The blessing and curse of silence: on voiceless protagonists

The blessing and curse of silence: on voiceless protagonists

One of the most remarkable and interesting things about the just-released Dead Space 2, a game which has received accolades both for its storytelling and artistry in horror and tension, isn’t the fact that the game has received a visual facelift, or that the monsters are more terrifying than ever, or that the play is better balanced.   What struck me, rather, in examining some of the pre-release information on the game, but especially after coming into contact with the game itself, is just how different Dead Space has become now that its protagonist is fully-voiced.   The world of gaming has a fairly long-standing tradition of silent protagonists, including veritable lineages of heroes who speak with their actions, not words, and rather than continue in that direction, Dead Space has left those ranks, presumably in the interest of moving its narrative forward.

Isaac Clarke’s decision to open his mouth isn’t one that has implications for fans’ conceptions of the character, however.   Rather, the decision to move away from a silent protagonist has greater, farther-reaching consequences than that.  Dead Space draws heavy inspiration from two games in particular, Half-Life and System Shock 2, which are also well-known for having voiceless heroes.   In this article, I will examine those two games in order to understand the effect a silent protagonist has on a game’s design and narrative, and ultimately, how Dead Space, and games in general, are changed much more significantly by the decision.

Half-Life

The original Half-Life is one of the most influential games of the last twenty years, notable for being among the first shooters to set its gameplay not within nondescript castles and spaceships, but to create a believable, lived-in world that was itself used as a way to further the game’s story. In Half-Life, players take on the role of Gordon Freeman, a scientist working at the top-secret Black Mesa Research Facility; disaster strikes when a teleportation experiment results in the facility being overrun with hostile aliens.   As Gordon, players have one real goal: to escape the facility using both firepower and brain power to overcome the aliens, the facility’s increasing stages of degradation, as well as the government troops which are called in to “erase” the mistakes made by the science team.

Throughout, Gordon never says a word, and yet Freeman is one of the most fondly-remembered characters in all of gaming, a curious phenomenon considering that Gordon himself only really appears on the game’s box artwork and in the main menu screen – the game never breaks its first-person perspective, right from the beginning.   How can a character who effectively has no personality and nothing to say to others even be considered a character at all?   And how can players’ relationships towards him be so deep and affecting?

Players likely absorb more of Gordon's personality from promotional
artwork such as this, than actual in-game events.

The reason, it occurs to me, is that players aren’t fond of Gordon Freeman himself; rather, they are fond of the experiences they had while in his HEV suit.   Gordon is not a military man, or (at least on-screen) a genius, or a romantic, or even much of a male to begin with.   Almost any and all traits about Gordon can be inferred not from the things Gordon does, but from the way players interpret the game world and the comments of other characters.   “Catch me later, I’ll buy you a beer”, a security officer tells the player.   Gordon’s locker features a number of unimportant items, yet appropriate for a scientist.   A colleague mentions “delays in the project again”.   The world, the characters and the dialogue are at once specific, but also open and abstract enough to allow for nearly anyone to put themselves in Gordon’s shoes.   Thus, it’s misleading for players to say they like Gordon.   What they really mean is that they like how Gordon facilitated their journey through Half-Life.

Yet despite Gordon’s lack of speech, the game and level design in Half-Life is so phenomenal not simply because it creates good gameplay out of convincingly real environments, but because it always provides a plausible reason for why he never opens his mouth.  The vast majority of Half-Life’s character interaction occurs early in the game, and during this time the player is ushered on as quickly as he or she arrives, on account of Gordon’s tardiness.   The subsequent dialogues in the game come mostly from characters who the player has no direct access to: scientists behind closed doors, a voice over a radio, soldiers who chat amongst themselves but open fire as soon as they detect the player, and so on.   Those that the player talks to more directly often have no reason to linger, as they themselves are also in the process of hiding, running, and, of course, meeting grisly ends.   The various characters that populate Black Mesa serve both a way to visually communicate danger and story to the player (scientists lined up and shot by soldiers, security personnel wounded by a new alien foe, etc.) and to inform the player of game mechanics or provide hints on how to proceed.   They are functional in terms of guiding the player along, but their purpose is served as soon as their lines are spoken.   Few would benefit much from any additional dialogue.

 
Funny, I can think of another protagonist whose whole shtick
was his self-awareness and in-game commentary...

