In video games, a silent protagonist is a player character who lacks any dialogue for the entire duration of a game with the possible exception of occasional interjections or short phrases. In some games, especially visual novels, this may extend to protagonists who have dialog, but no voice acting like all other non-player characters. A silent protagonist may be employed to lend a sense of mystery or uncertainty of identity to the gameplay, or to help the player identify better with them. Silent protagonists may also be anonymous. Not all silent protagonists are necessarily mute or do not speak to other characters; they may simply not produce any dialogue audible to the player.
The earliest player characters in video games, including the likes of Mario and Link, were silent protagonists. The same was true for early role playing games; these games originated from pen and paper games such as Dungeons & Dragons and when put on the screen, did not require or have any spoken dialogue, since the games plot and mechanics were all picture and motion based. Players are expected to put themselves into the role of the silent hero, and since the player does not talk in the game, neither does the on-screen avatar.
Many games have made use of a silent protagonist out of utility, because of technology, time, or budget limitations, or as a narrative device. Whether the player is supposed to be the protagonist or is merely assuming control of an established character and whether the game allows the player freedom of choices that would be difficult to believably justify with spoken narrative influence this decision. Some have cited Myst as an example of a first person adventure, where the main character is merely an avatar for the player's choices and dialogue would not be needed or helpful. Grand Theft Auto III, as another example, had no dialogue for its protagonist, as was common for its time, and also to allow players of many backgrounds and personalities identify with the character they control in the game's open world environment.
Some games such as the 2012 game Dishonored and 2011 game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim have protagonists that only make noise when struck, but in certain scenarios are allowed to choose from a list of available options of what the protagonist would say at that time, or to move the game forward, for example, in Dishonored, the player is allowed the option to tell Samuel the Boatman that he is ready to travel to the next area.
Game writer Marc Laidlaw, who worked on Half-Life and Portal (both of which feature silent protagonists) with game developer Valve, stated that he did not recommend keeping protagonists silent due to the difficulties that arise during development, but noted that limiting oneself to a silent protagonist can lead to more creativity. CJ Miozzi called franchises that still use the technique a "crutch" for bad storytelling, saying "just as narration has become a hallmark of terrible movies through improper use, silent protagonists have become the trademarks of a weak storyline in a game."
Reception has varied widely according to its use, ranging from praise for its help immersing a player in the game, with titles such as Half-Life 2 and franchises such as Mario and The Legend of Zelda frequently cited, while the protagonist's lack of communication has at times been noted as hinder-some to plot development, as in one reviewer's comments on Grand Theft Auto III. Others have stated that real immersion in a game would require a character to speak, since in such situations, the player would naturally vocalize and the protagonist does not.
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- Kris Graft (2011-11-11). "GDC Online: Valve Writers' Candid Thoughts On Creative Process". Gamasutra. Retrieved 2012-09-11.
- CJ Miozzi (2012-04-03). "Silent Protagonists: Why Games Like Skyrim Would Be Better without Them". gamefront. Retrieved 2012-09-11.
- CJ Miozzi (2008-02-10). "Good Idea, Bad Idea: The silent protagonist". destructoid. Retrieved 2012-09-11.
- Screw Attack Editors (2012-04-07). "Silent Protagonists". Screw Attack.com. Archived from the original on 2012-06-20. Retrieved 2012-09-11.