The Silent Protagonist Part 2: Player Agency


Joe Sanders explores what makes Gordon Freeman and Chell, two of gaming's most famous silent protagonists, so beloved.

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Image by Portal 2, Valve

By Joe Sanders

In Part 1, we discussed the ways that a silent protagonist can affect immersion in branching games. I warned that the lack of emotional feedback from such characters can make players feel as though they are not meaningfully guiding the story, reducing their perceived agency. But what is player agency, and how else do silent protagonists impact it?

Player agency is the extent to which the player can impact the events of the game, or at least the extent to which they feel that their actions have had an effect. It is vital to gaming’s appeal, and the key feature that sets it apart as a storytelling medium. That said, this agency is often limited to the gameplay only, with the story playing out in cutscenes like a film. Many branching narratives tackle this problem in a blunt choose-your-own-adventure style by giving players token choices throughout the story, sometimes framed as binary moral dilemmas. Ironically, if the developers are not careful, the mechanical nature of this can actually draw attention to the hand of the storyteller, harming that sense of agency. So-called ‘karma systems’ in games such as the Infamous series are often derided for their cartoonish moral simplicity. Silent protagonist or not, it takes a skilful developer to instil a sense of narrative agency in their players without resorting to this transparent tokenism, and developers don’t get much more skilful than Valve.

In Half Life 2 and Portal 2, Valve put player agency first in both story and gameplay. Also notable about these games are Gordon Freeman and Chell, two very popular – and silent – protagonists. But what makes these games so successful, and their protagonists so beloved by fans?

Gordon’s popularity is often attributed to his being left blank for the player to project their personality or story onto but honestly, I’ve never liked this idea that leaving storytelling to the audience is somehow good writing. Certainly, leaving some things to the imagination will improve a story, but when it’s a whole character it starts to seem like a crutch for otherwise bad writing. Half Life 2 does more than this. For example, the developers have non-player characters refer to Gordon by name as often as possible. Knowing somebody’s name makes them feel more familiar, but this is also a clever way to actively project the player’s actions onto Gordon. The player does something heroic, and a non-player character congratulates Gordon on being so heroic. The result is that, for better or worse, Gordon is characterised purely by the player’s actions. Though this empowers the player and glorifies Gordon, Half Life 2 has a bit of a tone problem, albeit a very funny one. There are no traditional cutscenes in Half Life 2 and control
is rarely taken away from the player, even during lengthy static dialogue scenes. With nothing to do in these scenes, players tend to amuse themselves by climbing on furniture and playing with the physics engine. The other characters’ continued reverence and can-do attitude become slightly unsettling, now that we see their only hope of salvation is the strange, silent man squatting on the kitchen table throwing coffee cups at them.

Portal 2 takes a different approach. Where Half Life 2 empowers players to define Gordon, Chell empowers players directly. Where Half Life 2’s characters call Gordon by name, GLaDOS and Wheatley refer to ‘you’ and ‘her’. Is Chell herself unimportant, then, a non-entity? Eric Wolpaw, lead writer of Portal 2, originally thought so. He explains in a 2012 talk that early builds of the game left her out for this reason. Playtesters, to his surprise, were very upset at not being recognised by GLaDOS. This is the key: Chell may not be characterised, but her effect on other characters is what matters. GLaDOS is the true main character of Portal 2;
the game is about her emotional arc, yet it is Chell’s actions that move that arc forward. The player is empowered to drive the story, as they would be if the main character and player character were simply one and the same, but the experience is fundamentally altered by this separation. Chell’s silence enables Valve to tell their story in a fresh, inventive way.

These examples demonstrate that while it isn’t always appropriate, leaving space for the player to project their own identity onto the main character doesn’t have to be a crutch. When done right, when the developers actively design the story to support it, it can empower the player in an intimate and engaging way that, I think, might be harder to achieve with a voiced protagonist. I firmly believe that almost any artistic tool, when used with understanding and skill, can provide unique and creative ways to tell stories. No matter whether it‘s fashionable or not.