And there you have inspirational quotes from some of the most iconic videogame characters! Can YOU guess who said each one?
So yes, today I’ll be talking about SILENT PROTAGONISTS! No, I don’t mean characters who are unusually quiet. I mean it’s you, the player character, but there is just about no dialogue coming from them.
Now, this might seem a tad antiquated. What’s the deal with them? Do people still DO them? Do we only know this because our childhood icons were mute?
So, we get the idea. Characters who never speak. Not just in the voice acting sense, I mean they don’t even have TEXT dialogue. And not in the sense of “there is no plot here, just pixels doing things”, but in a game with a fully functioning plot, world, and NPCs. Their silence matters because there’s dialogue.
Voice Actors Don’t Grow On Trees!
So let’s begin! Back when video games were just a “fad” and the biggest concern for players was “collect power rings and stomp enemies”. Certainly, a surprising amount of writing was still around at that time (because hey, we invented stories before we invented video games). But for the most part, games, characters, and plots were designed to be simple, eye-catching, and mechanically fun.
Some, like Mario and Sonic, would have the barest plots and focus on being bright, colourful, and fun. Save the princess! Beat the robots! Go WA-HOO! Others, like Samus or Link, wouldn’t say anything but be part of a larger, more detailed story, or at least have a more concrete reason for going out and stomping the big bad guy.
What they do share, however, was that barring the occasional battlecry, catchphrase, or HYAAAT, TYAAAH, ORYAAAA, they don’t say anything. Barring some contextual responses (“And who’re you supposed to be? …Hero of Light, eh?”), they just blaze through levels and plotlines solving plots and getting macguffins to complete quests. This is pretty much the norm in an action platformer, of course, but silence from the guy you controlled was present even in plot-and-conversation-heavy RPGs and such. And in those games, even now, silent protagonists aren’t really entities so much as mythical figures. Like the internet secularist’s “idea” of God, someone you kinda pay lip service to as kind of a big deal to the bigger world, but with no personal connection to you. Sure, you beat Ganon, but how about that tip on how to use a Boomerang, huh?
What you get are simple “Before” and “After” states for your quest hubs; beyond that, every NPC seems to be going on without you, using a set number of phrases to drop hints or simply add flavour. Few openly acknowledge “Oh hey, you’re the guy who did that thing! Got an opinion or personal investment in this issue?”
Some of them, in fact, are entirely expendable in situations where “We need you to do this thing” can very easily become “We need this thing done”, especially in settings where there are multiple competent characters who can handle the assignment. The plot was written to give the player something to do, but they’re just one retcon away from being replaced by a preexisting character.
Like StarCraft: Sure, you were the Commander, the Cerebrate, and the Executor. And sure, each was written with SOME relationships: Raynor’s BFF, Kerrigan’s pseudo-guardian, and Tassadar’s apprentice. But that relationship was never really a big part of the story, parts of which used these nameless folks as a player interface when, really, the job could have been done by other characters. In fact, retroactively, they were: To tie into StarCraft 2, they made it so it was Raynor and Artanis who did those campaigns…though the Zerg left it pretty vague. Hiveminds-yet-independent-characters. They’re tricky.
So that’s what we all know. And it’s entirely possible we know the two main reasons this was the case, even if we don’t think about it.
Firstly, the main concern (at least with very early games) was budget and technology. Industries were still taking off, technology was still barely able to get sound out there, and these “vid-eo ga-me” companies did not have connections to voice actors or the awareness to write in professionals, so they had to get their various employees to deliver glorious ENGRISH. We might wax philosophical and try and paint it as a purely artistic decision, but this is the cold, hard reality of game design, folks: You need CASH MONEY.
That said, that doesn’t mean the fact that they couldn’t was the ONLY reason. I mean, you still get silent guys even in modern games! And that’s because of the main reason people (usually know-it-all youtubers trying to sound smart) will often cite: So players can immerse themselves in those shoes. Whether you were dedicated to exploration, glory, or honour, conversations and plots were written as broadly as possible so you could STILL immerse yourself in the parts of the game you enjoyed and walk away with a sense of achievement.
