Well, the end has come upon us. Or rather, the beginning of a new year and the next chapter of our lives. As we approach the final night of our wander-less freedom, our minds spiral. We may not reflect this, yet we crave a balance. Relaxation. What soothes your mind in a tender embrace, placing all beacons of despair into an unbroken sleep?
For me, this would definitely have to be video games. While they are definitely an enjoyable way to wonder how five hours feels like five minutes, I owe plenty to them. In conjunction with reading, video games have led me to countless worlds and stories, all leaving their own marks and impressions on me. Creativity and my love for stories greatly sprouts from this, and to hear people act as if they have nothing to offer in value (albeit most are simply ways to entertain and nothing more) definitely makes me feel as if video games are not taken seriously enough as a legitimate platform for heartfelt and legendary stories, concepts, worlds, and even art (which again, most are not).
Today, I present a topic which had sparked in my mind not even a week ago. Many video games present silent protagonists, while others do not. A vessel for the player, versus a being that we follow and root for. While I am not here to argue for one side or the other, I am very curious as to see what both sides have in store for the sole purpose of video game storytelling.
Now, off to the races.
The above image should definitely resonate with many of you right off the bat: it’s the Sole Survivor from Fallout 4. What matters about this character is the fact that it is a blank slate (down to gender and appearance, despite what appears), and is supposed to act as a vessel for the player to immerse themselves in the open and free nature of The Commonwealth. There is one significant issue with this, however.
In all previous Fallout titles (as well as open-world Bethesda games, like The Elder Scrolls), the protagonist is completely silent. This is so the player naturally fits the role of this character, impacting the world as they choose and possibly changing the course of fate itself. You can be good, evil, and outsider, or a thief. When the game gives you a dialogue option, you can read it in your voice and extrapolate its meaning it a way that immerses you further into the doings of this world. You exist in it, and you have to power to act in it as well.
In Fallout 4, the player character speaks. While this could have been an interesting choice, I believe it was mishandled by Bethesda here. As you now have a voice to [what is essentially] yourself, an entire layer of immersion is broken. It is also very apparent that the developer intended for this character to act in a positive light that uplifts those around him, and this is fine for players that intend to play this way. However, many options to be evil and destroy those around you are completely absent, which again takes away a layer of immersion.
This is the Sole Survivor. You are in their shoes.
The importance of freedom in a video game is to facilitate immersion in who you are playing as: Yourself. Even if the adventure is linear and not in an open world, the player character is always going to be one of the very first impressions that will last over the duration of the game and likely not be forgotten. This is an example of where a verbal protagonist does not work, as this is the story of the player. An odyssey for a hero…
This is where they belong.
To me, Assassin’s Creed II does not have an excellent plot. While the series has been beaten by greed and lust, this is where its success stems from. While excellent gameplay and gorgeous scenery of Renaissance-era Italy stand out, the heart of the game really shines from its protagonist Ezio Auditore da Firenze.
Ezio comes from a wealthy family, which is brutally murdered (minus his mother and sister) by corrupt nobles. Once a carefree womanizer, he is thrust into the ancient order of the Assassins where he builds up the order while seeking vengeance in the name of his family. This leads to the discovery of a dangerous plot that endangers all of humanity, where Ezio unravels connections to his family’s murder, his allies, and his enemies. Without giving too much away, this is exactly the kind of story that the player should experience and witness who they are playing as, and Assassin’s Creed II excels in that.
Throughout the course of the plot, Ezio grows up (literally) as a character and a fighter, and is not without his jovial antics and likeable personality. This is a character you want to root for, and can’t help but smile at as well. Your experience corresponds to Ezio’s development, and this would be impossible if Ezio was a silent protagonist. This is a world that shifts with plot, tone, setting, and character. Such stories can only be told with a character to guide you through, just like traditional stories you will read in a book or watch on the big screen.
If the Lone Survivor resonated for you, I really hope the above character resonates in all his iconic, glorious, and hopeful symbolism. Even if you have never played these games (please do), Half-Life stands above all in the wait for a number three.
