The Role of the Silent Protagonists in Gaming

I don’t speak, therefore I am not?

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The Role of the Silent Protagonists in Gaming

Silent Heroes

Silent Heroes

Silent Heroes

Silent Heroes

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In “Far Cry New Dawn,” the pseudo-sequel to 2018’s “Far Cry 5,” developer Ubisoft doubles down on a problematic storytelling technique, the silent protagonist. “Far Cry” utilizes a first-person perspective, we see through the eyes of the character we are playing as, and this in theory should allow us a deeper sense of immersion. We are not passive observers; we are the vehicle that drives the hero forward. When that vehicle is a nameless, faceless and desireless entity, it is impossible to care for.

The silent protagonist has been a staple of gaming for time immemorial. The basic definition of this is a hero who doesn’t speak. Some popular examples of this troupe are Link from “The Legend of Zelda,” Gordon Freeman from “Half Life” and Artyom from the “Metro.” If we look back to the late ‘80s and early ‘90s many, if not all, of our protagonists were silent. This had less to do with storytelling decisions and more with limitations of the hardware. Video game cartridges didn’t have the space to hold hours of dialogue and thus our heroes remained silent. While there were some workarounds with written scripts, it would be many years until we heard more than the odd grunt or yelp from our heroes. Then came disc-based media and with it the space to finally give voice to the silent protagonist.

Most characters took the leap forward. Mario developed his now iconic catchphrases; Jak, from “Jak and Daxter,” took the leap from complete silence in “The Precursor Legacy” to being fully voiced in “Jak II.” Many characters joined him in that leap but surprisingly Far Cry” has taken a step backwards, going from a fully voiced character to a voiceless one.

The reason for this may come down to the writing quality for the voiced protagonist in “Far Cry” games that came before 5. Some complained that the writing was stilted or the characters too unlikeable. Rather than improve the writing, Ubisoft opted to remove it entirely. The formerly named, voiced and motivated characters are now known by voiceless titles, such as The Deputy in “5” and The Captain in “New Dawn.” This would be fine if these characters were meant to be the nameless action heroes of bloody ‘80s romps, but the writers consistently put the player in a situation where they are supposed to care for the main protagonist. Unfortunately, the lack of voice acting doesn’t evoke sympathy or make the character more compelling. Their silent adventure is made awkward and inadvertently laughable.

The story of “Far Cry 5” and “New Dawn” are meant to be serious. A group of religious zealots have taken over a small town in Montana via a combination of extreme violence and a mind-altering drug, and it is up to you to stop them. As you progress through the game you are confronted by the Seed Family, the leaders of the New Eden cult. Each of these encounters is treated as a harrowing experience that is meant to leave its mark on the character.

When captured by Jacob Seed, a veteran and full-blown psychopath, the player is subjugated to weeks of unimaginable torture. The escape from Jacob’s compound is long and arduous, and when you finally do attain freedom it is meant to be a moment of celebration. However, within moments of being free you receive a call from your allies (who somehow know everything that happened and that you are alright), even though you don’t communicate with them in any way, and the next mission sees you racing a dirt bike in an extreme obstacle course. How are players meant to emotionally invest in anything that happens if nothing has any lasting effect? The simple answer is you can’t.

This type of situation isn’t exclusive to “Far Cry.” 2019’s “Metro Exodus” had similar problems, with omnipotent allies knowing every aspect of your situation even though you don’t communicate it to them. Each time this happens it breaks immersion. It takes you out of the story and reminds you that you are playing a video game. Imagine watching a movie or a TV show and being constantly reminded that you are indeed watching a movie or TV show, it would make the story all the harder to invest in. Yes, we are all aware that we are partaking in media, but most media allows us to suspend our disbelief so we can buy into what we are seeing.

To play devil’s advocate, some games utilize silent protagonists and it all comes together beautifully. “Journey” and “Limbo” are great examples of this, but these are games constructed around that silence that allow the players to decide for themselves what is going on and reflect on it. Much like poor use of narration in film is an example of weak storytelling, so too is the silent protagonist an example of weak storytelling in gaming.

The silent protagonist has had its time in the video game sun, and it is an important reminder of how far games have come. But it should be only that, a reminder, and not a crutch to excuse poor writing in storytelling. If we take away the characters’ ability to speak, we take away our ability to care about them. Silence may speak volumes, but not when it comes to video games.

What do you think? Do silent protagonists still deserve a place in today’s video games? Have some good or bad examples of their use in games? Any which way tell us your thoughts at either [email protected] or in the comments section on neiuindependent.org

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