The silent protagonist. Think of one, any of them. There are literally hundreds of them, some of which have been our most beloved characters of all time like Mario, Gordon Freeman, and many more. Now think of their personality. How would you explain them?
Are they sad, funny, energetic, smart, depressed, or ambitious? Can you think of anything? I will concede with some silent protagonists there is a slight characterization to them, such as Link in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. He doesn’t speak, but Link’s various facial expressions offer some humor. However, I would argue that is the extent of it.
Without a personality, you can’t really characterize someone can you? At most, we can characterize some like Link and Mario as brave and courageous because they are fearlessly fighting against crazy odds for some kind of greater good. In other words, the situation of any particular protagonist can inform us of their character.
For example, look at Chell in Portal. She goes from being a rather bland “test subject” to being one who rebels against something that appears to be omniscient, forcing her to do tests as some kind of prisoner. She becomes someone trying to fight for her freedom. That is at least something, but what do we know of Chell herself? We get nothing more than the stereotypical and stock character of the brave hero who is righting wrongs.
If we can’t even begin to describe barely a character’s identity or personality, I would contend that no character exists.
Now, instead of thinking about the character’s personality, or the lack of it, just picture the first thing that comes to mind when you think about any particular silent protagonist.
Take Gordon Freeman for example. When you picture him, what immediately jumps to mind? Maybe the fact that he is a physicist, but I would argue that he is far more recognized by his crowbar than anything else. The same goes with Chell and the portal gun, Link and his various tools like the Master Sword, Mario and his ability to jump.
Instead of being known for what they do, they become known for what they have. Each silent protagonist is only as strong as the tool they use and the situation they use it in. The only reason that Gordon Freeman is desirable is that we know he was a physicist and now he has to fight through hundreds of aliens and other people to save himself.
Chell is nothing without the story for her escape, of which she uses her portal gun to get through. We know nothing more about her. What is important here is to recognize that it is not the uniqueness of the character that creates the allure, but the situation they are in. Therefore, one can argue that plugging in any protagonist would create a similar affect. As it is now, silent protagonists are identified by the tool they use and what they look like.
Make Gordon Freeman a short, fat man that has to do the same thing. The same weightiness the story impresses upon us will still be there, but some desire may be taken away because he is no longer good looking.
The same can be said for any silent protagonist. There is nothing unique to Link that makes it necessary for him to be a part of the story. Swap him out with any other sword-swinging protagonist and the story would remain the same. His interaction with the plot does nothing to give us insight more into the game. We get no sense of emotion or care to understand what is going on. Instead, Link, like all other silent protagonists, serves as the means to just progress the story along.
In this way, the silent protagonist becomes just a tool, another mechanic to the game with the purpose of story progression, not necessarily a significant part of the game. Their purpose only goes as far as providing a tool for a player to interact with the game, nothing more. They don’t tell us anything new about the game, or change our thinking about a game.
John Marston served as the tool through which players experienced Red Dead Redemption, but he did not only serve that purpose. As said before, through his eyes we learned more about what the game was trying to say and where the story was going. We were invested in Marston’s actions and hoping for the best outcomes.
At most, we are invested with silent protagonists that have that hero archetype because they have some sense of duty to save some group of people, like the Hyrulians and Zelda, but nothing more. Link has to defeat Ganondorf to save the world as he knew it. The same goes for Gordon Freeman and a host of other characters, not just silent protagonists.\
But those stock stories are as good as it gets. The rebel, the prisoner breaking free (Chell), saving the damsel in distress (Mario), saving the world (Link, Gordon Freeman, and many more), the one prophesized to come (Link and more). Let me know of a situation where a silent protagonist takes on a complex role within a story.
In terms of development within a character, there really isn’t any. Link is a hero and it is his duty to save the world. That does not change in any way throughout the Zelda games. He acts as he does because he has to, nothing more. The same goes with Mario, and other heroic characters.
Sometimes it seems to stem from survival, like Gordon Freeman and Chell. They do what they need to do so that they can survive.
All of this is to say that I think it is not fair to categorize silent protagonists as characters in any kind of traditional sense. Without direct interaction within a game stemming from their personal motivation, there is just no character there - not by any definition for any kind of medium.
That does not mean that a silent protagonist is invaluable and inadvisable. As I explained earlier, they are a tool used to tell a story within a game or for a player to experience a game. If used correctly, a silent protagonist can become a powerful tool.
I say this because there are far too many people out there that say a silent protagonist is just “lazy storytelling.” I don’t think that is always the case. A silent protagonist is a unique thing that works in its own way to produce an interesting affect.
The use of a silent protagonist is far more effective than anything else at making us as a player feel as though we are the ones that are doing what the protagonist within the game is doing. We are the ones that defeat Ganondorf, we save Princess Peach, we stop an alien invasion.
In terms of immersion and a feeling of great accomplishment, a silent protagonist can be very powerful.
But, I will concede that there are likely many cases where a silent protagonist is used because of the great effort to create a character that a player has to be familiar with for an entire game. To do that well is difficult. They have to craft a journey that we as players understand and can be sympathetic towards so we can try to feel what the character does.
It is easier to just do away with that altogether, leaving any emotion up to the player entirely. So, is a silent protagonist always a good idea? No. But, if used correctly can be done incredibly well. It only then becomes a question of whether or not their game will better with or without a silent protagonist.
Protagonists without personality or identity to explain their actions and interactions within a game, don’t interact with a story with personal motivation, have their importance impressed upon them by virtue of the story, and don’t develop and change as they experience new things are not good characters, and one would be pressed to say not even characters in some cases.
What do you think? Is the Silent Protagonist a "good" character?