Silent heroes are a video game staple, from the days when there wasn’t really much of a choice to the modern days where their use is deliberate. Some silent heroes make sense while others don’t, and I’ll go through a few of them in this piece, as well as explain why the Silent Hero is such a good thing, why we need silent heroes in video games.
Silent Heroes such as Link, Gordon Freeman, Adol Christin and Crono from Chrono Trigger to mention a few have been used in the past to enhance the immersion of the player. Some characters aren’t completely mute; they react, like Link silently answering the question “What’s your name?” which makes him seem he’s telepathic or something. Same with Adol Christin from the Ys series, he never says anything, but when prompted, a text-box appears saying “Adol explained the situation and introduced himself” or something similar. You never get to see him actually saying things, but you know he’s saying them. In fact, Link could use that as well, give at least some indication the guy’s talking. Some others, like Crono, Freeman and the Marine from Doom, never say a single word and if they do (within the game world), you’re never given any indication it actually happens.
By making the character silent, the creator puts the task of giving the character personality to the player, to become him, to walk in his shoes and in essence make the gaming experience not so much watching a story unfold but living it, making it a journey. By the game’s end, when you’re about to reach the final encounter, or boss fight and when you finally conquer it, you feel as though you’ve earned this victory personally. It’s yours because you are the character. This is what I mean by enhancing immersion. By taking the character’s place, you dive headfirst into the game world and become a part of it instead of a spectator. Some silent protagonists enhance it, yet some break the immersion considerably. More on that a further down.
Nowadays, once mute characters are given voices in new iterations of their stories, yet others remain in stoic silence. In those cases, the concern from the developer’s point of view is giving the character a voice that doesn’t fit. If your character’s been (mostly) silent beyond grunts and yelps for decades, every player will have given him a different voice and tone. If the voice you choose to be the official voice for your character, you have the risk of alienating people, of your fans to think “wait, that wasn’t what I expected him to sound like. I don’t like it.” Nintendo has been in this spot with Link. They maintain it’s for immersion and they’re right, but also, after 25+ years, I think it’s almost impossible to give Link a voice that fits all tastes and expectations. It gets even more complicated when you factor in actresses played young link in the games. It works for yelps and grunts, but how would Link work with a female voice actor? He’d sound a lot like Kid Goku in Dragon Ball, played by a woman, or Bart Simpson, also played by a woman. It could work, but it might not be the right fit, and it complicates things.
Then there are the “nonsensical” silents like Gordon Freeman from Half-Life and Corvo from Dishonored. Gordon Freeman was intentionally made silent, so he would always be at the player’s control, but he’s not actually mute, considering he accepted the Black Mesa job on a telephone call! Corvo’s case is similar. At the start of the game, the character returns home from a Diplomatic Job as Ambassador, something quite difficult for someone who can’t speak. Corvo’s case is also unique in that his silence hinders immersion instead of improving it. With a character like Corvo, a loyal man recently accused of killing the Empress, you expect to hear his thoughts and know how he feels.
It’s a given that at the beginning of any game (except sequels) you don’t really care about the main character. With Gordon, your reactions to the events of Half-Life are probably the same he’d have if given a voice, so the intentional silence works and you step into Freeman’s shoes perfectly, becoming a part of the game and reacting to the events happening in front of you. With Corvo however, you don’t know anything about this world, and you have no reason to care about it, and his inner or outer monologue would have gone a long way towards helping you care about the characters and events. The Marine from Doom is another example of a good silent protagonist, especially in Doom 3, where no dialog is really needed, it’s only you, the scary stuff and the environment, and it’s one case where his comments or quips could have gotten in the way of things.
I’ve gone over the immersion factor of silent protagonists, but there’s another benefit to them. With having your character silent, you give the secondary characters a chance to shine, most games with silent protagonists feature a fantastic cast of secondary characters, with distinct personalities. There’s a risk however; with taking the main character’s personality out of the equation you put the weight of your world on your NPCs’ shoulders, which can either make or break your game. Good NPCs as those in Zelda, Ys or Half-Life can instill life to the setting, while terribly boring NPCs as those found in Skyrim (my favourite gaming punching bag) can make otherwise beautiful scenery and game world look dull and bland.
The silent protagonist is in essence both a storytelling tool and a gameplay feature. They can help you get into the game by being in the character’s shoes and filling them with your own views on the world. The Silent Hero is a mold you’ll fit. Do it right and immersion, fun and awe are guaranteed, do it wrong, and at worst you’ll end up with the opposite. By taking making the protagonist this mold for you to fit in, it takes the weight off the main character to be the driver of the story and the one to make the game world and story interesting and engrossing, instead giving you the chance to make your NPCs do that job, letting you give them much more emphasis, and if done correctly, helping you expand the game world into a living and breathing environment.
People clamor for voice acting more and more, but the mute main characters have their role and they work really well. While voice acting can be hit and miss, the silent protagonist doesn’t have that problem, he’s always going to sound the same and that is: however you think he sounds. A good example of this is Samus Aran. While in Metroid Fusion Samus spoke during a few scenes and all of it her internal monologue, she was in essence a Silent Protagnist, that is, until they gave her a voice in Metroid: Other M, to a very negative reception (and the story was terrible too as was the character direction, but let’s not get into that, shall we?)
As a side note, have you ever noticed games with silent heroes have amazing musical scores? With the character being silent and not reacting vocally, the weight of transmitting the feeling of a scene fall on the NPCs, the protagonist’s expressions if there are any and/or the music. A decade or so ago, characters weren’t capable of expressing emotions, the technology wasn’t available (I don’t mean in any way that polygons = emotions, that’s a moronic argument reserved solely for David Cage; I just mean character models were flat and incapable of showing any expressions), so the silent protagonist depended on the music to set the tone of the scene.
To end this, I can just say: Embrace and Defend the Silent Heroes!!!