What’s more, the dialogue in Half-Life is constructed in such a way that the potential responses Gordon would make are so inconsequential as to be easily abstracted out – other than an “okay” or “thanks”, the player is never left with the feeling that Gordon is “too quiet” because there’s never a compelling enough reason for him to talk in the first place.   Even if he were to have a voice, what would he say?   “Wow, that was a big explosion”?   “Ouch, that looks like it hurt”?   “Holy [expletive], this is messed up!”?   Such lines would totally weaken the game, and risk turning it into a parody, especially considering it’s a mostly solitary journey.   Even in situations where a voice might be useful, such as in the event of the player’s injury, Gordon’s voice is instead substituted by that of his HEV suit, which informs the player of potential hazards and communicates in-universe when ammunition and health are low.

Half-Life is a game whose story and narrative progression come not from gross amounts of exposition, but as a natural product of the player’s exploration and goal of survival in a hostile environment; Gordon says little because the environment already says all it needs to, and because were he to speak, he’d simply be mirroring exactly what the player is already thinking.   Valve were extremely wise to make Gordon a mute; the decision plays to the strengths of Half-Life as a visceral, personal experience, rather than an interactive film, as many games today aspire to become.

System Shock 2

Many of System Shock 2’s strengths mirror those of the original Half-Life.   Taking place aboard the Von Braun, an experimental faster-than-light spaceship, the player character is an unnamed soldier who has modest field experience in the military, which the player is able to tailor in order to influence his or her various starting skills and abilities.   In System Shock 2, the player is even more of a literal blank slate than in Half-Life  – all the more appropriate for the RPG-style upgrade system that offers up the ability to upgrade the player’s “cybernetic rig”.   After a disaster of unknown origin damages much of the ship and either kills or transforms the crew into monsters called “The Many”, the player must follow the commands of a Dr. Janice Polito, who sends orders via radio; the player has little choice but to obey.

System Shock 2 is, of course, most famous for its major plot twist during the second act (which I intend to spoil, so fair warning!).   The gravity of seeing Polito revealed as SHODAN, the quasi-dominatrix bitch-AI villain of the first game, and of the player coming to the realisation that he or she has been working for the enemy all along, can’t be understated.  Betrayal is, of course, a universal language, and so that alone should be enough to make players’ blood boil, but I’d like to take things a step beyond such rote storytelling tropes, and posit that the reason why this moment is so important and effective is actually precisely because of the silence enforced upon the player.

Peeping in on the spirit world is pretty much the closest 
thing to "character interaction" the player does in System Shock 2.

System Shock 2 resembles Half-Life in that the player must explore a lived-in world that has been hit by disaster and decay, but the mute protagonists in both games serve very different roles.   In Half-Life, a number of contrivances were required to ensure Gordon’s silence, as his dialogue would be redundant or ultimately useless to advancing the story, and potentially even damaging to the experience.  System Shock 2, meanwhile, places the player in a world where he or she is totally isolated.   There are absolutely no characters the player can actually interact with in any non-violent manner.   Rather, the player is occupied by ghosts of the events leading up to the disaster, audio recordings left behind by the former crew, and the radio instructions of Dr. Polito/SHODAN, as well as others later in the game.

In System Shock 2, as a result, the player is never author of his or her own experience with respect to the story, and never feels that way – it is only action that the player has control over.   Although the game gives a lot of freedom in how the player solves problems and deals with the challenges presented, the objectives are wholly forced upon the player.   When told to reroute the power at a particular terminal, or to turn on the ship’s engines, the player doesn’t have a particular understanding of why the request is made, and no real explanation is given – nor can the player request one, either.   The persona of Dr. Janice Polito, and later SHODAN, is that of an insistent, almost childish woman who cannot be placated; no matter what the player seems to do, it’s never enough to satisfy her, and despite successes, she grows increasingly frustrated, antagonistic and demanding as the game wears on and the player is made to perform more and more dangerous tasks.   When the player finally reaches Polito, only to find her dead body and the enormous, self-indulgent image of SHODAN floating above, the realisation strikes home so soundly not because the player has been betrayed, but because he or she is reduced to nothing before a god.   The player, a “mere insect”, cannot even speak; the privilege has been forcibly denied by the game’s design, as well as the narrative.

SHODAN: villain, murderer, god-queen, cyber-dominatrix, and... weakling?

SHODAN’s insistence upon making the player do everything for her, however, ultimately ends up being her downfall.   SHODAN is a powerful, malevolent and wholly imposing villain, but she is also a wordy, self-obsessed, implacable one.   Her goal, the destruction of The Many, the bio-engineered life form responsible for the disaster on the Von Braun, and her own former “children”, is something that she cannot accomplish due to lacking a physical form.   The player, who goes on to defeat The Many and, later, SHODAN, is able to succeed not through the power of insults, or demands, or any words at all, but rather, through action, the one thing that SHODAN is incapable of performing herself.   The player’s resistance to SHODAN is not something of finesse, or logic and reasoning, but brute force.

