Yesterday, I mostly talked about Nintendo’s home grown characters and how they went in two majorly different directions regarding both of them. This was mostly in regard to characters who has started as silent protagonists though, and a choice was forced upon the developer as to whether they should keep this up moving into the 21st century. Today, there are stilla lot of developers that choose to give their games player characters who never utter a word.
Given, there are more reasons to chose this now than there was back in the 1980s. Online focused multiplayer games don’t always have the room for expansive, character driven stories… except when they do.
Star Wars: The Old Republic is a fantastic example of an MMO managing to add not just one, but 16 voiced main characters. all of which have different dialogue options throughout. But me raving about amazing examples is dull, instead, I want to look at a few games that practice this on an inconsistent basis and how if effects the experience.
Nostalgia take the Reigns
The game that actually kicked off this entire subject in my mind is a game that I, otherwise, adored. Despite the fact that it’s been brought up on this blog more than once in a slightly negative light within the past couple of months. I’m talking about Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age of course. A game that, despite being packed to bursting with bright and interesting characters, the “Hero” hardly experiences an emotion throughout.
Dragon Quest is an old, Japanese series, thus it’s conventions deeply ingrained into its identity. The chances of them actually including a voiced main character at this point are slim to none. As faithful and nostalgically driven as that choice is, I end up feeling it comes to the detriment of the game itself.
Dragon Quest is a series that is acutely Akira Toriyama, in its character designs and their behaviours. The combination of “acting” from the supporting cast as well as the incredibly well executed localisation work in the voice over makes for a wide cast of bright, diverse and very engaging characters, all of which kept me wanting to spend more time in this world.
Bit it’s the fact that these characters are so much larger than life, that the muted nature of the main character feels all the more jarring. During even the most drastic story events, the rest of the party were doing the heavy lifting, while the hero would occasionally slant his eyebrows down to look angry. At certain points, I was desperate for the hero to simply break his silent, if for dramatic effect if nothing else, but it was never going to happen. It was infuriating.
To make the whole choice even stranger, there is a point relatively early in the game in which the Hero revisits his village in the past, meeting himself as a younger child. This past self is an utterly different character, complete with a voice, cheeky attitude and full blown personality… Where did that go? Square Enix were just hanging a candle on their tired trope that I desperately want to see an end to.
Silence as a mantle
This isn’t the only game I have a history with that seems to treat its silent protagonist inconsistently. Treating the silence of the protagonist as some unspoken (literally) marker of him being a player character, despite the implication that they actually speak, unbeknownst to the player.
The Game Boy Advance titles Golden Sun and it’s direct sequel, Golden Sun: The Lost Age are actually two parts of the same story, the first game ending on a cliffhanger before picking right up in the sequel a year later. During the first game, the main character, defaultly known as Issac, is a mute protagonist, in true JRPG fashion. Every other character is voiced, including Felix.
I bring up Felix, because as players start the second game, they spend the first half of it with a new party, with Felix as the player controlled leader. In this sequel, Felix is now mute, despite not being in the initial game.
About half way through the game the new party meet up with the original one, and they all join to form some super party for the remainder of the game. During this time, Issac; the main character from Golden Sun, is suddenly voiced again.
It’s this weird, slavish adherence to a trope that I don’t understand anymore. Especially when it’s used in such an arbitrary fashion such as this for no other reason than the tropes dictate it. The example in Golden Sun doesn’t bother me as much because all dialogue is simply in text form, lacking the punch of the voiced dialogue from Dragon Quest, but maybe it should considering it the low risk and input on the developer’s part.
The problem is, with a defined main character, comes a sense of agency that doesn’t exist when they’re silent. As with many JRPGs, they’re plot driven games, in which the situation or a villain is the main thing driving the story forwards. If the player character did have a personality, flaws, desires and needs, then it’d utterly change the dynamic of the story being told. Maybe for the better, but in a lot of cases, these kinds of RPG aren’t as interested in character drama as they are in a classic hero story.
Do we need them still?
In the end, I think my frustrations on this topic are mainly born from me playing so many games that the old school hero story doesn’t do it for me anymore. I’ve been there, I’ve done that, the drama for me comes from juicy character drama and the growth and change that comes from me making connections to these individuals and their journey. When I’m essentially playing a blob with a sword arm and an anime haircut, I don’t really feel like I’m embodying this character myself, as was the old intention.
I could easily go on for longer on this topic, talking about how characters went from being voiced to basically silent; the flip flopping of the Guardian in Destiny and whatever happened with Big Boss in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. But I’ll give it a rest for now, maybe revisit in a week or two, as I’m sure you’ve gotten the jist of what I’m getting at here. I think we’re at a point now that silent protagonists, as a choice, need to stop. Tropes are fine and all, but I’ll remember your game a lot more fondly if you give me some character in my characters rather than the anime staring contest winner of 2019.