I hadn’t initially intended on writing this at all, in fact this whole thing about silent protagonists in video games was only ever intended to be a single part, but it kept ballooning in size to the point there I felt I had to break it into parts.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about; In Part 1: I talk about how the Legend of Zelda and Metroid both took different approaches as time and technology grew, and in Part 2: I spoke about how the trend feels really dated when it pops up in modern, story driven RPGS.
This part, I want to look at modern games and how their approach to continuing support has changed. The single player, story driven narrative isn’t the be all and end all of mainstream video games anymore, as I made very apparent in my previous parts.
The “living game” is a much larger focus, with every studio wanting their own long lasting game. Adding to a game, little by little can be a pretty cost effective solution to the ballooning costs of triple A game development. The problem that comes with this, it’s that adding more content to a game of this kind kind can be tricky if you want it to keep a consistent narrative tone. Especially when part of that involves dragging voice actors back into a studio, when they might be preoccupied with other projects.
So let’s talk about Destiny
You knew I was going to find an excuse to talk about Destiny here. It’s the best and most recognisable example of the “games as a service” trend I’m talking about. The story within Destiny has always been a point of contention. During the first game, the story was convoluted and difficult to really wrap you head around, using faux mysticism and winks and nudges instead of a more traditional narrative.
But during these events, the player’s character, as well as their ghost companion, spoke and displayed a pretty well defined personality as they bantered with their partner and other characters that popped up along the way. Bungie were blazing trails with this game though, combing loot shooting with persistent online and a narrative, they seemed a little unsure about how to go forward.
That’s because within the fiction of the Destiny world; the player’s Guardian is supposed to be one of many thousands of Guardians just like them. Sure, the player just so happens to be the most exceptional example of a Guardian, but the multiplayer aspect of the game meant that it was a more logical move from Bungie to make the player feel like just one of many and not the lone hero akin to a Master Chief.
Which might explain why, with the release of the first expansions right up until the end of the first year of Destiny 2; the Guardian didn’t speak again. Rather, their Ghost (who was replaced with a much more available voice actor) became the mouth piece for the player, even comically cutting them off when it looked like they were about to speak at times.
An Alternative Solution
And so instead of having a voiced main character, Bungie just got Nolan North in to record with the drop of each new expansion. It was much easier and cheaper than organising recordings for the six different actors who played the different combination of race and genders for the player characters. You could make the argument that it was a choice made to better give the player the feeling of their Guardian as an avatar for themselves, rather than their own, autonomous character.
In reality though, it was most likely a cost saving measure. I already pointed out Star Wars: The Old Republic as a counterpoint to this last time, which juggles 16 voiced main characters and gives them a variety of different dialogue opportunities also. Bungie chose to focus their efforts on the gameplay instead of the narrative. which was fair enough considering the difficult to please fan base they had cultivated.
That wasn’t the end of this tale though. When Forsaken came out 12 months after the initial release of Destiny 2, Bungie decided to toy with it. During the revenge bender that was the aftermath of Cayde-6’s death, the player’s Guardian did something they’d not done in just shot of four years; they spoke.
This is actually a perfect example of what I spoke about in the last part regarding my frustrations surrounding Dragon Quest XI. While the hero in Dragon Quest is frustratingly silent throughout the game, there were many moments, during high drama where it felt like them breaking silence would have been hugely impactful. It totally feels like this is what Bungie were going for with their choice here.
It’s just a shame the Guardian broke their silence over something I never felt hugely invested in, as opposed to some threat of multiversal proportions.
While silence out of video game protagonists is often a practical choice on the part of the developer nine times out of ten, sometimes it can be an effective tool for tone and impact. This being a great example of how to potentially use it. Silence as a choice doesn’t happen very often, but it can be a hugely useful storytelling tool when used creatively.
So let’s talk about Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
MGS V is another game where its really easy to see the choice could have been both a stylistic one or a matter of necessity. Historically, Metal Gear is an incredibly chatty franchise. Throughout the history of the series, the main characters talk and talk and talk. David Hayter is so iconic in the role of Snake simply because the character never stops talking and puts out so many memorable lines.
However, with the release of V, there was an unprecedented change to the character. For the first time since 1999, they recast Snake/Big Boss. Moving away from Hayter and replacing him with the more marketable name of Kiefer Sutherland.
I have no problem with Sutherland, I watched my fair share of 24 back in the day, but with his casting comes a problem. Hiring a marketable name over a professional voice actor ends up putting a severe limit on how much time you get to record your primary actor.
Thus, Big Boss in Phantom Pain was unusually silent, compared to the previous games in which he never shut up. This move to silence doesn’t feel like a positive move, from a series in which dialogue and character building are huge parts of their charm. There is an argument that this change worked in favour of the game’s narrative though.
Amongst the ongoing themes of The Phantom Pain was that of language, communication and connection. Which goes hand in hand with what I’ve been talking about here. In a story that involves a breakdown of friendships combined very literal interpretations of how our words can kill, no character can sum this up better than Quiet.
Spoilers here, but Quiet’s entire character is that she is carrying a virus that propagates through language, thus she is unable to speak. The culmination of her story being that she has to speak in order to save the Boss’s life at the expense of her own. Quiet is a pretty problematic character for a number of reasons, It it seems like the game wanted to juxtapose its silent and stoic characters with its more chatty, traditional Metal Gear style characters. The result, I think, is pretty mixed.
In the current age, a silent protagonist in a narrative driven game is always a choice. It can be used to great effect, but more often than not, it feels like a cost saving measure and not one that is meant to impact the story in having the hero unable to speak. Sure there are games that are doing it to hearken back to a older era of video game, but in a completely modern environment, I feel like you need to be damn sure about your choice before you do it. Unless of course your publisher is hammering you to save money, then you’re between a rock and a hard place.