Thus, System Shock 2 doesn’t use the imposed silence of its protagonist in order to render the player as a blank slate for the purpose of building a customised avatar, or for railroading the player down a particular story path without needing to provide an excuse for doing so.   System Shock 2’s use of a silent protagonist, instead, is utterly fundamental to the impact of the game’s central plot twist, and, ultimately to what the ending symbolises: the victory of deeds over words.   Of course, the suggestion that raw, “masculine” firepower is the solution to “feminine” talk and idleness has problems of its own, but that’s a topic for another day.

“I shouldn’t have said anything...”

The first Dead Space was a success largely because of the way it was able to blend a horror atmosphere and sense of isolation with action-oriented gameplay.   Effectively a continuation of Resident Evil 4’s game mechanics, but set to System Shock 2’s futuristic aesthetic, it leveraged its silent protagonist by once again leaving him as a blank slate – beyond being male in a rote industrial job, players had very little sense of Isaac as a character.   Even when he was made more human by the suggestion of his past relationships, these were typically abstract enough that most players could identify with him, without being pulled out of the experience or suddenly made aware that it was “Isaac’s story” and not “my story”; the fundamental line between self and other was not crossed.

For Dead Space 2, however, Isaac has become a fully realised character.   His past is now far more fleshed out, his role in the story is less of an outside observer and more of a fundamental player, and he is wholly identifiable as white, male and American.  Of most consequence, though, is that the division between the self and other has been breached.   Whereas Dead Space was focused around the player and his or her exploration of a terrifying, hostile environment, Dead Space 2 is focused around Isaac’s own endeavours; the player is largely just along for the ride.

Isaac's girlfriend Nicole was probably the closest 
thing he had to a character prior to Dead Space 2

I want to stress that this doesn’t necessarily make Dead Space 2 a worse game, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that the narrative is weaker, or that players can’t connect to Isaac as a character.   However, the relationship between the player and the game has been shifted radically, and has dire implications for the future of the franchise.   Dead Space is no longer about the player and the science fiction universe, it’s about just another white male American with a history of personal anguish.   The language players use to describe their interaction with Dead Space as a franchise has been irreversibly changed.

In any case, I hope this article has served its purpose as a thorough analysis and has highlighted some of the important ways in which the protagonist of a game can vitally change the direction of that game, from its narrative, to its level design, to its mechanics, and to its central meaning and message.   What matters to me isn’t that games have silent protagonists or not, but rather, it’s that developers, as well as fans and critics, are sensitive to the impact such decisions have on the experiences they have.

[Image credit 1]

[Image credit 2]

[Image credit 3]

[Image credit 4]

[Image credit 5]
 
Originally posted on Critical Miss

25 Comments
26 Comments
Posted by sear

The blessing and curse of silence: on voiceless protagonists

One of the most remarkable and interesting things about the just-released Dead Space 2, a game which has received accolades both for its storytelling and artistry in horror and tension, isn’t the fact that the game has received a visual facelift, or that the monsters are more terrifying than ever, or that the play is better balanced.   What struck me, rather, in examining some of the pre-release information on the game, but especially after coming into contact with the game itself, is just how different Dead Space has become now that its protagonist is fully-voiced.   The world of gaming has a fairly long-standing tradition of silent protagonists, including veritable lineages of heroes who speak with their actions, not words, and rather than continue in that direction, Dead Space has left those ranks, presumably in the interest of moving its narrative forward.

Isaac Clarke’s decision to open his mouth isn’t one that has implications for fans’ conceptions of the character, however.   Rather, the decision to move away from a silent protagonist has greater, farther-reaching consequences than that.  Dead Space draws heavy inspiration from two games in particular, Half-Life and System Shock 2, which are also well-known for having voiceless heroes.   In this article, I will examine those two games in order to understand the effect a silent protagonist has on a game’s design and narrative, and ultimately, how Dead Space, and games in general, are changed much more significantly by the decision.

Half-Life

The original Half-Life is one of the most influential games of the last twenty years, notable for being among the first shooters to set its gameplay not within nondescript castles and spaceships, but to create a believable, lived-in world that was itself used as a way to further the game’s story. In Half-Life, players take on the role of Gordon Freeman, a scientist working at the top-secret Black Mesa Research Facility; disaster strikes when a teleportation experiment results in the facility being overrun with hostile aliens.   As Gordon, players have one real goal: to escape the facility using both firepower and brain power to overcome the aliens, the facility’s increasing stages of degradation, as well as the government troops which are called in to “erase” the mistakes made by the science team.

