Ever thought about just how many video games have main characters that are somehow unable to speak? Portal, Pokemon, Half-life, the Legend of Zelda, Chrono Trigger, Minecraft… Heck, Undertale’s one of my favorite examples of storytelling in video games and yet still it’s got a protagonist that doesn’t even talk beyond a few dialogue options. Why are all these characters silent?
The most important thing to understand about video game protagonists is that they serve as an extension of the player into the game environment. More often then not, the player’s influence is limited to that of this player character, and uses them to indirectly affect and play out events in the game. This should be obvious to anyone’s that’s ever picked up a controller before, but this simple idea has huge implications when writing a game’s story.
Because of this relationship, the player character effectively represents the player themselves. That’s why terms like “RPG” exist– the player assumes the role of the protagonist while playing the game. They aren’t watching the character struggle throughout the plot like in other forms of media. Instead, they are the character, and deal with the game’s events themselves. Technically (and I know I’m going to get crucified for this, as video game genre definitions are a serious debate for some reason) all video games are RPGs in a sense. It doesn’t matter if the character was created by the player themselves, if they were clearly designed by the developers, or even when games like Oneshot and Off explicitly separate the protagonist from the one with the controller. The player subconsciously becomes the player character.
When talking about a game (let’s just say FFX) with a friend, no one ever says “Gee, Tidus sure had a tough time fighting Seymour!” They always say “I had a tough time fighting Seymour.” Even though Tidus does have a more concrete albeit still simplistic personality than some protagonists (he gets really hungry, enjoys playing the sport Blitzball, and hates his father, Jecht) the player often forgets the character is not actually him during gameplay sequences such as a boss fight. This is because the player assumes control of Tidus during those sequences. Strangely, when people complain about Tidus’ horrible excuse for a laugh in a particular infamous scene (pictured above) they refer to him and not themselves. This is because that event happens in a cut-scene, when control is taken away from the player. The player feels no responsibility for “their actions” anymore, because the game is essentially playing itself, and they had no input.
It should come as no surprise that story and gameplay are frequently segregated, due to it generally being easier to design. This often creates a strange “tag in, tag out” scenario, where the protagonist’s identity flip-flops between the player’s and the one written for the game. Most of the time this isn’t noticeable. It’s in those moments when the game’s narrative and player interaction converges that results in a bizarre problem.
I’ve talked about the Phoenix Wright series numerous times throughout the course of this blog, but I’ve yet to mention the titular rookie attorney himself. Since it would be incredibly difficult to design a video game that is affected by the player’s exact speech when pointing out contradictions, Phoenix Wright serves as sort of a middleman between the player and the game. When the player figures out the problem with a testimony (for instance, the victim didn’t write their dying message with their right hand) they select their answer and Phoenix Wright proceeds to word that information into a reasonable manner. Shu Takumi is generally very good at making his protagonists’ train of thought follow the player’s. However, due to the fact that Phoenix Wright is still a distinct character, an odd disconnect often occurs during some of these courtroom scenes. It can sometimes feel like Phoenix is serving as an interpreter for the player (which is absolutely correct), which shatters their immersion and takes them out of the story. Suddenly, they aren’t the young attorney desperate to protect his friends from unjust accusations. They are just watching this lawyer fight his battles, occasionally helping him by pointing to various things. I sincerely doubt that’s what Takumi wanted to do with Phoenix Wright, as it makes no reference to it unlike games such as Off and Oneshot.
But silent protagonists mitigate this problem almost entirely. They are essentially a blank slate for the player to project themselves onto, with no characteristics whatsoever to “get in the way” of the player’s own. The character’s personality completely reflects the player’s behavior. The main character of Pokemon Red can be a hot-headed youngster dreaming of becoming champion, a patient and methodical person desiring to catalog every kind of Pokemon in the world, or even a hopeless kid who doesn’t know the first thing about type match-ups and grinds his single Pokemon far beyond necessary. And that’s why Undertale, a game heavily centered around the player’s actions and choices, has a silent protagonist. The player can feel a strong connection to the game’s world because they are exploring it “as themselves”, forgetting that they’re actually piloting another person through it. In doing so, the player accepts full responsibility for their actions, which leads to such heart-wrenching and intense guilt trips as the previously mentioned Genocide Run. It’s a simple way to preserve a player’s suspension of disbelief.
(Photo Credits: eastyy.blogspot.com, kotaku.com.au, zabij10prasat.cz)