A Silent Protagonist Does NOT Guarantee Awesomeness

The theme of today’s entry is “correlation does not imply causation,” except I’m not talking about vaccines. I’m talking about the frequent notion that a silent protagonist in a video game makes for a more immersive experience. A recent Kotaku article got me thinking about this, but I intend to look at the matter in a more specific and less, uh, prickly point of view. Now, I’m going to slim the playing field a bit and talk specifically about silent heroes in first person shooters, in interest of time and clarity of point.

This blog post is Longsville, you have been warned.

The argument goes like this: In an FPS, immersion is very important, and not having the character speak will help the players put themselves into the role of the character, and thus become more immersed. I am on board with trying to solve the presented problem, but I think the proposed solution is making the problem worse, not solving it.

First off, yes, immersion IS very important in a first-person game, because experiencing a game in first person is the LEAST immersive format for interacting with a game world. All the other immersion tricks have to kick it up a notch, because you’re already working in a very challenging structure. Playing a first-person game, to me, is like watching an event through a video camera. It sucks to be the camera person, because your world is crammed through such a limited scope, that even though you were there and you technically *saw* the action, you feel like you’re missing out on the experience. And cranking up the field of view certainly doesn’t help, because generally the only thing you have to anchor your brain into is the weapon you’re holding in front of you.

So yes, immersion tricks are very important in an FPS. But is having it so your character doesn’t talk a good way to create immersion in the first-person world?

I’m going to look at two pieces of evidence often used to support the silent protagonist argument. One is, Half-Life 2 was awesome. The second is, FPS games where the hero talks have often had terrible dialog.

Let me knock out the second one real quick: I don’t believe that the game being in first-person causes the dialog to be terrible. I believe the dialog is terrible because the dialog is terrible. Terrible dialog in third-person games is also pretty terrible, and I could go on, but I’ve made an entry before about my feelings on the quality of dialog writing in games in general. I’ll sum this paragraph up by saying, what the hell kind of argument is that anyway?


On to Half-Life 2. For those of you who’ve never played it, Half-Life, specifically Half-Life 2 (hereon referred to as HL2) is a game where you never see yourself and your character never makes a peep, EVER. There are no cutscenes in the game, but it has highly cinematic moments and the story is told via how the other characters interact with you. They even occasionally jest at your silence. HL2 is also one of the best first-person shooters ever made, and super awesome fun times.

Now, for me, the most annoying aspect of the game was that my character never spoke. I didn’t feel like “oh it’s ME in the game” as a result of that, I just grumbled a bit moved on with enjoying myself. That’s purely a personal thing, as probably most people don’t care about the fact that Gordon Freeman never speaks. Otherwise, it was fun, and pretty immersive for an FPS. It certainly wouldn’t make my “Top 3 Games where Lisa Felt Integrated into the Game World,” but if we limited the scope to just FPS games (having outlined their default handicap in immersion) HL2 would certainly be #1.

Here’s where it gets tricky. If HL2 was Lisa’s #1 immersive FPS, and the character never speaks, then having a silent character is a good way to get immersion into an FPS, right? NO. No, you guys, no no no. Correlation does not imply causation! CORRELATION DOES NOT IMPLY CAUSATION!!

First, the thing that makes HL2 super immersive for me is that gravity gun. This is probably a very personal thing, as it is doubtful that many people set out to whitewash Ravenholm once they discovered that the paint bucket would leave a splatter on the surface of anything it collided with. ANYway, the point is, this game has a lot going for it to get the player into it: environmental interaction, great design, inclusive cinematic storytelling, etc.

So lets talk about Gordon McSilent Freeman. The argument says that a silent hero lets players put themselves into that role and act as themselves instead of a character; that argument doesn’t really apply here. I was Gordon Freeman, I wasn’t me, I wasn’t even Lisa Brown in a Gordon Freeman suit. People weren’t talking to me, Lisa Brown, they were talking to Gordon Freeman. They made it very clear that I was Gordon Freeman, because everywhere I went every NPC was like “OMG it’s Gordon Freeman!” And I felt awesome because everyone loved me. Me, Gordon Freeman. There’s an excellent article someplace about how Valve strengthened the character via how everyone in the game interacted with him, and it’s cleverly done and you should read it sometime, once I dig it back up to link to it.

Gordon’s silence was annoying to me, but it made sense with the game, and it was executed well since you never, ever, ever, EVER saw yourself. If Freeman had talked but I’d never seen him in a cinematic, yeah, it’d be totally weird. So it works for HL2, that doesn’t mean it works for all FPS games.

Lets talk about shooters with cutscenes where you get to see the character you are playing, and watch him interact with NPCs, and hear him speak.

Someone once told me, more or less, that if a game HAD to have cutscenes with the main character speaking in it, then the best you could do in spite of those cutscenes was to have the character silent in gameplay. This is COMPLETELY counter-intuitive to me, and I feel the complete opposite is true. If you’re watching your character, the person you’re anchoring your brain in, and you see who they are and how they act with people, and in gameplay never say a word at the EXPENSE of its use as a storytelling tool, you are working against immersion!

What I mean is, if having the character say something in gameplay would a) Clarify a situation, b) Make an efficient connection between the story and the gameplay, c) Avoid awkward and expository dialog on the part of the NPCs who are talking to you but not with you, d) Delight the player by having his character say what is in the player’s mind at the right time, drawing him more deeply into the world, e) Strengthen the anchor between the player’s brain and the character he is engaging the world through, f) And you have the talent and resources to write good dialog and get good actors to perform it, and you choose to throw that tool away in order to accommodate protagonist silence, you are throwing away an elegant tool for immersing the player!

To me, Gordon Freeman’s silence in Half-Life 2 was NOT a tool. It was something that had to be supported by the rest of the game to make sense and feel right. If you really want to make a game with no cutscenes a la Half-Life, but you can’t for whatever reason, then doing it halfway doesn’t get you half of the awesomeness. It doesn’t work like that! You have to approach it in a different way, and get your awesomeness through a different channel! Character voice is a potentially amazing tool, and you’d better have a damned good reason for cutting it.

And now for your tl;dr summary:

Even though there is a correlation between a silent protagonist and Half-Life 2’s awesomeness, that does not mean that the silent protagonist was the CAUSE of Half-Life 2’s awesomeness.

3 thoughts on “A Silent Protagonist Does NOT Guarantee Awesomeness”

  1. http://www.criticalthinking.org.uk/tigerrepellantrock/

    After a single bear wandering into town has drawn an over-reaction from the residents of Springfield, Homer stands outside his house and muses, “Not a bear in sight. The Bear Patrol is working like a charm!”

    Lisa sees through his reasoning: “That’s specious reasoning, dad.” Homer, misunderstanding the word “specious”, thanks her for the compliment.

    Optimistically, she tries to explain the error in his argument: “By your logic, I could claim that this rock keeps tigers away.” Homer is confused: “Hmm; how does it work?” Lisa: “It doesn’t work; it’s just a stupid rock!”

    Homer: “Uh-huh.” Lisa: “… but I don’t see any tigers around, do you?”

    Homer, after a moment’s thought: “Lisa, I want to buy your rock…”

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