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May 2, 2011 | by  | in Arts Visual Arts |
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Anomalous Materials: Silent Protagonists

Video games are a unique form of creative media for a plethora of reasons, too many to list on this page alone. But one aspect that distinguishes a game most starkly from its filmic or literary counterparts is its characters, and specifically, your character.

It is the only medium where the protagonist of a narrative can accurately be labelled as such—where you are a player, not just an observer or reader, being projected into the narrative world itself via your in-game avatar; your actions affecting the world in ways as simple as a single footstep or as complex as the downfall of an entire city. It is also one of the only media where that protagonist can go an entire story without uttering a single word.
Silent protagonists in games are not a rare occurrence by any stretch. In fact, some of the industry’s most instantly recognisable icons like Zelda’s Link or Half Life’s Gordon Freeman himself have not spoken one syllable, audible or readable, in their respective mega-franchises’ entire life spans. These wordless heroes span every type of game from intensely violent shooters and epic fantasy RPGs to cartoonish platformers (think Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon). These characters are almost always an artistic choice by the developer. They can provide players with a blank slate, a medium through which they project themselves upon the game’s universe in any way they choose. The absence of your avatar’s voice allows you to imagine your own in place of it, or to shape your character’s thoughts through interactions with other characters and the world itself. Though these heroes may be are silent, they are not always devoid of character themselves.

In Valve’s timeless Half Life, you’re placed firmly in the shoes of veteran scientist Gordon Freeman, a bespectacled man of few words whose aptitude with a crowbar saves his life and others’ countless times. Gordon stays resolutely silent throughout the series’ four currently released chapters. However, through his interactions with the other masterfully crafted characters in the series, you get a very vivid sense of his own identity. During the opening to the first game, before the quantum shit has hit the metaphysical fan, nods and welcomes from security guards and your fellow scientists give you the impression that this amble through laboratory corridors is something Gordon has done every day for years. Some of the older scientists regard you with sarcasm, while others are respectful and even jovial. All the way through these games, the universe of Half Life impresses itself upon you, making you feel a part of it and terrifying you with the scope of Valve’s vision. All without speaking a single word.

Silence is not always golden however. My recent review of Crysis 2 touched briefly on the less-than-astounding story and its inability to make you care about the characters involved. The most glaringly awful part of how the story progressed was that almost all of the conflicts between the few people around you stem from a case of mistaken identity, which in turn is caused by your character Alcatraz’s lack of tongue. You spend three quarters of the game being shot at by trigger-happy guns for hire who assume you are someone you’re not, simply because your character supposedly has his jaw wired shut. Even your main lifeline for the first half of the game doesn’t blink an eye when the man he thinks is his friend is stoically noiseless. In fact, a simple sentence of “I’m not this Prophet guy you think I am, what the fuck is going on!?” would have eliminated the vast majority of the story’s conflict. Other than the impeding annihilation by alien invasion, that is.

Characterisation is as important a part of games as anything else involving narrative structure. The interactivity of the medium can provide so many ways for game developers to immerse you in the universes they build. From conversing with humble villagers to making first contact with a strange alien race, a well-written protagonist with a voice of their own can make for compelling storytelling. But silently exploring a world that is just as intricately detailed as its characters is an experience few visual media can rival. Just make sure that world is one worth exploring.

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