There are many people who can be defined by their actions rather than their words. Many of our favourite game characters allow themselves to be seen in such a way by never uttering a single word. Although that was back in the era when talking in games was either all through text or sounded like someone had taken a cheese grater to their larynx.
Today, nearly all popular video game characters talk. It’s even seen as a little strange if they don’t. In fact, some of them never seem to shut up, which makes quite the contrast when you do find a silent protagonist in a current-era game.
There is a lot of squabbling throughout the internet on the topic of whether or not video game characters should speak, especially when regarding characters that were previously mute. It has gotten me to thinking where exactly I stand on the matter. It all depends on the situation. Sometimes the game wouldn’t work nearly as well with a protagonist who doesn’t so much as burp, while other times they have you reaching for the mute button.
Sick of the silence
I suppose the most current example of this debate would be of Samus Aran and her depiction in Metroid: Other M. Many were dubious of the studio’s decision to make Samus not only talk, but go off on several monologues and give her a character and extended back-story many would have rather she never have.
Needless to say, the results were overwhelmingly negative upon release. It wasn’t really the fact that Samus had been given a voice though (she had previously “spoken” in Metroid: Fusion in text form). It was the personality forced upon her.
The previously strong and silent female protagonist that could do anything as well as any man, and never felt the need to rub it in our faces suddenly became a needy, whiny and massively insecure character with a hero fixation on “some guy.” Giving her a voice arguably made her much less of a character, and many of the traits people found admirable about her seemed to go down the toilet when she opened her mouth.
While many people called it the death of the Metroid series, I simply feel that it was a failed experiment. Something new was tried, and it didn’t work. I just hope that Nintendo recover from this while keeping some form of respect left intact with the character. Don’t try to explain it and make it worse in the progress, just call it a bad decision and learn from it.
The Blue Chatterbox
If only Sonic the Hedgehog really did spend more time travelling at the speed sound, nobody would be able to hear him jabber on innately like the fool that he has become. Like Samus, Sonic was once a well-known silent hero who was given a voice, oh lord was he given a voice. And I thought Jaleel White was bad.
Since they gained their ability to talk, I feel that many characters in the Sonic series lost a lot of their personality rather than gaining any. Look at how Nintendo do things: as unpleasant a character as Waluigi is, he has much more personality and character than Knuckles the Echidna, who is one of the oldest characters in the Sonic series. Look at one of the first fully voiced games in the series: Sonic Adventure 2. Do any of the pre-existing characters in that game stick out as having any personality? Not really.
Giving characters who never needed to speak in the past the ability to do so makes them far less interesting. Having voiced characters makes animators lazier, making them think they don’t have to animate the characters’ personality if the voice actors can do it instead. If done right, an expression can convey so much more character than any uttered word.
The Perfect Silent Protagonist
I probably sound like a broken record here, but my favourite silent protagonist in any game I’ve ever played is Windwaker’s incarnation of Link from the Legend of Zelda series. Despite never producing anything beyond screams and gasps throughout the entire game, Link is so full of character in this game that you know exactly what he is thinking every time you see him.
He conveys so much more with mannerisms and expressions than he ever could with actual dialogue. When a character is handicapped with muteness, they somehow gain an extra dimension of personality that they probably would have lacked if they came with a voice.
This is greatly aided by the game’s art style. The features on the character’s face are really limited, making certain accentuated emotions hard to misunderstand. When it comes to animating more realistic faces, or characters whose faces can’t be seen, the facial language is much harder to read.
With the advent of realistic facial technology seen in L.A. Noire, it’s becoming a real possibility. Yet I doubt we’ll ever see that technology in a game with a silent hero.
It’s the characters who say very little that stand the test of time in their popularity. Link and Mario are iconic video game characters, and both have very little to say for themselves. Even some more recent favourites follow this trend; Master Chief, the hero from the Halo series, speaks only occasionally in any of the games he’s in.
He, like Mario, speaks through his actions. And his actions involve being a mass alien-murdering machine.
Sometimes There is No Substitute
By no stretch of the imagination am I saying that we do away with voiced characters. Some of my most beloved characters from some of my favourite games are fully voiced and have all the more personality for it. Like I said at the start of the article, it’s all dependent on context.
Solid Snake, for example, speaks a hell of a lot throughout the games he stars in. He didn’t speak very much at all in his early NES outings. But Metal Gear Solid changed him into a gruff but lovable hero. Snake not only talks during the cutscenes, but players can freely have him call up any of his various support for the mission and have long-winded philosophical conversations with them too, and it’s all optional content. I’m sure there are CODEC convocations in the first Metal Gear that I’ve still never heard. He even has a whole bunch of speech recorded in Super Smash Bros. Brawl, in which he talks about every other character in the game.
Mass Effect is another game that would never work without a talkative protagonist, especially as a lot of humour online is derived from the tone and delivery of many of Commander Shepard’s lines. Shepard is unique because it’s the player who decides what he is going to say and essentially shapes his personality throughout the game.
A Thing of the Past
Gaming as it is now is much more complex than the 8 and 16 bit eras when speaking in games was rare out of necessity rather than choice. While you still do get silent protagonists on occasion in current releases, more often than not there is plenty of space on the disk to give the character a personality and a back-story that is comparable to any other fictional character in any other work of fiction.
It’s still possible to make both work in a single game though. In Valve’s Portal and Portal 2, the main character, Chell, is a silent protagonist, not even making so much as a grunt as he flies around Aperture Science Laboratories. Her nemeses though, GLaDOS and Wheatley, do more than enough talking for ten of her. Funnily enough though, it’s the talking characters who are the more memorable ones. Although, you can chalk that up to phenomenal writing and voice acting.
It Doesn’t Always Work
Just because you have a silent protagonist in your game doesn’t mean your hero is going to become memorable and lovable, nor does it necessarily make you artsy. You’re much more likely to find silent protagonists in games from independent developers in this day and age. Games like Limbo and Bastion give us a silent protagonist out of choice, rather than because it was enforced by the technological constraints of their predecessors.
It doesn’t always work the way you want though. While Bastion is a game with a ton of personality, none of it belongs to the game’s hero. It is the narration throughout the game that makes it memorable, not the character.
A traditional viewpoint would be that the character is silent because he is designed to be the everyman, a blank slate for the player to fill with their own personality and traits. The thing is, I never see myself in the character’s shoes, rather I just see him as a character. A character who never says a word.
A real example of where I think a silent protagonist didn’t work was in Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King. Without a personality (or even a name), the character known only as the hero is surrounded by characters brimming with so much personality that his utter devotion to silence is somewhat disturbing by comparison.
Like Windwaker, the animation style lends itself greatly to the character expressions, and along with their brilliant voice acting, the result is one of the most entertaining and memorable casts in any game I’ve played. This overshadows the hero himself and there are even jokes within the game that point out his silence, making him even more out of place.
Silence is Golden vs. a Silver Tongue
It’s really impossible to determine and it all comes down to what kind of game is being made. Some games need a hero that freely interacts with other characters for the game to work, while others benefit from a no nonsense approach.
The real issue in this debate is taking characters that people already know and love in a certain way and changing them into something that people will reject. At Nintendo are some of the producers that have been around for the longest, and therefore the company has characters that are most recognisable from the very early days of gaming when characters never spoke.
When making a previously silent character talk, more often than not an uproar amongst the fan base will arise, or an internet meme at best.