“Bravo, dear boy. Bravo.” he exclaimed, clapping his hands slowly. “You are truly our saviour. I, the king of Rikkitybollix, have seen many wars in my day. I’ve seen thugs and bandits of all manner attacking my kingdom, but none as relentless and evil as the Testiculords. Yet you, my boy, you managed to single-handedly defeat their entire army. What strength. What valour. What determination.” The young man’s bows his head before the king and is greeted with an amazing proposition. “So then,” the king said to the warrior “It gives me great honour to announce that my daughter, the love of your life, would like your hand in marriage, thus making you Rickitybollix’s future king. What do you say, boy? Do you accept?” The man remained silent. “What was that?” the king asked, but again not a sound can be heard from the battle torn fighter. “Nothing? Hmmm.” Looking disappointed, the king sighs deeply before continuing. “Fine then. Chef!” he called out to the kingdom’s royal cook. “Whip the boy up a nice turkey dinner with a side of pig for his troubles and send him on his way.”
Let’s take the Pokémon series as an example here. To date there have been five and a half generations of Pokémonly goodness, with a sixth generation just around the corner. Within each game, you play as a young boy or girl who sets off on an adventure to meet and do battle with as many cute little monsters as you possibly can. Along the way you’ll have to tumble evil teams of pokémon trainers, as well as fight through various battles with highly trained gym leaders to eventually get to meet the Pokémon Master. Simplistic stuff, but each game has a story wrapped around it, usually featuring a powerful legendary pokémon and an team trying to harness it’s immense powers for their own evil needs. This brings forth a cast of characters that must interact with each other and participate in conversations in order for the storyline to proceed. However, though your world is in peril, your adventure is in motion, and both your friends and enemies are conversing every time you meet them, you never say a word. Not one! Because of your characters being nothing more than silent sprites on a screen, I find myself having much deeper bonds with my teams of pokémon themselves.
When your character is asked what their name is, they never answer. Instead, they stand rigid and stay silent, but whoever is speaking to them just happens to know their name suddenly. Perhaps you give them the world’s cutest death stare? Folk you meet along the way notice that you’re carrying a pokédex and so put two and two together to realise that you’re the game’s hero out on your travels, even though you’ve never actually opened your mouth to speak to them. For all they know, you could be some psycho who let their Charizard loose on the general public and between the screams and sounds of burning flesh, you heard the bleeping of a pokédex and thought you’d keep it with you. Perhaps you could flog it off later for the price of a Magikarp sandwich?.. Mmmm… Karp.
This strong silent act really bugs me. It distances me from the character, and ultimately from the lore of the game. Can you tell me one interesting thing that the main character did in GTA III? Neither could I, because he was completely forgettable. On the flip side, I could write an entire book on the exploits of Tommy Vercetti in Vice City or CJ in San Andreas. A paper thin shell of a man which the player can control is not a character. It’s an avatar. That’s how silent protagonists feel to me. Like avatars. Just like the jolly little dude on my Xbox360 dashboard; he’s there for no other real reason than just being there. I never really cared what happened to Mr. GTA III in the grand scheme of things. He meant absolutely nothing to me. Sure, I didn’t want him to get blown up during gameplay because that would mean that I lost, but outside of that I really couldn’t give a hijacked fuck about him. The same goes for most of these silent but deadly types.
Another man who brings some character to silence is Torque from The Suffering. He’s a man who has been imprisoned for murdering his family. A man who constantly wrestles with the darkness of his own soul… and a load of crazy monsters. Torque spends the original Suffering game in a constant battle, not just with the constant stream of monstrosities that were flooding the prison island of Carnate while he was there, but also with himself. He was a stone cold killer who seems laced with self hatred, and any time he released it, it wound up in a bloodbath. I believe that breaking this vocal barrier he had erected for himself would do nothing more than bring him one step closer to mentally breaking down. It almost seemed like some sort of defence mechanism that he had put in place in an attempt to keep his hideous other side at bay, making his anger easier for him to control. With this in mind, I thought that it not only suited Torque’s character, but actually made it stronger and more realistic. Of course, this theory was blown out of the fucking water when he spent more of the sequel, The Suffering: Ties That Bind, rambling on like a fucking schoolgirl.
Most of the time silence is not a virtue in video games. It doesn’t put the player directly into the shoes of their character. In fact, it takes them out, throws the shoes in the bin, and makes them walk home barefoot. If anything, it seems like nothing more than a lazy way to escape writing a believable hero character. I think that my not being able to relate to Gordon Freeman in any way, shape, or form, is one of the reasons that I could never get into the Half Life series. Who was this man in his yellow suit, looking like the baldy dude from Breaking Bad? I don’t have the answer, because he never fucking said it, or anything else for that matter. Similarly, Chell from Portal is nothing more than another throwaway character, in my eyes. I love Portal, and I think GLaDOS is one of the best written characters I’ve seen in years. Chell, however, is a silent nobody. The fact that they tried to wrap a back story around her and her home life in Portal 2 to give the player something to relate to in almost seemed laughable, since we’ve never even really gotten to look her in the eye, never mind hear her speak. The only interesting thing about her is that she is quite aptly named.
The list of silent protagonists could go on and on (remember Jack’s personality in Bioshock? Nope. Me neither), but it won’t make much in the way of difference. This choice of character design has always felt cheap to me. Making a character without any character simply takes me out of the game’s universe, and usually over to the kettle to make another mug of coffee, and I’d imagine that is the last place a game developer would like me to be while the fruit of their loins is still on my TV. If my character has absolutely nothing to say, then why am I spending my time trying to help them achieve their goal? It almost seems pointless. Without a voice, whether it be audio dialogue or written text, I find it incredible difficult to get behind a character, see eye to eye with them, and respect their needs. It’s often a long and treacherous journey from the hero’s starting point to their final destination. Considering the amount of hour’s it may take, this adventure can also be quite a lonely one for the gamer who’s controlling them. Surely a bit of speech would break the ice, warm the player to their onscreen selves, and make the journey a better experience for all involved.