Throughout, Gordon never says a word, and yet Freeman is one of the most fondly-remembered characters in all of gaming, a curious phenomenon considering that Gordon himself only really appears on the game’s box artwork and in the main menu screen – the game never breaks its first-person perspective, right from the beginning.   How can a character who effectively has no personality and nothing to say to others even be considered a character at all?   And how can players’ relationships towards him be so deep and affecting?

Players likely absorb more of Gordon's personality from promotional
artwork such as this, than actual in-game events.

The reason, it occurs to me, is that players aren’t fond of Gordon Freeman himself; rather, they are fond of the experiences they had while in his HEV suit.   Gordon is not a military man, or (at least on-screen) a genius, or a romantic, or even much of a male to begin with.   Almost any and all traits about Gordon can be inferred not from the things Gordon does, but from the way players interpret the game world and the comments of other characters.   “Catch me later, I’ll buy you a beer”, a security officer tells the player.   Gordon’s locker features a number of unimportant items, yet appropriate for a scientist.   A colleague mentions “delays in the project again”.   The world, the characters and the dialogue are at once specific, but also open and abstract enough to allow for nearly anyone to put themselves in Gordon’s shoes.   Thus, it’s misleading for players to say they like Gordon.   What they really mean is that they like how Gordon facilitated their journey through Half-Life.

Yet despite Gordon’s lack of speech, the game and level design in Half-Life is so phenomenal not simply because it creates good gameplay out of convincingly real environments, but because it always provides a plausible reason for why he never opens his mouth.  The vast majority of Half-Life’s character interaction occurs early in the game, and during this time the player is ushered on as quickly as he or she arrives, on account of Gordon’s tardiness.   The subsequent dialogues in the game come mostly from characters who the player has no direct access to: scientists behind closed doors, a voice over a radio, soldiers who chat amongst themselves but open fire as soon as they detect the player, and so on.   Those that the player talks to more directly often have no reason to linger, as they themselves are also in the process of hiding, running, and, of course, meeting grisly ends.   The various characters that populate Black Mesa serve both a way to visually communicate danger and story to the player (scientists lined up and shot by soldiers, security personnel wounded by a new alien foe, etc.) and to inform the player of game mechanics or provide hints on how to proceed.   They are functional in terms of guiding the player along, but their purpose is served as soon as their lines are spoken.   Few would benefit much from any additional dialogue.

 
Funny, I can think of another protagonist whose whole shtick
was his self-awareness and in-game commentary...

What’s more, the dialogue in Half-Life is constructed in such a way that the potential responses Gordon would make are so inconsequential as to be easily abstracted out – other than an “okay” or “thanks”, the player is never left with the feeling that Gordon is “too quiet” because there’s never a compelling enough reason for him to talk in the first place.   Even if he were to have a voice, what would he say?   “Wow, that was a big explosion”?   “Ouch, that looks like it hurt”?   “Holy [expletive], this is messed up!”?   Such lines would totally weaken the game, and risk turning it into a parody, especially considering it’s a mostly solitary journey.   Even in situations where a voice might be useful, such as in the event of the player’s injury, Gordon’s voice is instead substituted by that of his HEV suit, which informs the player of potential hazards and communicates in-universe when ammunition and health are low.

Half-Life is a game whose story and narrative progression come not from gross amounts of exposition, but as a natural product of the player’s exploration and goal of survival in a hostile environment; Gordon says little because the environment already says all it needs to, and because were he to speak, he’d simply be mirroring exactly what the player is already thinking.   Valve were extremely wise to make Gordon a mute; the decision plays to the strengths of Half-Life as a visceral, personal experience, rather than an interactive film, as many games today aspire to become.

System Shock 2

Many of System Shock 2’s strengths mirror those of the original Half-Life.   Taking place aboard the Von Braun, an experimental faster-than-light spaceship, the player character is an unnamed soldier who has modest field experience in the military, which the player is able to tailor in order to influence his or her various starting skills and abilities.   In System Shock 2, the player is even more of a literal blank slate than in Half-Life  – all the more appropriate for the RPG-style upgrade system that offers up the ability to upgrade the player’s “cybernetic rig”.   After a disaster of unknown origin damages much of the ship and either kills or transforms the crew into monsters called “The Many”, the player must follow the commands of a Dr. Janice Polito, who sends orders via radio; the player has little choice but to obey.

