September 3, 2010 12:00 AM |
['Defying Design' is a bi-weekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Jeffrey Matulef analyzing gaming conventions and the pros and cons of breaking them. This week's column is about silent protagonists done right.]
"It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt." -Abraham Lincoln.
Dialogue for a videogame protagonist is a double-edged sword. Develop them into a three dimensional character and you'll risk alienating your audience who may not like them. A common workaround is to leave the protagonist silent so the player can impart their own identity unto their avatar.
The problem here is often one-sided conversations feel awkward. Just look at Gordon Freeman, silent hero of the Half-Life series for example. Gordon never speaks, but other characters talk to him and it feels disingenuous when he doesn't respond. The idea is that by making him silent the character is supposed to be the player.
So when cute, spunky, ass-kicking scientist pal, Alyx Vance flirts with the silent hero it feels pandering and false because, let's face it, she says that to all the guys. However, there is hope for this approach. I'd like to take a look at some of the best examples of silent protagonists that manage to make us care about them and their relationships with others without seeming at odds with the fiction.
The example that comes to mind first for me is Amaterasu, heroine of Clover's 2006 cult-hit, Okami. Ametarasu (Ammy for short) is a wolf. Actually, she's a wolf goddess of the sun. The player can see her celestial blood-stained tattoo-like marks and otherworldly weapons adorning her back, but to everyone else she just looks like a regular wolf. Everyone that is save one bite-sized "wandering artist" named Issun, represented by a bouncy green ball hopping on her nose. It makes sense that Ammy can't talk, what with being a wolf and all, so her interactions with villagers seem far less awkward than those of her spiritual predecessor, Link from the Zelda series.
With Link there's no excuse. He's human (or elf) and others of his kind talk to him- he even has what seems to be a girlfriend in Ocarina of Time- yet he can only respond in pantomime. Ammy's reactions make sense given her species, but that doesn't explain why others talk to her as they do.
That responsibility lies with Issun who does all the talking. He's kind of annoying at first, but grows into a more lovable character as the game draws on. More importantly, he's allowed a distinct personality because he's still technically an NPC. Just one that happens to be parasitic.
Together, the two of them form a symbiotic relationship creating a silent noble goddess and a street smart (well wannabe street-smart anyway) wayfarer. Accompanying them on their quest creates a stronger bond than either of them would have been capable of on their own.
Similar to Ammy and Issun a recent game that takes this symbiosis to its extreme is Deadly Premonition. Protagonist, FBI Agent Francis York Morgan does talk. Quite a lot and often to himself. Or does he? See, York (it's what everyone calls him) has a split personality. He can often be found conversing with his alter ego, Zach. Watch closely, however, and you'll see that Zach is meant to be the player.
Thus you control York's movement, but aren't actually playing as him. You're playing as Zach just as in Okami you played as Ammy, and York fills the same roll as Issun- the half of the party the game world can see. Nobody addresses Zach except York and it doesn't feel unbelievable when Zach doesn't respond as York is presumably talking to himself.
The result is that York feels at least one degree away from the player's control, so we're meant to remain a bemused detachment to York's more ridiculous antics (such as when he tells a story of his previous case over dinner and how the culprit both peed and drank from his victim's skulls. Incredibly, York is quick to point out, he used the same skulls).
On the other end of the spectrum there's Bioshock 2. I'll get this out of the way right now; I liked Bioshock, but the silent protagonist thing bugged me. If you're playing as a regular Joe who happens to discover a ruined underwater city and some guy starts yapping to you over a two-way radio, wouldn't ya know, want to ask him questions about what the hell's going on?
Bioshock 2 fixes that. This time around you play as Subject Delta, a Big Daddy (a brainwashed Frankenstein's monster like beast in scuba gear). Big Daddy's can't talk so this explains the silent protagonist thing well. Characters even respond to your silent treatment.
The first time you encounter a non-hostile NPC she thinks you're there to murder her. You can, but I chose not to (much to her surprise). Big Daddies are assigned to protect mutated little girls called Little Sisters and your Little Sister, Eleanor is in danger and needs rescuing. Since you're already a monster of sorts you have little to live for, saving Eleanor is your sole goal. It's hard not to empathize with such a determined powerful beast and that's all we need to know about him.
Simply by integrating a characters silence into the fiction isn't a sure-fire success. In Deadly Creatures you play as a tarantula and scorpion, but unlike their cartoon counterparts these ones don't talk. They have no motive beyond killing and eating creatures, so there's really no reason for them to be going along the game's prescribed path.
There is a story about a couple unsavory prospectors that is overheard by the playable arachnids, but they have no reason to be involved since it's not like they'd be able to understand what people are saying. While the deadly creatures of the title are tied to this story thematically in their harsh, dog-eat-dog struggle for survival, they play a passive role and it's hard to care about them. Simply coming up with an excuse for a characters silence isn't enough if there's no motivation to go along with it.
What all of these successful silent protagonists have in common is that they're a). Explained in the fiction why they can't talk back to others. And b). All have clear, sympathetic motivations. Ammy is a wolf goddess more aware of what's at stake than she can let on to others. Zach is trying to aide York in solving a murder. And Subject Delta only exists to protect, so his fatherly instincts take over.
Silent protagonists can work wonders when the barrier between them and the game world is properly explained. Not being able to communicate is a scary, Kafka-esque nightmare but it only takes a keen understanding of the systems at work to turn said nightmare into a lucid dream.