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The Importance Of Silent Protagonists

by O'Dell Harmon on Oct 22, 2012 at 12:20 PM

Today’s games are filled with extravagant cutscenes and extensive dialogue, leaving some people to wonder why certain protagonists are still mute. Personally, I hope more silent protagonists emerge. I also hope certain characters continue to never utter a word and only offer simple phrases, sounds, and expressions to convey their personalities. 

In the beginning, game limitations sentenced most characters to a vow of silence, but when the transition to 3D came, many characters found their voice. Hit or miss, we reached the era where our characters could, and would, talk. Still, some heroes kept a quiet dignity that not only allowed you to self-impose yourself into their shoes, but made their world and environments more engaging.

In the Legend of Zelda series, Link utters nothing outside of painful grunts and glorious battle cries, yet have you ever thought of him as a blank character? Each wielder of the Master Sword never spoke a word and still remained different from the next. They exude emotion as they explore their world and face challenges. In Twilight Princess, the mature tone is set though the art style and feeling of awe every time you step into a new vista. Link looks around at each new locale with sharp eyes and determination in the shadow of massive temples.

In Wind Waker, Link is obviously young, but he’s just a simple kid, scared and unsure of the world. From the surprise of meeting legendary entities to the fear of having to face dark forces to save his sister, we watch him grow into someone who is worthy of possessing the Triforce of Courage. These experiences are not hindered by that lack of voice acting. They are amplified, because the protagonists live and breathe through their actions and reactions to the world, leaving you to focus on how you they affect the world and vice-versa. 

Sometimes a game with a good protagonist can be ruined when they start moving their lips. Instead of relying on a strong supporting cast or body language, the developer decides it’s time for the hero to shout out to the world. Like one of my favorite games, Jak and Daxter.  

Here was a game that had so much life and personality, it overflowed. The world was a blast. Jak’s interaction with his glory-hog friend Daxter, awesome areas like Rock Village, and tight controls made it a masterpiece. Naughty Dog crafted a classic platformer and left their hero silent, but then they made a decision that I feel was a step in the wrong direction. 

Jak was a teenage kid with cool handshakes, a sweet love interesting, and a heart of gold. Then in Jak 2, due to some solitude and abuse in prison, he became a “bad boy.” That was fine until he opened his mouth. I have nothing against the darker universe he now inhabited, but instead of keeping him silent in a quiet fury, we got a foulmouthed playboy. With everything else left alone, the game would have been a better experience with a cold and quiet Jak. 

The game would have been more effective if Jak was now harsh and distant to everyone he once knew, only showing interest when it involved destroying those who took his innocence away; having that childlike joy forever gone from his face, wincing at every horrible decision he made toward his goal, and the look of regret for every life he took. Revenge is a dish best served cold, in the emptiness of silence.  

Even if you prefer a voice to be associated with an iconic character, which does help sometimes, I believe compromise is often the best solution to most dilemmas.  Some games benefit from a talkative hero, but usually a good catchphrase takes you a long way.

“It’s-a me, Mario!” There. That’s all it took. Throw in an “Ohhhh nooo,” and you’re solid. Mario is really the best example of a somewhat silent protagonist. He never strings together a full sentence, and his personality is apparent in all his games. It may be one dimensional, but it’s definitely there.  What benefit would any of us get if Mario gave a heartwarming speech to Princess Peach? In the Mario RPG series, no matter what’s going on, the Mushroom Kingdom shines. It’s helped by a wonderful supporting cast and imaginative world, which can make any game shine; there is no need to call foul when the protagonist chooses to stay silent.

I feel when we as a community complain about our heroes not having a voice, we are not only setting ourselves up for disaster, by taking away a strong aspect of our favorite series or character that sometimes goes unnoticed. I am a huge Metroid fan, and when I heard Samus speak in Other M, a little piece of me was crushed. The space bounty hunter that I respect – who singlehandedly took down a space empire and killed her friends in the name of duty without question – was now unsure of her abilities, even fragile at times, and was intimidated by Ridley. I put the game on mute for most of her dialogue.

There are many more heroes like Chell, Gordon Freeman, and The Kid I can reference, but the point I want to make is I don’t hate protagonists who do talk — Solid Snake wouldn’t be the same mute, for instance. I just believe that our silent saviors should be embraced with open arms. I never want to see the feeling of awe and childlike wonder leave games. Gripping, adult-themed narratives are good, but they don’t always need big-mouthed protagonists.  As games continue to grow, I hope new IPs come along that continue to show us silence is definitely golden.