System Shock 2 is, of course, most famous for its major plot twist during the second act (which I intend to spoil, so fair warning!).   The gravity of seeing Polito revealed as SHODAN, the quasi-dominatrix bitch-AI villain of the first game, and of the player coming to the realisation that he or she has been working for the enemy all along, can’t be understated.  Betrayal is, of course, a universal language, and so that alone should be enough to make players’ blood boil, but I’d like to take things a step beyond such rote storytelling tropes, and posit that the reason why this moment is so important and effective is actually precisely because of the silence enforced upon the player.

Peeping in on the spirit world is pretty much the closest 
thing to "character interaction" the player does in System Shock 2.

System Shock 2 resembles Half-Life in that the player must explore a lived-in world that has been hit by disaster and decay, but the mute protagonists in both games serve very different roles.   In Half-Life, a number of contrivances were required to ensure Gordon’s silence, as his dialogue would be redundant or ultimately useless to advancing the story, and potentially even damaging to the experience.  System Shock 2, meanwhile, places the player in a world where he or she is totally isolated.   There are absolutely no characters the player can actually interact with in any non-violent manner.   Rather, the player is occupied by ghosts of the events leading up to the disaster, audio recordings left behind by the former crew, and the radio instructions of Dr. Polito/SHODAN, as well as others later in the game.

In System Shock 2, as a result, the player is never author of his or her own experience with respect to the story, and never feels that way – it is only action that the player has control over.   Although the game gives a lot of freedom in how the player solves problems and deals with the challenges presented, the objectives are wholly forced upon the player.   When told to reroute the power at a particular terminal, or to turn on the ship’s engines, the player doesn’t have a particular understanding of why the request is made, and no real explanation is given – nor can the player request one, either.   The persona of Dr. Janice Polito, and later SHODAN, is that of an insistent, almost childish woman who cannot be placated; no matter what the player seems to do, it’s never enough to satisfy her, and despite successes, she grows increasingly frustrated, antagonistic and demanding as the game wears on and the player is made to perform more and more dangerous tasks.   When the player finally reaches Polito, only to find her dead body and the enormous, self-indulgent image of SHODAN floating above, the realisation strikes home so soundly not because the player has been betrayed, but because he or she is reduced to nothing before a god.   The player, a “mere insect”, cannot even speak; the privilege has been forcibly denied by the game’s design, as well as the narrative.

SHODAN: villain, murderer, god-queen, cyber-dominatrix, and... weakling?

SHODAN’s insistence upon making the player do everything for her, however, ultimately ends up being her downfall.   SHODAN is a powerful, malevolent and wholly imposing villain, but she is also a wordy, self-obsessed, implacable one.   Her goal, the destruction of The Many, the bio-engineered life form responsible for the disaster on the Von Braun, and her own former “children”, is something that she cannot accomplish due to lacking a physical form.   The player, who goes on to defeat The Many and, later, SHODAN, is able to succeed not through the power of insults, or demands, or any words at all, but rather, through action, the one thing that SHODAN is incapable of performing herself.   The player’s resistance to SHODAN is not something of finesse, or logic and reasoning, but brute force.

Thus, System Shock 2 doesn’t use the imposed silence of its protagonist in order to render the player as a blank slate for the purpose of building a customised avatar, or for railroading the player down a particular story path without needing to provide an excuse for doing so.   System Shock 2’s use of a silent protagonist, instead, is utterly fundamental to the impact of the game’s central plot twist, and, ultimately to what the ending symbolises: the victory of deeds over words.   Of course, the suggestion that raw, “masculine” firepower is the solution to “feminine” talk and idleness has problems of its own, but that’s a topic for another day.

“I shouldn’t have said anything...”

The first Dead Space was a success largely because of the way it was able to blend a horror atmosphere and sense of isolation with action-oriented gameplay.   Effectively a continuation of Resident Evil 4’s game mechanics, but set to System Shock 2’s futuristic aesthetic, it leveraged its silent protagonist by once again leaving him as a blank slate – beyond being male in a rote industrial job, players had very little sense of Isaac as a character.   Even when he was made more human by the suggestion of his past relationships, these were typically abstract enough that most players could identify with him, without being pulled out of the experience or suddenly made aware that it was “Isaac’s story” and not “my story”; the fundamental line between self and other was not crossed.

