The silent versus voiced video game protagonist debate has been a central part of gaming culture since developers were able to staple enough polygons together to create something vaguely human looking, that’s how coding works right? It did however make a lick of sense at one point. Limited, as developers once were, by hardware and memory constraints, sound files took a back seat to the creation of better, smoother and more reliable gameplay.
Yet, as time went on, the silent protagonist emerged not as a compromise of technological restrictions, but as a conscious artistic and narrative decision. From Gordon Freeman in the Half Life series, to the player characters in all the Dark Souls games, as well as the recent Bloodborne, to Doom Guy in 2016’s, well, Doom. Clearly this staple isn’t disappearing. However, it is worth adding that the silent protagonist is becoming a rarer phenomenon in the mainstream. Also, many gaming series that began with silent protagonists have opted to give their protagonists voices in later games. Dishonoured, Bioshock, Dead Space, and Fallout have all gone down this route.
It seems clear that the gaming community is increasingly falling out of love with the silent protagonist. As video games continue to develop into an increasingly mature and impressive art form, fantastic voice acting performances keep on lighting up the gaming world. Gone are the days of shoving a small number of “actors” into a booth to recite lines for 50 characters with no context or explanation as to what they were saying. Today the industry is filled with talented stars, working with new technology such as face and motion capture, to create spectacular character performances. No longer do developers need to rely on silence to draw in the player. That’s not to say that voice acting is always a stellar success. Fallout 4 demonstrated a pretty disappointing move to the vocal protagonist. But when enough time and effort is actually put into the speech of your characters, it works out.
Personally there aren’t many silent protagonists that I have ever really felt I can effectively ‘become’
As well as this, gamers are becoming increasingly unimpressed by the silent protagonist on a narrative level. On the one hand developers expect silent protagonists to make players easy to relate to, but on the other they have the habit of giving them a complex backstory. Gordon Freeman is easy to relate to, I mean as long as you’re a straight, white, cis, able-bodied man with a Physics doctorate. This disconnect has always been the case, but the gaming community is now more diverse than it has ever been. Personally there aren’t many silent protagonists that I have ever really felt I can effectively ‘become’. Portal’s Chell is a notable exception, but the silent protagonist (while still accompanied with a pre-written backstory) field is a pretty male dominated sector. RPGs make more sense, especially when you can choose your backstory, race, gender etc., but I still want the option of watching crafted stories and narratives, rather than just immersion, in some of my gaming experiences. Joel from the Last of Us was compelling, even if I didn’t agree with all his choices. Fundamentally, it doesn’t matter what I would have done. The aim was not to empower me, but to challenge my own assumptions and perceptions. Simply put, I want my video games to be provocative and complicated, and the silent protagonist is the safe option that shies away from challenging the player. Gamers are demanding more from their video games, and so the silent protagonist is slipping away.
Joel from the Last of Us was compelling, even if I didn’t agree with all his choices. Fundamentally, it doesn’t matter what I would have done
Of course there are examples in which I think the silent protagonist makes total sense. As I said before RPGs can offer a great immersive experience that I still also want to enjoy, I just don’t want it to be my exclusive experience. It also makes sense in a lot of Indie games, especially those that attempt to construct messages and narratives through its gaming mechanics, rather than through their protagonists or NPCs. But, in the vast majority of cases I consider the silent protagonist a relic of gaming’s past, and the easy option in a gaming culture that yearns for something more.