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It’s Time to Rethink Voiceless Video Game Protagonists

Gordon's no free man when all he can do is stand and stare at everyone else chatting away, remaining stony silent, disturbingly mute.

by Ed Smith
15 October 2015, 10:37am

Gordon Freeman of 'Half-Life 2', in a situation you'd think he'd have something to say about

Mute protagonists are supposed to make video games and video game stories more engrossing – since your character doesn't have a voice or a personality, you can more easily map yourself onto them and feel as if you yourself are inside the game. That's the pitch, but personally I don't think there's any faster way to kill the illusion of a video game world, or make me realise the artificialness of what I'm playing, than by using a voiceless character.

People talk about the fantastic storytelling in Half-Life 2, the way information and exposition are threaded into the game's architecture and scene design. But then you get to the dialogue exchanges and people are speaking directly into Gordon Freeman's face, and he's just staring back at them, completely silent, like a maniac. Same goes for the Call of Duty games. There you have characters enduring the worst situations and pain, being shot, watching friends die, seeing whole buildings – including the Eiffel Tower – collapse in front of their eyes, and they say nothing, not even an "ow" or a "woah". Portal does it. DOOM does it. Outside of cutscenes and written, unspoken dialogue options, games in the Killzone, Metro and Fallout series do it; Dishonored does it; Skyrim and dozens of others. They all do it. And it's crap. There's no more effective way to eject me, mentally, from a video game than putting me in a scene where I cannot respond to what the other characters are saying.

Cole Phelps of 'L.A. Noire'

In those sequences, everything just suddenly seems so false – I'm not at all prissy about realism, but it's hard to have any kind of emotional response to a game when, through a mute character, it consistently reminds you of its own falsehood. Gordon Freeman is an acknowledgement of the audience. To a certain extent you must suspend your disbelief, but his presence is a giant flashing sign telling you that none of this is really happening, and that, rather than people (or representations of people) all these characters are constructed around the player. They aren't talking to Gordon – they're talking to me. No matter how I try to reason it in my head as a "gameism", it's such a total breakage of the fourth wall, such a blatant artificiality, that I can't take anything in the game's writing seriously. It's painfully manufactured.

I dislike as well the pandering nature of mute protagonists, the dreadful, dull obsequiousness of embedding the player so entirely in the story. I don't want to decide what kind of person I'm controlling. I'm not so insecure that everything has to be about me, me, me and what I would do, or what I would say. I want to be told a story. I want to hear and experience the point of view of somebody else. There's a tension, obviously, because no matter how my character behaves or speaks, when the game proper kicks in I can do whatever I want with them – Joel in The Last of Us is all gruff and brooding, but I can make him run in circles and miss every time he shoots a gun, and look like an idiot. But I still relish, certainly above the prospect of more mute protagonists, the idea of a game making me want to method act the character.

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I don't mean like in a role-playing game where you build and define a character from the ground up, then go out and role-play them as you've imagined. I mean being encouraged to play in a way that is conducive to somebody else's story, to embrace the writing and play with it, in the companionship sense of the word. When I play L.A. Noire, I don't roam the city or go do the optional street crime side missions because I'm playing Cole Phelps, and he's a very self-interested, very officious character. That's testament to the writing. That's me, being convinced by solid characterisation, to sacrifice my indulgence in game mechanics to keep the story of L.A. Noire coherent.

Writing and designing games this way is, I'm sure, much more of a challenge than creating a mute protagonist and leaving the player to decide, but it creates more interesting fiction. The fundamental promise of video games, for me at least, is their ability to not just let you watch and hear, but also vicariously feel what it's like to be other people. I don't want to just be me, parachuted inside a silent, 3D body. I want to observe and learn and experience the lives and outlooks of others, and I think it's still possible for that to happen even when I'm actively inflecting a character's behaviour.

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John Marston of 'Red Dead Redemption'

Above all, I dislike mute protagonists because they're not human. Humans talk. Humans scream. Humans have feelings and thoughts that they need to express. You look at the sexism, homophobia and racism that has historically pervaded video game writing, the overwhelming and disheartening quantity of fantasy and sci-fi games, and it's obvious this is a culture that doesn't always care about people. But that won't change if mute protagonists continue to receive the preferential treatment from game designers and critics that they currently enjoy.

Video games need more people. I like how Amanda Ripley gasps when something frightening happens in Alien: Isolation. I like how Red Dead Redemption's John Marston shouts to his opponents during gunfights. Just small things, but those characters' voices lend games a commonly absent touch of humanity. When I play a mute, personality-less avatar, I'm not a person – I'm just a cold, technological vector, a mere aspect of a video game that has absolutely no explicit feelings. I understand the mute protagonist as a device, one intended to remove the conflict between player, character and story, but I think that conflict, even if it's being lost by the writer, is more interesting than a convenient sidestep.

Mute protagonists ultimately feel like a cop-out. I'd rather see video games try and perhaps fail to reconcile their inability to do human characters well than just give up. That seems, to me, more like progress.

@mostsincerelyed

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Gaming
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ed smith
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Red Dead Redemption
Half Life 2
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Mute Protagonists