Silent Protagonists: Why Games Like Skyrim Would Be Better without Them
Historic use of silent protagonists
The 1980s and ’90s were the formative years of the video game industry we see today, the adolescence that would precede a maturing from basement-dwelling startups with low overhead to worldwide, multimillion dollar conglomerates. Just like smoking, drinking, and refusing to periodically step out into the sunlight and get some fresh air, most bad habits are developed during this time.
1980 saw the emergence of the first games to use voice synthesis, an exorbitantly-priced technology with an estimated cost of $1000 per word — which, according to some website, is equivalent to $2,762.90 today, factoring in inflation. Needless to say, that’s just slightly beyond a reasonable budget.
While advances in technology would later render voice acting a possibility, many developers couldn’t afford quality actors and would resort to untrained, in-house voice acting to deliver cringe-inducing performances. You know what I’m talking about — it’s one concern many advocates of silent protagonists cite as an argument against voiced protagonists.
Now, as mentioned earlier, audio isn’t necessary to convey voice. Text does the job just as well. However, it doesn’t do so as efficiently. Through use of tone, a voice actor can convey in two words the same emotion that would require an entire sentence of dialogue to pull off. More text to read results in less action, which can break the flow of a game.
How could developers possibly solve this dilemma?
Enter the silent protagonist, who required neither voice acting nor extensive dialogue.
This is why silent protagonists were more pervasive in the past, and many series born from this era that subsist today have a pedigree of mutism. Imagine the fan outrage if Gordon Freeman would suddenly have a voice — or better yet, just consider the non-hypothetical example of the once strong and silent Samus Aran’s emo ramblings in Metroid: Other M. The game received mixed reviews, with a significant portion of the fan base unhappy with the direction taken with Samus’ personality.
So while sequel makers may have no choice but to use silent protagonists, most of the barriers that previously restricted characterization no longer exist for AAA titles. Developers no longer have to build games around the concept of a silent protagonist to cope with budgets and technology — employing this device now remains a stylistic decision, one intended for the purpose of immersion.