If this is all you know about this series, then it is important to know it involves plenty of interpretation as well as fitting into the role of its protagonist Gordon Freeman. If you go into Half-Life with a casual mindset, Gordon will literally only be a vessel for the player to fight their way through countless HECU marines, Xen aliens, or Combine soldiers and traverse the death-riddled halls of Black Mesa or the dystopian streets of City 17. This is a game where the player must be the character. You must fill in their thoughts, and be in the moment.
Half-Life opens with a ‘typical’ day at work. This is not a first-person shooter; this is a day at work for Gordon Freeman, your vessel into the world of Black Mesa. You are a scientist with little combat experience, not a soldier filled to the teeth with combat experience and fearlessness. When science has gone terribly wrong, your life is on the line with your colleagues dead, and no one to help you. You are alone, but not alone. They can see you.
This is the reason why the original Half-Life remains to this day as my favourite first-person shooter, and one of the few video games I consider to be art. Such a linear game could have very easily had a protagonist that talked, yet Valve nailed it down perfectly here with plenty of extra interpretation on the side. Is Gordon a good person, despite the fact he has caused so much death to escape? Is it right to kill off an alien species afraid of an external threat looming above them, despite the fact they have met you with hostility in order to survive? Gordon is your character to determine, set in a world that encompasses you.
To end things off, let’s go to an example that is neither better talkative nor silent.
Another hailed classic that I nearly consider to be perfect, we have the Orwellian tale of BioShock. If you love this game, no doubt one of the reasons is its underwater city of Rapture. It beams with personality, all the way from its utopia-gone-dystopia atmosphere, with both wonder and horror to be found around every corner. Its cast of characters also leaves a deep impression, from the objectivist founder of the city who acts for men only, a respected artist who has become unstable and violent, and an accomplished surgeon who has taken the idea of beauty to an extreme and disturbing height.
In its cast, do you recall its protagonist? For those of you who are not familiar, Jack is a man who has found themselves in a plane wreck and has found themselves in Rapture, ruined in a civil war when the substance ‘ADAM’ has caused its citizens to become insane and gradually lose their humanity in the process as well. You are alone for most of this adventure, lost at sea to a terrifyingly beautiful expanse of lost utopia.
Similarly to Half-Life, the plot takes a backseat here. Unlike it, though, BioShock tells its tale without interpretation and extreme nuance (but still to a certain extent), but rather through audio logs that reveal Rapture’s former glory and cast of spearheads. You are simply along to experience it all, but the plot does thicken when you encounter the founder of Rapture: Andrew Ryan. While I will be vague, there are definitely huge implications left for the idea of a protagonist in a linear story. Are they simply a tool, in the end, to be controlled by an external force to meet a certain goal?
Such a question is one that very few video games tend to look at, and at this point it does make sense that Jack is a silent protagonist. He is being controlled by the player, in a metaphysical context. Your thoughts and emotions should run free, and not his. Arguably, though, a character like Gordon Freeman was meant to be played and interpreted. On the other hand, a character like Jack could have still worked as a verbal protagonist.
What would his reaction be to a world that has gone to hell, and to listen to the horrors done to people who used to be sane? How would he feel about those who remain there, and what about his own personal reflection on himself as a being? While the game is still amazing without a strong protagonist, I feel as if nothing would be lost if Jack opened up here and then throughout the course of the game.
As I stated earlier, this is not a contest between the two types of protagonists. For games with expanses of freedom or a story left for interpretation, silent protagonists are the way to go. For a game with an epic plot with a character that only grows with time, a verbal protagonist is necessary to deliver on that experience. I do not prefer either, as both have their benefits (which I have of course made clear here).
For the next couple of days, I hope you enjoy your arrival at school or wherever you are heading to. I can promise that this blog will continue to flourish even when my tasks are back at hand, and I also hope that you enjoy the summer’s final nights. 🙂