent protagonists are not the easiest characters to make work. As they are a blank slate for the player, someone looking for a hero to support can find themselves a little underwhelmed. The only thing I projected onto Corvo was my desire to protect the child Emily. Unsurprisingly, I never went for one of the game’s bad endings. Overall though, there wasn’t really much to Corvo but that protective aspect and a desire for revenge.

The DLC content for Dishonored, however, gave us Daud. At the beginning of the game, Daud assassinated the Empress of Dunwall and appears near the end when Corvo is betrayed by his allies and left to die. In the DLC, you actually play as Daud, facing off against a different villain in an effort to protect Emily from a threat Corvo has no knowledge of. This content was far better written, with more interesting characters and locations than the main game.

Daud was a more interesting protagonist because he could talk (and was voiced by Michael Madsen aka Mr. Blond). We got to learn a lot about him. Saw how he reacted to situations beyond fighting. Came to understand how he cared for his subordinates and got to see how he related with others. Most importantly, we got to see the guilt he felt over the Empress’s death.

Granted, this is all the from the Good Ending run. Like I said, I was terrible being evil.

A silent protagonist doesn’t work well in a game like Dishonored because of the first-person format. Link from Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda franchise is one of the best known silent heroes in gaming. Where other characters have dialogue boxes (even if they aren’t fully voiced), Link is never shown speaking. However, because Zelda is a third-person game, the player can see Link react to things around him. They can see his facial expressions and gestures and the way he behaves around others. A silent protagonist must be visible and emotive to be effective in a video game.

But from a written perspective, a silent protagonist is probably best portrayed first person. If said character doesn’t have a communication method like sign language or writing in a nortebook, the reader will need to see inside their head. A silent protagonist could be done in third person, if they are an expressive one like Link, but in first-person the reader will get to better view their thoughts and feelings. We also will want to know why they’re silent. Are they mute? Did they lose the use of their voice in an accident?

However, the best way to create a silent protagonist is to use factors from both methods. Let us have the protagonist’s inner thoughts, but make them expressive so we can see how they physically react to the world around them. Stone-faced protagonists are rarely endearing when they talk. A silent protagonist with no inner thoughts and limited expressions is going to be either boring or a tired cliché.

Classic in video games but rarely seen elsewhere, the silent protagonist takes some skill to pull off. A silent protagonist need not fall into first-person gamer blankness as long as the writer remembers that even without a voice, there’s still emotion and agency behind this character.

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Categories: musings, On Writing, video games | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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