Silent Protagonists Expand Video Game Storytelling

By James Hawkins in Unraveling Yarns
Monday, September 19, 2011 at 4:00 pm
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The "silent protagonist" is a narrative device unique to video games. The perception of these characters has long been that they help players become a part of the game they are playing, rather than just an interactive member of the audience. This enables us to feel like we're the ones leading a rebellion or saving the world, not just the puppet-masters of some foot soldier or spy or expert assassin taking on something much larger.

I've struggled a bit recently with this sentiment. As I scroll through my mental Rolodex of memorable video game heroes, I notice that a great many of them are quiet, and yet they have been functions of some incredibly thoughtful, character-driven narratives. To me, this means that contrary to the original long-standing belief, silent protagonists aren't really used as blank slates on which we draw our escapism. Instead, I think they're used to put the attention on more important aspects of the interactive narrative.

This week we're going to look at three characters who typify the "silent protagonist" role -- Jack from BioShock, Link from Legend of Zelda, and finally Gordon Freeman from the Half-Life series. They each deliver a peculiar experience that is made resonant by their silence.

Warning: Some spoilers ahead...

BioShock provides a narrative that is wholly based on a series of discoveries and revelations. The protagonist Jack is imbued with a complicated past that we slowly uncover as the game's narrative arc rolls out. While we never see Jack's face, and only briefly hear his voice, he's given a nuanced characterization by those that surround him. Andrew Ryan, Frank Fontaine, Brigid Tenenbaum, Yi Suchong, and a number of tertiary characters deliver information, totally unadulterated, to us. These soundbites bottleneck through Jack and into our psyche, which, piece-by-piece, fills in the puzzle of Ryan and his downfall, and the larger downfall of Rapture as it becomes a crumpled war zone at the bottom of the sea.

It is as if we're being read a book, written in a dozen or so different perspectives, in a totally nonlinear order. By not pushing back with our own pre-scripted perspective, we inherently process the information without bias, because we begin as that which has no past or personality to inform a bias. The mystery is natural, and we have no intuition or clue to lead us to figure it out. And because the decisions of morality are built into the gameplay, having no emotional output lets us decide on how to formulate the events therein on our own and respond to them naturally.

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Additionally, as this story is being fed to us, we're able to see a sort of wider-scope version of it in Rapture. Visual cues -- for instance, the bloody scrawlings across walls and floors and the broken down remnants of infrastructure -- provide a genuine atmospheric presence to the words that we're hearing. We push through small firefights, down dark corridors and open courtyards, to complete an objective at point B, from point A. The completion of that objective isn't the payoff -- instead, we unlock more information about ourselves and our situation. Like a patient listener, we are rewarded with fascinating story because of our diligence in maintaining the driving vehicle. The digital page-turn, if you like.

While Jack is a character that begins as eyes and ears and slowly becomes fully-realized, the silent protagonist figure can have their own organic purpose. Link, the iconic hero from Nintendo's venerable Legend of Zelda series, is often utilized as a way we can tangibly augment the events within a narrative. Or, at least, we're given the impression that we are helping to build the narrative of the world in which we reside, though it is already scripted when we perform our actions.

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​Link's character is generally the same throughout every iteration. He is a solitary figure, one who decides the fate of the world around him, and one whose voice is assumed in the interactions he has with non-player characters. 

In reality, Link doesn't speak because he doesn't really need to speak. We can interpret his strong and simple motivations through his various quests and the way that people in the game treat him. He is really only a fixer -- a character who travels from town to town, helping redirect NPC's lives to align with one another, or solving various problems that plague certain groups of people on his way to recovering the world from a threatening umbrella evil.

His silence, though, is what adds depth to his character, if players so choose to seek that interpretation of it. His motives usually go unquestioned -- he simply up and saves the world when he's called to. But Link's courage and stoicism can be seen as driven by his love for Zelda, the girl he typically saves, even though it isn't made obvious in any of the games' storylines.

But there's a problem fundamental to the silent protagonist working as the true hero of a narrative. Silent protagonists can lack a real sense of agency, which is a keystone aspect of any strong leading character. They are oftentimes passive characters, and for the most part don't display emotion or motivation or anything truly defining. However, there's beauty in this, and there can be a real beauty in a story that is built around this concept. And this is best exemplified by Gordon Freeman and Alyx Vance in the Half-Life 2 series.

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I would argue that the actual protagonist of the Half-Life 2 series is Alyx Vance, and that's due to the absence of Gordon Freeman's agency and voice. Because of our proximity to her throughout so much of the narrative, she's able to present to us a meaningful character growth pattern and deliver far more complex emotions than a typical non-player main character.

I don't mean to say that video game protagonists can't be heroes because they don't emote or speak. That is obviously not the case with Link or Jack. However, Gordon Freeman is the catalyst for Alyx Vance's character development. As narrative operations, they are simply in a symbiotic relationship with one another -- Alyx reacts and responds to us in the most candid and evocative manner, which allows us to understand our (Gordon's) role as a mechanism in the Half-Life tale. But even more than that, we get to see a heartbreaking character study of Alyx Vance as she reacts and responds to things that directly affect her. She is enhanced by us and our presence when we're with her, but there's a very strong sense that she has her own agency.

She responds to death and fear and love, only bringing forth an implied reaction from our character. It is given to us as if it is a third-person narrative, only we are simply the observer. Gordon is sculpted by Alyx's reactions. He has a very profound impact on the world in which he lives, but in that sense he is just a machine, a body that can do.

Video games, as an interactive medium, have more leniency with how narratives are conveyed. They are experiential, and push the limits of what, or who, can tell a story. The silent protagonists don't necessarily let us step into the shoes of a character any more than a vocal one can. They do, however, let us experience the virtual world around us freely, and without seams.

Unraveling Yarns is a weekly column that explores video games as narrative delivery devices. James Hawkins and Rich Shivener rotate week-to-week to discuss their opinions on some of gaming's most challenging and nuanced stories from all generations. Follow James on Twitter @JamesHawk1ns. Follow Rich on Twitter @RichShiv. 
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