Silent Protagonists: Why Games Like Skyrim Would Be Better without Them
Why haven’t we moved beyond silent protagonists yet?
When reviewing recent RPG titles like Skyrim and Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, I’ve found myself asking this question. We have the technology. We have the capability to build protagonists with depth. Better than they were before. Better, stronger, faster.
In the past, silent protagonists were often used as a device to circumvent technological and budgetary limitations — you try creating a complex character with 16-bit technology and a college student’s debts to pay. But the gaming industry has since evolved beyond those constraints, making the silent protagonists in AAA titles of today a stylistic choice.
Silent protagonists in video games have become the voice-over narration in movies — a device used as a crutch to compensate for bad storytelling. Like narration in films, when used properly, silent protagonists can add to the artistry of the story — and I’ll be the first to point out when a developer has hit a home run with this device. But, just as narration has become a hallmark of terrible movies through improper use, silent protagonists have become the trademarks of a weak storyline in a game.
Narration breaks a fundamental rule in storytelling: show; don’t tell. As a fiction author, I can’t express the level of exasperation I experience when I hear, “show; don’t tell,” repeated for the umpteenth time, as it is the most trite, over-used, and clichéd advice passed around in writing circles. But it’s damn well true. Narration intentionally makes a storytelling faux pas in order to pull off an artistic direction intended to better serve the story — it’s a gamble on the screenplay writer’s part that can pay off big time if successful.
Likewise, silent protagonists compromise the story by offering a vacuous main character devoid of any personality and depth, a tabula rasa for the player to inscribe his own personality upon. When successful, the silent protagonist will offer a deeply immersive experience. When unsuccessful, he’s like Keanu Reeves in any movie ever: just a wooden actor stiffly progressing from plot point to plot point like a marionette you wish would spring to life and grow a personality you could actually care about.
What I’m saying is that, while Skyrim and Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning are both praise-worthy games, I believe that strong characterization of their respective protagonists would have created a more compelling narrative.
Before we go any further, a clarification: a silent protagonist is one without a voice. Voice can be achieved without audio — voice is the manifestation of an individual’s personality through language. The protagonists in Skyrim and Kingdoms of Amalur are silent not only because they lack voice actors, but also because their dialogue options are, for the most part, sterile and devoid of personality. Keanu would be proud, if he could experience emotion.
As an example of a game without voice acting but a strongly characterized protagonist, I present this screenshot from Fallout 2:
Now that’s personality.