Silent Protagonists: Why Games Like Skyrim Would Be Better without Them
The immersion argument
The strongest argument for silent protagonists surrounds immersion: players seeking escapism wish to take on the role of a story’s hero, and a voice other than their own jars them from this fantasy. By leaving the protagonist a clean slate, the player can fill in the blanks as he sees fit.
That sounds great — in theory. But in theory, communism also sounds great. In practice, things have a way of working out differently…
But let’s start with the good. Half-Life is the classic example of the silent protagonist done right, because the entire game is crafted around the concept of immersion. While most FPS titles at the time relied on cut-scenes to relay story, Half-Life kept players in the first-person viewpoint throughout its entirety. In fact, Freeman’s face is never seen in-game, allowing the promotional image of the everyman with thick glasses to fade from memory if it didn’t match the player’s perceived physical appearance — though it likely wasn’t far off for most players.
Freeman was designed to portray the average male, white-collar worker of 1998 and creates a stark contrast to the muscle-bound action heroes of the time, such as Duke Nukem. While other games depicted heroic commandos trying to save the world, Half-Life offered an everyman caught in a bad situation and forced to become a hero — a fantasy to which gamers were able to relate. Sure, we all fantasized about being gun-toting, sunglass-wearing badasses like Duke Nukem, but Freeman offered the much more believable fantasy of the mild-mannered office (lab) worker becoming a badass.
The takeaway message here is that a silent protagonist is just one of the many tools Half-Life’s developers employed to craft a deeply immersive experience. Point of view, omissions of cinematics, even an experience tailored for their target audience — the developers built the game from the ground up to immerse the player.
Apart from their silent protagonists, what do Skyrim and Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning offer to create that sense of immersion?
On top of all that, in Half-Life, Freeman had no meaningful interaction with other characters, so his lack of voice was not apparent — again, this was a conscious design decision to promote immersion. In RPGs in which interaction is paramount, that lack of characterization actually serves to break immersion due to the jarring disparity between voiced NPCs and the silent protagonist. Rather than distract players from the protagonist’s silence with a nuanced touch as in Half-Life, Skyrim and KoA:R actually shine a spotlight on it.