Silent Protagonists: Why Games Like Skyrim Would Be Better without Them
(Warning: Portal 1 & 2 spoilers)
Games lauded for their stories tend to exhibit strong characterization of either the protagonist or supporting characters, such as Mass Effect, Fallout 2, and Silent Hill 2.
Consider the Portal series. Chell is the quintessential silent protagonist, a fact that is even humorously lampshaded by both GLaDOS and Wheatley, when the former calls her a “dangerous, mute lunatic,” and the later attributes her lack of spoken response to brain damage.
I loved the narrative related through the Portal series and was deeply engaged by the storyline, not because of Chell, not because of the plot, but because of the strong characterization of GLaDOS and Wheatley. While Chell may be the viewpoint character, Portal is the story of GLaDOS.
There’s a reason GLaDOS is adored by fans, despite her murderous tendencies. Throughout Portal, her personality emerges, shows its depth, and grows with the player through a character arc that takes her from a helpful disembodied voice to a sinister execution machine. This arc continues throughout Portal 2, where she is stripped of her power and relegated to a potato battery, struggles with the revelation that she was once human, and ultimately loses that humanity once more.
Even Wheatley and Cave Johnson experience character arcs, one evolving from blundering helper to maniacal villain, the other becoming increasingly bitter and spiraling ever downward into madness as his company crumbles around him. Without these strong characters, Portal’s story has no meat.
In contrast, Skyrim and Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning make your character the focal point of the plot. In Skyrim, you discover that you are the Dovahkiin, tasked with saving the world from a Dragon god. In Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, you discover that you are the “Fateless One,” able to shape the destiny of others and the world. The plots of these games revolve around the protagonist and are ill-served by deliberately making that character uninteresting. I specifically recall an instance in which I met an NPC in KoA:R and thought to myself, “Wow, that’s a cool character. I wish the story would follow her instead.”
Protagonists who have a voice, who have personality and depth, are able to draw players into a game’s story much more than silent protagonists. With a silent protagonist, the onus of engaging the audience into a story falls upon the plot, and a plot that revolves around an uninteresting character is difficult to connect with on an emotional level.
Console/PC issues aside, there’s no doubt that Skyrim was a fantastic game — but how much more compelling could its story have been with fully-developed protagonist?