Image Credit: Inkd screenshot resources
Once a staple of AAA gaming, the silent protagonist seems to have gone out of fashion. Big studios can easily pay voice actors for however much dialogue is needed, and the trope has a pretty shoddy reputation as a storytelling choice. However, I believe that the key to using any artistic device effectively is understanding exactly what it does, so I want to discuss it in a little more detail starting with a look at immersion in branching narratives. It feels like most silent protagonists can be found in branching narratives.
This trend has a practical basis, because of the huge amount of extra dialogue over that in a linear story, but also an artistic one, since the main character is often player-defined (if not created outright in a customisation screen). It has been said that imposing a voice on such a character could prevent the player from projecting their own identity onto them, compromising immersion. Personally, I don’t play roleplaying games to imagine myself in fantastical scenarios; I play roleplaying games to define a character over the course of a story, and I take satisfaction in watching them grow and develop. Not only does a silent protagonist not add to my experience here, but I would also argue it can detract. Let me explain with some examples.
In branching games with silent protagonists like Skyrim and Fallout 3, dialogue is typically handled in the following way: you walk up to a non-player character, press a button, then stand absolutely still while they talk directly at you, never breaking eye contact. A menu occasionally pops up where you choose from a selection of lines, written in full, for your player to say, then the incredibly one-sided conversation continues. This is a hold-over from a time when menu-surfing was the name of the PC RPG game and the genre was much more niche, though the best games of that era compensated by being extremely well written. Even now, silent protagonist or not, branching dialogue usually boils down to just navigating an elaborate menu. This isn’t necessarily a criticism – I believe that the difference between immersion and tedium is simply a matter of how elaborate that menu is.
The advantage that voiced protagonists have here is obvious, and I’ll point to Dragon Age: Inquisition as my example. With a fully-voiced main character, Bioware can frame dialogue scenes as interactive cutscenes. The camera cuts dynamically, the characters can be staged dramatically and emote more freely, and when choosing dialogue there’s no need to print the line out in full, since it’s going to be spoken aloud anyway. Inquisition instead uses an elegant choice wheel which gives you a summary of the line and a symbol representing the tone with which it will be delivered. The cinematic framing combined with the more intuitive and appealing mode of interaction serves to reduce the separation between the player and the story, making Dragon Age: Inquisition more immersive than its silent counterparts.
Another consequence of transparently menu-based dialogue is a disconnect between the protagonist and their world. In Dragon Age: Inquisition, although I decide what my Inquisitor will say, she’s the one who puts it into words; when her council replies, they direct it at her. In this way, she is an active participant in the world, and through my connection with her I feel invested and immersed. In Skyrim, by contrast, my Dragonborn stands there like a lemon while other characters talk at her. She makes no indication that she has even heard what was said to her, and especially in dialogue scenes involving multiple characters who talk freely among themselves (there are a lot of these), the result is a distinct feeling that she is alienated from them. I suspect this is what people really mean when they say that silent protagonists are passive. Their silence in contrast to the other characters echoes somebody crudely photoshopped into a group photo, tenuously present but fundamentally separated from the world of the game.
That sounds to me like the opposite of immersion.
To be invested in character, silent or not, we need to have their personality and emotions communicated to us. Voice-acting does this automatically and unavoidably, but with silent protagonists the developers must find other ways to get this across. If they fail, or don’t bother, then you end up with all the common complaints about silent protagonists – that they are bland, passive, and boring. This is especially bothersome when the character is supposed to be player-defined, because without any emotional feedback the player will not feel like they are having a meaningful effect. This disempowers them, reducing their perceived agency. Player agency is an essential part of gaming as an artistic medium, and will thus be the focus of the second part of this discussion.