ByMarcus O'Shea, writer at Creators.co
Resident RPG nerd and SoulsBorne fanatic. Can be spotted by their floofy hair.
Marcus O'Shea

The Silent protagonist is an ancient, yet slowly dying cliche in the world of gaming. These stoic heroes are always ready on hand with that witty rebuke "..." or even occasionally "?!". With so many memorable lines under their belt, why are silent protagonists becoming less and less popular? Is there a reason we should save these from extinction?

The Silent Protagonist: An Old Cliche

The Mario franchise has been built on almost entirely non-speaking characters, which makes their few voiced lines even more memorable [Credit: Nintendo]
The Mario franchise has been built on almost entirely non-speaking characters, which makes their few voiced lines even more memorable [Credit: Nintendo]

In the early days of the quiet hero was king. Players would embark on platforming adventures with a hero who communicated only in unintelligible squeals, yowls or simple bleeps and bloops. Epic adventures of fantasy involved heroes who saved the world without a word, often surrounded by a horde of much chattier sidekicks.

There was also a second kind of protagonist, often found in Western RPGs and some adventure games. These were the kind of protagonists who could communicate, but only via text. The extensive dialog menu was one of the many differences that set the Western RPG apart from the JRPG, where dialog was often limited to little more than the occasional "YES/NO" choice, often with "NO" simply prompting the question to be repeated.

Series like 'Baldur's Gate' gave your character dialog options aplenty, but no voice outside of the odd battlecry. [Credit: Interplay]
Series like 'Baldur's Gate' gave your character dialog options aplenty, but no voice outside of the odd battlecry. [Credit: Interplay]

These semi-silent protagonists represented a middle ground between the chatty hero and the silent one, still allowing for player choice but without the heavy handed character development that could conflict with the player's chosen role. But as technology has advanced, the silent protagonist has begun to disappear from many games.

The Silent Protagonist Is Dying A Quiet Death

As budgets and sales have shot up, video games have moved towards professionally voiced characters like Joel. [Credit: Sony]
As budgets and sales have shot up, video games have moved towards professionally voiced characters like Joel. [Credit: Sony]

The video game industry has evolved into a multi-billion dollar juggernaut and achieved mainstream recognition. Game developers are increasingly searching for recognition of their works. AAA games these days have budgets upwards of 50 million, and massive teams working to create photo-realistic, movie-like graphics and cutscenes.

As games become increasingly slick and narrative-driven, the silent protagonist sticks out like a sore thumb. When scenes are motion-captured and performed by real actors, the suspension of disbelief that allowed the player to mentally fill in the blanks begins to collapse. We saw this as early as Half-Life 2, which garnered criticism for Gordon's silence in a way that Half-Life 1 did not. Imagine if Nathan Drake just sort of grunted at people in cutscenes, it'd be comical more than anything.

Striving for recognition by mimicking the techniques of film is also driving the disappearance of the silent hero. Game studios are sinking big bucks into big names in Hollywood, hoping to garner the fame and big-boy recognition that movies and recently TV have been getting from the critical press and general public. Developers understandably want to be taken seriously for their work, and the easiest path is to borrow from something else that's taken seriously. It's why early films so often adapted classic novels.

But Why Should The Silent Protagonist Be Saved?

Crash Bandicoot is a master class in how a silent protagonist can have a ton of character entirely through design and animation [Credit: Sony]
Crash Bandicoot is a master class in how a silent protagonist can have a ton of character entirely through design and animation [Credit: Sony]

With immensely talented voice actors like Jennifer Haley, Ashley Johnson and Nolan North, as well as Hollywood heavies like Mads Mikkelsen and Liam Neeson, why should the silent protagonist stick around?

Well, there's a few reasons, and most of them revolve around player choice. Voicing every single line of a character's dialog is pricey and time consuming. It's no surprise that as RPG series like and have added more and more voiced dialog, the amount of choices offered to the player have dwindled.

Fallout 4 gave us a fully voice acted protagonist at the expense of dialog choice and legibility [Credit: Bethesda]
Fallout 4 gave us a fully voice acted protagonist at the expense of dialog choice and legibility [Credit: Bethesda]

Not only that, but voiced dialog systems seem to have a lot of trouble letting the player know what exactly their character is going to say or do. We've all hit a dialog wheel choice in or Fallout 4 and had our character do the exact opposite of what we were hoping they would. I mean, what the hell is "Sarcastic" supposed to mean ? Am I being playfully sarcastic? Mean? Am I saying no or yes? Who knows!

The other reason I still love silent heroes is that they offer a player a real opportunity to take on a role, to create and identify with their character. Jennifer Haley's a great voice actress, but when I play Shepherd, I'm not playing my own character, I'm playing angry or nice Jennifer Haley. Games that restrict your protagonist's voice lines to a few grunts or gurgles let you project your own voice on them. Besides, some voiced protagonists are just annoying—I'm looking at you, Final Fantasy XV boy's club.

Characters like Chrono from 'Chrono Trigger' are still iconic and beloved despite being silent RPG heroes [Credit: Square Enix]
Characters like Chrono from 'Chrono Trigger' are still iconic and beloved despite being silent RPG heroes [Credit: Square Enix]

Lastly, a silent protagonist often forces designers to make creative visual designs that really express their hero's character through their appearance. Platform heroes like Crash Bandicoot, Sonic and Mario and RPG protagonists like Chrono and Cloud have a character all of their own, dictated through color, animation and outfit. Is it any wonder that the 'cinematic' era of hyper-real voice acting and graphics has been accompanied by some of the most boring character designs in gaming history.

Also, if you're making an game and don't have the budget for professional actors and recordings, I'm begging you to make your protagonist silent. There's nothing worse than stilted dialog read into a scratchy microphone by the developer's neighbor.

Are you a fan of the silent protagonist? Do you prefer your characters fully voice acted? Let us know in the comments!

Trending

Latest from our Creators