For Dead Space 2, however, Isaac has become a fully realised character.   His past is now far more fleshed out, his role in the story is less of an outside observer and more of a fundamental player, and he is wholly identifiable as white, male and American.  Of most consequence, though, is that the division between the self and other has been breached.   Whereas Dead Space was focused around the player and his or her exploration of a terrifying, hostile environment, Dead Space 2 is focused around Isaac’s own endeavours; the player is largely just along for the ride.

Isaac's girlfriend Nicole was probably the closest 
thing he had to a character prior to Dead Space 2

I want to stress that this doesn’t necessarily make Dead Space 2 a worse game, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that the narrative is weaker, or that players can’t connect to Isaac as a character.   However, the relationship between the player and the game has been shifted radically, and has dire implications for the future of the franchise.   Dead Space is no longer about the player and the science fiction universe, it’s about just another white male American with a history of personal anguish.   The language players use to describe their interaction with Dead Space as a franchise has been irreversibly changed.

In any case, I hope this article has served its purpose as a thorough analysis and has highlighted some of the important ways in which the protagonist of a game can vitally change the direction of that game, from its narrative, to its level design, to its mechanics, and to its central meaning and message.   What matters to me isn’t that games have silent protagonists or not, but rather, it’s that developers, as well as fans and critics, are sensitive to the impact such decisions have on the experiences they have.

[Image credit 1]

[Image credit 2]

[Image credit 3]

[Image credit 4]

[Image credit 5]
 
Originally posted on Critical Miss

Posted by easthill

An interesting read, thank you. Personally I mostly prefer games which have silent protagonists, they tend to stick with me longer when I feel like it's my story. And I feel this is one of the strongest aspects of games that tend to be overlooked. When I play I game I want to feel like it's my experience, I want to drown myself in the environments and really feel immersed. This is something games can do far better than movies and books, I want to explore the Ishimura, not watch Isaac explore it. Not to say voiced games can't be good, but the games I remember most fondly haven't been voiced.  

Posted by kingzetta

Silent protagonists are terrible, they are mindless robot errand-boys

Edited by Wrighteous86

 @sear: I understand your point, but I was actually pretty happy with Isaac as a character in the second game.  It may be a bit of a cliche, but even though he didn't speak much, I liked the sense that he was a desperate and reluctant protagonist.  "Why can't everyone just leave me the fuck alone?"  "If I let you go, I have nothing." 
 
I also thought it was nice that if you stomp necromorphs multiple times in a row, Isaac will start to curse as if he's doing it to let out some steam.  "Goddamn, shit, motherfucker!"
 
I only prefer silent protagonists in cases like Dragon Age, where not only are you the main character, you can basically decide what your character does and how he reacts.  With Gordon, you can't decide to not save people or make any meaningful decisions, so it just feels weird, especially when Alyx hugs you and you stand there with no response.

Posted by TheSeductiveMoose

I did not like the new Isaac, he sucked.

Posted by sear
@kingzetta said:
" Silent protagonists are terrible, they are mindless robot errand-boys "
Care to explain why this is, or has to be the case?  Many games featuring silent protagonists don't feature needless fetch quests or poor motivations, nor do those characters necessarily end up being doormats... having a character speak is a cheap and effective way to keep a story going because the player doesn't have to be motivated, only the protagonist.  If the protagonist won't or can't speak, then the developer has to make sure the player will pick up the slack.  Sometimes this means your protagonist might do things you as a player don't agree with, but there aren't too many games I can think of that have this problem (the first Dead Space is actually one of the worst offenders, but that's due largely to the idiocy of the supporting cast).
Edited by Animasta
@kingzetta said:

" Silent protagonists are terrible, they are mindless robot errand-boys "

every single shin megami tensei game with the exception of the end dungeon of DDS2, so you know
Posted by yinstarrunner

Great blog, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
 
I agree with you that things were lost and gained by making Isaac speak.  You are totally right that I now feel that playing Dead Space is no longer "my" journey, but that I'm just watching Isaac's exploits.  For that reason, I can say that I prefer the silent protagonist from the first game (notice I don't even think of him as "Isaac Clarke")  to the character in the second game.  At the same time, it helps Visceral achieve the more action-packed tone that they were going for in the sequel.
 
Also, with talkative protagonists, there's a much higher chance of breaking immersion in dialogue.  Dead space already has plenty of immersion-breaking elements, but still, when I hear the character I'm playing as say a line like, "Stick around, you'll find I'm full of bad ideas", it makes me cringe and wish I was playing as somebody else.