Take Pokemon, for example: We’re a kid who joins the big leagues, who has a childhood rival, a family, and a terrorist organisation to fight, yet we don’t say a word and people hardly acknowledge us except for what tag we wear to them and what we’ve done. That’s so people who want to be battlers, champions, counter-terrorists, or hometown heroes could feel like their quest was something they wanted to do. Without a defining personality, we can fit in our own.
The Glorious Evolution
So that was the start of the silent protagonist. And those properties, while undergoing various portrayals, would have that silence become an iconic part of their personality, to the point that some of us find it BIZARRE if they start talking. Certainly, I remembered that I was in AWE to learn that yes, there was a Super Mario cartoon, and yes, HE SPOKE!
But over time, as budgets, technology, and ideas caught up, silent protagonists would evolve. The obvious evolution was…well, into an actual protagonist with a voice and personality. Some games simply want to have a solid personality as an anchor, perhaps going closer to Japanese RPG territory, a campaign where you are FIRMLY on a railroad.
Some, however, carry on the legacy of the silent protagonist as a template for the player to imprint their preferred personality, even if they have more writing behind them. They do so with more refined game design, not just technology and voice acting: A more involved plot, dialogue branches, and alignment systems to track and personalise the world around them. Bioware has some of the best examples of that.
Some might consider this a cop out, or too different. They’re far from silent, have more personality, and often far more involved in the world around them. I still consider them a spiritual successor, however, because they carry on that sense of making the character YOURS. This may not seem apparent in modern RPGs that record LUDICROUS amounts of dialogue, but it was even clearer in the earlier days of dialogue trees when your guy didn’t say anything.
It might seem obvious, of course: you have good, you have evil. Eventually, you have different endings. Surely an alignment system is obvious? Yes, but MAKING it is another thing to invent, unlike Dungeons and Dragons where you can spontaneously rule that the paladin is stripped of his powers because he didn’t leave a 5% tip.
We’ve Got To Go Back, Marty!
Of course, while some people argue that technology has outstripped the days of silent protagonists, or that it’s a design crutch to ease the burden of writing and voice acting, don’t count it out just yet! The mascots of our past are still alive and well, and very much as tight-lipped as ever. And this retro charm has found new life in other games deliberately made in retro style as well, like Undertale.
Undertale, of course, is the darling of the internet for its snappy writing and story, making use of its retro graphics and silent protagonist to great effect. In a modern world where we have more opportunities to invest in graphics and vocal performances (though to be fair, indie developers have a harder time with that), some games deliberately go retro. And hey, writing is one thing FIRMLY in any team’s control. With all the effort put into the NPCs, why is the protagonist silent as the grave?
Simple: Immersion, and inserting yourself. And in revisiting the classics, they also get to revise it in one major way: The world is VERY invested in who you are and what you’ve done. Contrast the set pieces of a retro adventure game that are just there as sign posts, and party members and NPCs in JRPGs. Now you’ve got both. It’s modern game design in a retro package.
And with that, things have come full circle for our taciturn champions: From working within limits, to outgrowing them, to coming back to the old playground and doing something new in it. Some of them stood the test of time and stayed put. Others rose as their successors. And a few would return to the roots of immersive storytelling.
This might not seem particularly relevant to writing itself, of course. I mean, ANY kind of story is going to need at least one protagonist having thoughts and interacting, right? Even if they’re not very involved and it’s more about the setting being seen through utterly dull eyes, you’re still going to need someone to make these observations.
Technically, yes. But think about it this way: HOW do you want to immerse people in the world you’re presenting and its adventures? Is your character meant to be a very specific vehicle model, exploring a certain archetype or idea being thrown into the story? Or is it meant to be as relatable as possible, with as few biases or preconceptions so that we’re discovering that world alongside them?
Because at the end of the day, characters are the foundation of how we explore stories. And anyone can make whatever they want in a vacuum to indulge in whatever idea they have; the REAL challenge lies in how OTHERS will understand it. And a good way to get ideas is not to just give yourself no challenges and do as you please; it’s in figuring out the challenges of what you’re doing, then how you’re going to deal with it.
And if you can figure out how the likes of Mario, Link, Samus, and Frisk got to become beloved characters without saying much or anything, you’ll find the common threads tying them with the most meticulous characters and personalities.