Games are more immersive than they’ve ever been.
We are in an era where graphics can make games look lifelike, and storytelling has never been so nuanced. So why, in this day and age, does the silent video game protagonist still work?
For many, myself included, gaming is escapism; a chance to leave the real world behind and explore a new landscape, a new adventure, a new life. Dynamic characters go a long way in creating this alternate reality, with believable voice actors adding a sense of realism and emotion.
It’s interesting that Breath of the Wild, one of the highest rated games in recent history, decided to add voice acting to the game. The Legend of Zelda franchise had never utilised voice acting up until this point, suggesting that the developers realised it was needed to add a sense of immersion. But, despite this, the iconic protagonist didn’t have any voice acting included. In fact, Link again was a fantastic hero, without the need for any dialogue.
Of course there are moments in the Legend of Zelda series where NPCs make reference to something Link said, but the player never hears this, or even knows what was uttered. It seems that Nintendo realised it needed to make the addition of voice acting, but still felt that Link was fine the way he was. And I completely agree. He’s the Hero of Hyrule, after all. Why vocalise such an iconic protagonist who never needed a voice before?
Breath of the Wild, or any Zelda game for that matter, really isn’t based around Link and his adventure; it’s the player’s adventure. A silent protagonist is like a blank canvas; it allows the player to interpret the world the way they want. The player gets to respond to the dialogue in their own words, without having thoughts and ideas of a voice that isn’t needed. The player is involved in their own story.
The art of the silent protagonist is to allow a player to form their own response to the plot, not to build on it. These are the most immersive games as they involve the player in the story, unlike a typical protagonist who just becomes a vehicle; a train on a set route. Used right, the silent protagonist becomes a reflection of the player, including their thoughts and views, which is both liberating and empowering.
In stark contrast to this is a cinematic masterpiece like Red Dead Redemption 2. Arthur’s portrayal is so real, so layered, and so emotional that it proves gaming is finally on a par with the film industry. But every part of Arthur’s journey is scripted. Beautifully scripted, sure, but nevertheless the player is never fully in control of Arthur or his character.
Like so many modern games, Red Dead Redemption 2 promotes player choice, and Arthur can become made in the image of the player. But the player can never truly become Arthur: there’s always a fourth wall that can’t be knocked down. I’m definitely not saying that Arthur should be muted – there’s room for both styles in the gaming industry – but the player can never hope to have the same bond with Arthur as they do with Link.
Likewise, many RPGs allow the player to make their own decisions; choices that can heavily influence the outcome of both the game and the protagonist’s journey. The Witcher 3, for example, provides a plethora of opportunities for the player to shape Geralt into who they want him to be.
In this sense, Geralt (along with many RPG protagonists) provides the player with the pen. It allows the player to draw a version of the protagonist that they see. This, however, still leaves the player without a blank canvas – Geralt’s more of a colouring book, not a blank sheet ready for new ideas.
In a world where the loudest voice is always heard, silent protagonists make their mark like none other. The silent protagonist is the true reflection of the player, and is the most empowering character available. Silence is golden, and in gaming, silence can be everything.