Technology is amazing, right? In early video games, we were lucky if we got a few strings of text to move the plot forward. Today, we’re presented with cutscenes that play like short films, complete with voice acting and animation. This growth has been great for gaming, but the increased use of voice acting has often left one of my favorite tropes in the dust: the silent protagonist.
For those unfamiliar with the term, a silent protagonist is a video game character does not have dialogue. They may interact with other characters through facial expressions, gestures, or “assumed” speech (in other words, there’s a pause in which the protagonist is assumed to have spoken, but they’re not given explicit dialogue). Silent Protagonists are most often seen as player characters. A few examples would be Link from The Legend of Zelda, the player character in the Pokémon series, or Chell from Portal.
As voice acting becomes more common in video games, the silent protagonist is less common. After all, it would seem weird to have everyone else talking except for one individual character!
But I still think there’s a place for the silent protagonists in our video games, if for no other reason than the way they provide a playing experience that other types of protagonists cannot.
Let me set the scene for you: I get my very first “real” video game, a copy of Pokémon Sapphire for the classic GameBoy Advance. I start up the game, unsure of what to expect, and when asked for a name, I enter my own. Now, if you’ve played any Pokémon games before, you’re probably aware that the player character has about all the personality of a piece of paper. However, when I put my name in the game, I became that character. Other characters addressed her by my name. She was no longer a collection of pixels, she was me. Because of her silence, I was able to impose my own thoughts and feelings on her, as opposed to when speaking protagonists impose their thoughts and feelings on me.
This ability to identify with the character perhaps becomes more important when the player character is less customizable. In nearly every Pokémon game, players can choose the gender of their character. This is not the case with another one of my favorite game franchises, The Legend of Zelda. Link, the main character, is clearly male. As a female gamer, I generally find it harder to connect with male player characters – I never felt like I connected with Nathan Drake, protagonist of Uncharted, possibly for that reason (and also possibly because I am terrible at that game). With Link, however, it’s a different experience.
The first Zelda game I completed was The Wind Waker, and it still remains one of my favorites today. Even though I don’t have much in common with Link (in pretty much every respect), I felt myself cheering for his – my – victories. Because he lacked dialogue, I was able to place myself in his shoes more. The same goes for my other favorite Zelda games, Skyward Sword and Breath of the Wild.
This isn’t to say that I can’t identify with speaking protagonists. The player characters in Ace Attorney aren’t silent, but since I’m given access to their inner thoughts and feelings, and because I have more control over their actions (e.g. which evidence to present), I feel a closer bond to them.
Even so, sometimes it’s just nice to make an adventure all my own. Sometimes I like not having to share it with another character. There are times when having a victory, however small, all to myself is what I need.
All I ask is that even though video game technology is advancing to places we never dreamed, let’s not forget the silent protagonists. It may be a little old-school, but that doesn’t make it worthless.