Posted by kishan6
@sear: As a result of your stalker avatar and your mentioning of some of my favorite games of all time you officially gained yourself a follower
Posted by Video_Game_King
@kingzetta said:
" Silent protagonists are terrible, they are mindless robot errand-boys "
Not really. Some games (generally anything Dragon Quest ( here's why)) can get away with shit like this. Other than that, why the hell are pictures in quotes? Was this from some site where that was normal?
Posted by kingzetta
@sear said:
" @kingzetta said:
" Silent protagonists are terrible, they are mindless robot errand-boys "
Care to explain why this is, or has to be the case?  Many games featuring silent protagonists don't feature needless fetch quests or poor motivations, nor do those characters necessarily end up being doormats... having a character speak is a cheap and effective way to keep a story going because the player doesn't have to be motivated, only the protagonist.  If the protagonist won't or can't speak, then the developer has to make sure the player will pick up the slack.  Sometimes this means your protagonist might do things you as a player don't agree with, but there aren't too many games I can think of that have this problem (the first Dead Space is actually one of the worst offenders, but that's due largely to the idiocy of the supporting cast). "
Well Dead Space 1 is the one I had in mind when I posted that
Posted by easthill
@kingzetta said:
" Silent protagonists are terrible, they are mindless robot errand-boys "
Ironically the most errand-boyish characters I can think of is the very defined GTA and Red Dead characters, with a voice and all. 
Posted by kingzetta
@Laketown said:
" @kingzetta said:

" Silent protagonists are terrible, they are mindless robot errand-boys "

every single shin megami tensei game with the exception of the end dungeon of DDS2, so you know "
charlie is a damn robot
Posted by kingzetta
@easthill said:
" @kingzetta said:
" Silent protagonists are terrible, they are mindless robot errand-boys "
Ironically the most errand-boyish characters I can think of is the very defined GTA and Red Dead characters, with a voice and all.  "
I know they are even worse. Voiced errand-boys are horrible, "Well alright I'll do that golly gee."
With a silent errand you can at least imagine them going, "alright fine I'll do it.....jackass"
Posted by NTM

The fifth picture up there isn't of Nicole. That's Kendra. Kind of misleading when you're talking about Isaac and Nicole.

Edited by sear
@kishan6 said:

" @sear: As a result of your stalker avatar and your mentioning of some of my favorite games of all time you officially gained yourself a follower "

Thanks, I appreciate the gesture.
 
  @NTM said:
"The fifth picture up there isn't of Nicole. That's Kendra. Kind of misleading when you're talking about Isaac and Nicole."
Honestly?  It's been a while since I played the first one and didn't pay much attention to the picture, but I'm sure your right.  I like the caption, so I'll have to hunt down a picture of Nicole (if there is one).
Posted by the_gallo

Pretty insightful stuff

Posted by Hopefire

 
 
I suppose I can understand preferring silent protagonists, but my understanding is limited to a purely intellectual level. Kind of like how I understand how people can enjoy lobster, but my understanding is purely academic; I look at it and see and smell horrific  insectoid alien creature that I want no part of. But you can just go ahead and eat it if you like, I'll be in another room. I did enjoy the original Dead Space, more than I enjoyed Dead Space 2, but I don't attribute it to Isaac suddenly having the occasional line in Dead Space 2. The nature of his dialog was sometimes annoying - wisecracks helped break tension - but that he spoke was itself a positive change for me. The falloff from Dead Space to Dead Space 2 was more to do with level design and familiarity than it was to do with Isaac suddenly learning to talk .

Posted by RagnarokRed

This reminds me of that Idle Thumbs podcast e-mail/conversation about how Gordon Freeman said nothing to Alyx Vance when he saw the hunter lurking nearby at the beginning of episode 2; the same hunter that, a few moments later, impales and nearly kills her. The mental image of Gordon standing that dumb-faced as all that happened is hilarious.

Posted by xaxk007

I agree about the part that Gordon doesn't have to yell random stuff during explosions and firefights, but his silence during the talking parts has given me the impression that he is mute. That kind of thig can be used to change the story though, like the game ending with Gordon's last words etc. Even though during the first game he probably just didn't have a voice due to the fact that most if not all games were like that, they have decided to continue that silence and maybe use that later.

Edited by Kjellm87

 I 've always preferred muted main characters ,
it gives a better feeling that I'm is this person.

Posted by jorbear

Very good read. I never thought this deep into the psyche of developers when they make the choice of a muted protagonist.

