The recent release of #BioShock: The Collection presented another chance to play through the entire series, including one of my favorite first-person shooter games of 2013, BioShock Infinite. It had been quite some time since I'd touched any of the games in the franchise, and I was eager to relive the experience once more. After playing through the first two games, I found myself wanting. Something was missing from the experience; nostalgia is something that tends to cherry-pick the best parts of an experience and save them for mental consumption later.
So what was it? Was it gameplay that, while good, (but not exactly groundbreaking), perhaps no longer competed with other FPS games, such as #CallofDuty, #Battlefield and #Halo, respectively? No, in fact, it was not until I started BioShock Infinite that I finally realized what was missing. Booker, the playable protagonist, is different from the standard playable protagonist who tends to remain silent. Booker talks — a heck of a lot, and during gameplay, too. It seems pretty novel at first, until you consider how few #FPS games actually have protagonists that like to chatter.
The Talkative Protagonist: What Difference Does It Make?
In FPS games it's a pretty common, standard affair for the playable protagonist to be a faceless marine; a man (usually) of action with few words, except for occasional cut scenes. It's then usually left to the protagonist’s partner, boss or enemy to fill the audible void; expanding the plot, providing context and ultimately guiding you, the player. This is where having a talkative protagonist like Booker stands out. Rather than fall silent, Booker questions his environment. Instead of blindly agreeing to follow orders, Booker voices his opinion on the matter. This builds rapport with the player, helping to involve us as gamers who are more invested in the character's struggles.
Of course, there are still limits; no one can predict how each player actually will react to situations within the game. However, the point is that BioShock Infinite succeeds in crafting a protagonist that actually feels like it is a part of the world it inhabits, rather than a gun-mounted camera that's there simply for players to manipulate. Booker is as far away from the #silentprotagonist trope as possible, and the experience is all the more immersive because of it.
This is, of course, all subjective, BioShock 1 and 2 both feature silent protagonists that felt more like conscious decisions by the developer, Irrational Games. At the climax of BioShock, it was revealed that protagonist Jack was essentially a sleeper agent activated by the infamous phrase heard throughout the game, "Would you kindly," which seemingly represented his blind obedience and stood in for his silence throughout the game. BioShock 2 featured a playable silent protagonist in the form of Big Daddies, those who served as imposing, brutish, mute enemies in the first BioShock.
While neither game was as character driven as their successors, both had deep lore. But if the player wanted to fully understand them, they would have to find extra collectibles, such as audio logs. This is reminiscent of the days of #HalfLife, where the story was essentially optional, requiring little of the player's attention to progress and giving the player free reign to embark on a crowbar-filled rampage instead. However, the industry has come a long way since then, and the push for more immersive single-player FPS experiences has never been felt more than now.
The Push For More Cinematic, Immersive Campaigns
The FPS scenery has changed to the point where multiplayer-orientated games like Call of Duty and Battlefield now have huge cinematic single-player campaigns, complete with mo-capped versions of famous actors, such as Kevin Spacey and Kit Harrington. QTEs are also littered across cut scenes, all in an attempt to give the player a more immersive experience. So it's clear the developers want you to be invested in these dynamic campaigns, but more often than not they usually end up feeling like distractions from what the rest of the game offers.
Take Infinity Ward's (now Sledgehammer Games) Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series as an example. For the majority of the first game, you play as the voiceless SAS operative Soap. All the dialogue is left in the hands of teammates and superior officers, such as the ever-popular, no-nonsense Scotsman Captain Price.
Later in the game, a level takes place in the past, where the player is in control of a younger Price — but you wouldn't really know that if the game didn't tell you, as Price is suddenly and unexpectedly mute.
This is a trend that spread to Modern Warfare's subsequent sequels as well; once Soap was no longer the playable character in Modern Warfare 2, he was suddenly talking and full of personality, with the player instead in control of a new silent protagonist, Roach. Roach eventually dies and the player is once again in control of Soap, who (you guessed it) is stricken mute. I always found it to be a strange trend that broke my immersion with the story, fracturing and displacing it. Having silent protagonists in narrative-driven stories rarely works as well as intended, and the Modern Warfare series is a good example as to why.
Compare this to Treyarch's Call of Duty: Black Ops series, which featured more outspoken protagonists, such as Mason. The Black Ops campaigns always managed to keep my interest by having the player's character at the center of the story, rather than just riding along from extravagant set piece to set piece. Black Ops 3 even goes as far as to let you customize your character's gender and appearance, while still retaining a fully voiced character during gameplay and cut scenes.
This is not an attempt to perpetuate some kind of internet flame war over Call of Duty, but I would like to highlight how a huge cinematic FPS story's tension and atmosphere can be affected by the decision to have a silent protagonist. For example, Black Ops series tend to have much deeper, more complicated narratives that benefit from a talkative protagonist. Although, does this mean that there is no longer a place for the silent protagonist in our modern first-person shooters?
Is There A Home For Silent Protagonists? Absolutely
Whether they are silent or talkative protagonists, the Call of Duty and Battlefield franchises are not exactly known for providing intrinsic stories when compared to the likes of #DeusEx and its RPG entwined presentation. Mileage will vary from game to game, and often the conscious decision to have silent protagonists makes sense; multiplayer-only games like #Destiny would have little need for talkative protagonists.
For other games like #Doom, the titular hero Doom Slayer and his inability to speak is a call back to the original days of the Doom franchise. In fact, the game has a very tongue-in-cheek vibe to it, with Doom Slayer's lack of subtlety and preference for punching his way out of situations and conversations alike often used for comedic effect.
Doom is a game with very little emphasis placed on the story itself. The plot provides a means for the player to kill demonic hordes, and this works great with Doom's frantic and fast-paced gameplay. As a character, Doom Slayer doesn't feel like a silent protagonist trapped in a deep narrative. Indeed, the silent protagonist has a place in FPS games, but perhaps it is time that we considered where that place actually is.
It's easy to make a request for more protagonists that talk, but all this demand potentially means is more work for developers and an extra strain on a budget that might already be stretched so thin. So it makes sense as to why the FPS genre is prevalent with silent protagonists. It is tempting for developers, as it's affordable and far easier to execute.
VR Will Likely Have A Dramatic Impact On Gaming Protagonists
If you find that you are someone who prefers silent protagonists in FPS games, then the future may be in your favor. Virtual reality equipment, like the #PlaystationVR (and the games that support it), means that you the player are literally in the midst of the action; something that the silent protagonist trope and first-person perspective tried to offer, but could never truly implement due to technical (and physical) limitations. With the player now fully immersed in VR, it seems counterproductive, perhaps even disorientating, to then have that player spoken for, by way of a disembodied voice.
Whether we have more or less silent protagonists in the future might be heavily influenced by the progression of VR technology in gaming and how quickly it is embraced by gamers, if at all. I for one welcome the inclusion of more Booker DeWitts, perhaps even within VR gaming as well as with traditional gaming. Ultimately, however, I leave the question up to you to answer.
Do you think first-person shooters need more talkative protagonists? Sound off in the comments below!