Posted by QuistisTrepe

While I see a benefit to silent protagonists, nowadays it just seems completely awkward. I'm thinking more and more that it is merely a crutch for lazy character development and writing. But, if the protagonist is going to contribute to the plot, they had better have something good to say. I haven't had the pleasure of playing through DS2 just yet (still haven't finished the first), but for Issac to go through all that he's dealing with, for him to say nothing at all is laughably absurd much of the time. No one would be that cool and collected having to face all that. In fact, I think it does more to cheapen the experience in some cases. However, I can see the benefit of a silent protagonist under the circumstances. If the character has nothing to say but cliched, one-dimensional filler (or the development team just doesn't want to take a risk), then better to have no script at all and let the gameplay do the talking and in an action game, gameplay ALWAYS takes priority over plot.

Posted by Oldirtybearon

Gordon is a mute. He's probably deaf, too. In fact, I'd go as far as to say he's mentally challenged. His whole helping out with the resonance cascade involved pushing a block, and Kleiner treating him like a well trained dog, or a toddler. 
 
Silent Protagonists are a relic of a bygone era. The only reason Link never spoke is because of hardware limitations. Even in the text-heavy exposition adventures like Ocarina of Time or Link to the Past, characters treated you like you were talking back to them. We're well beyond the excuses that were made for silent protagonists at this point in time. I kinda wish Half-Life would also move on and give Gordon a voice. He doesn't need to talk all the time or be a chatty Cathy, but he does need to say something, some of the time. Half-Life 2: Episode Two was incredibly weird, because there are several points where people talk directly to Gordon Freeman, and they even have the awkward pause waiting for a reply only to have him sit there and maybe swing his crowbar. I love Half-Life as much as the next guy, but this whole silent Gordon thing is getting retarded in its execution.

Posted by Grumbel
@sear said:     

" @kingzetta said:

" Silent protagonists are terrible, they are mindless robot errand-boys "

Care to explain why this is, or has to be the case? Many games featuring silent protagonists don't feature needless fetch quests or poor motivations, nor do those characters necessarily end up being doormats...  
Half Life 2 is basically nothing but poor motivation and random events. Even the whole fight at the end doesn't come out of some greatly planed assault, but because sticking your gravity gun in that weapon annihilator thing somehow supercharged it instead of destroying it. The whole game is a stream of lucky coincidences and following peoples orders without much explanation, nothing more.   

I mean what is the natural reaction when you get put into a train and travel to City17? Ask somebody what the fuck is going on? Yeah, but in Half Life 2 everybody somehow welcomes you as great savior and assumes you totally know what is going on, except you don't and it doesn't explain you shit and sends you out on some random quests. Why? No idea. The game doesn't allow me ask questions.
 
The problem with silent protagonists is that they just don't work when you have real character interaction. It makes things feel award, one sides and just plain fake and its not like you can 'project your personality' into the games hero, as that place is already taken buy some handicapped mute guy.
 
All that said, I don't mind a game where the character is mute for a reason, in The Experiment for example you are stuck behind a computer console and video surveillance system, that simply only allows one way voice communication, but in a game like Half Life the character, for all we know, should be able to speak, but he doesn't.
Posted by sear
@Grumbel said:
" @sear said:     

" @kingzetta said:

" Silent protagonists are terrible, they are mindless robot errand-boys "

Care to explain why this is, or has to be the case? Many games featuring silent protagonists don't feature needless fetch quests or poor motivations, nor do those characters necessarily end up being doormats...  
Half Life 2 is basically nothing but poor motivation and random events. Even the whole fight at the end doesn't come out of some greatly planed assault, but because sticking your gravity gun in that weapon annihilator thing somehow supercharged it instead of destroying it. The whole game is a stream of lucky coincidences and following peoples orders without much explanation, nothing more.   

I mean what is the natural reaction when you get put into a train and travel to City17? Ask somebody what the fuck is going on? Yeah, but in Half Life 2 everybody somehow welcomes you as great savior and assumes you totally know what is going on, except you don't and it doesn't explain you shit and sends you out on some random quests. Why? No idea. The game doesn't allow me ask questions.
 
The problem with silent protagonists is that they just don't work when you have real character interaction. It makes things feel award, one sides and just plain fake and its not like you can 'project your personality' into the games hero, as that place is already taken buy some handicapped mute guy.
 
All that said, I don't mind a game where the character is mute for a reason, in The Experiment for example you are stuck behind a computer console and video surveillance system, that simply only allows one way voice communication, but in a game like Half Life the character, for all we know, should be able to speak, but he doesn't. "
For the record, I was talking about Half-Life, not Half-Life 2.  I think a lot of those concerns you've raised are perfectly valid for Half-Life 2.  It's still a phenomenal game, but keeping Gordon silent seems a bit odd considering how busy and talkative many of the people you meet during the game are.