Storytelling in games has come a long way since the archaic text adventures of yesteryear. From text to pictures to audio to video, we’ve seen cinematic tales unwind, while delivering lovable characters and excellent senses of placement. Great writing has catapulted games like The Walking Dead, Far Cry 3, and The Last of Us into cinematic spectacle, netting a ton of recognition for their intriguing dialogue. But while their characters usually have a lot to say, some more venerable ones do not. The “silent protagonist” may have been one of the famed features of old-school gaming, but the fact that they’re still around, even with so many new voice acting practices, is pretty interesting. But why is that? Why do we still have silent protagonists, and how would things change if these taciturn heroes actually opened their mouths and said what’s on their mind?
Based on the industry’s history, giving characters voices was usually not an option in the earliest games. Most of the earliest voices we heard from our games and consoles were heavily bit-crushed words that took far too much effort to decipher and weren’t very pleasant to listen to either. With technology not on our side at the time, telling stories was mostly reserved for text boxes. But even then, some characters simply didn’t have anything to say, even when given the opportunity. In the first Legend of Zelda, even though many other characters spoke and detailed upcoming hazards, Link didn’t utter a thing, not verbally and not through text boxes. Even early 16-bit games proved very limited in displaying speech; protagonists didn’t talk, nor did they participate in the text-box driven dialogue. With this, gamers were forced to use their imagination in giving these characters voices.
As technology advanced, voice acting in games steadily became a true reality. Early disc-based systems like the Sega CD displayed a much more cinematically focused library. Even games like Sonic CD displayed a character with an actual voice (though it was short and was mostly intended as an Easter egg). The Playstation’s disc-based format allowed for cinematic presentation to expand, while games on Nintendo 64 gave long-since silent characters actual things to say. Super Mario 64 was the first main series Mario game to feature the now iconic Charles Martinet voicing the Italian hero. Up until then, we were given butchered Brooklyn accents from things like Hotel Mario and the Super Mario Bros. cartoon show. Having a character speak was regarded as a paramount step forward in developing a character’s personality, becoming a key method in keeping cinematic and narrative strength on full display.
Nowadays, having characters speak is common, but despite the completely accessible ability to give a character a speaking role, there are quite a few characters that simply don’t talk. Sure, you hear screams or grunts of pain, but they never produce any words or verbal language. Sometimes even every other character around them talks, but they themselves do not. Common examples of these silent protagonists are Link from The Legend of Zelda or Gordon Freeman from Half-Life. Both characters have earned themselves resounding popularity among the gaming community, but neither of them has said a word. Is that a good thing or should these characters finally be given full speaking roles?
Taking a look at each character individually, we can see if silent protagonists are the way to go or not. Link himself has infamously become a shouter as opposed to a speaker. His Hylian battlecries have become the source of legend and parody since he first earned his trademark cry in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Since then, he’s appeared in multiple installments in the series, each one with a unique design, but no spoken language. Criticism of the Zelda series’ lack of voice acting has appeared on message boards across the internet for years, mostly during recent years where spoken dialogue and narrative have become commonplace in AAA titles. While some find Link’s lack of dialogue to be a dated feature, others believe that Link functions best without any spoken language.
One common example that many anti-VA Zelda fans cite is the now infamous Zelda CD-I games, specifically Wand of Gamelon and Faces of Evil. The games are notoriously bad, but one sticking criticism was the terrible voice acting given to the characters in the Zelda universe, including Link himself. With a cheese factor that’d make Chester Cheetah sick to his stomach, Link’s voice was one of the worst VA performances in gaming history and soured any further interest in giving Link spoken dialogue in the future. Since then, no other games with the Zelda name have featured fully voiced language for Link. In the Zelda CD-I games, Link’s personality was terribly incongruent with the topic at hand. His attitude never meshed with the setting in which he spoke. It made all of the cinematic elements of the Zelda CD-I games extremely awkward. In contrast, Nintendo’s decision to make Link a silent protagonist (well, silent in speech, because he still yells a lot) allows Link’s actions to speak louder than the words used to describe the situation. Many of the most memorable moments in Zelda games are those that benefit from a sense of purity, a sense where dialogue would only convolute and over-analyze. These moments speak best through actions and display themselves with a “show, don’t tell” mentality, and that mentality gives a lot of scenes in the series a very strong command of visual symbolism. This is further complemented by Link’s facial expressions, especially in Wind Waker, where his eyes and facial animations ooze charm and give the game an approachable and more universally understandable appeal.
In the case of Gordon Freeman of Half-Life, he’s never really had a voice to begin with. Aside from short pain grunts, Freeman never speaks. This is especially interesting because many other characters in the Half-Life series not only speak, but speak to him. While the recurring criticism with Freeman’s lack of voice acting is a disconnect between speaking NPC’s and a silent protagonist, Valve has been extremely hesitant to give Freeman voice acting, with Gabe Newell even saying that there’s no reason to give him one. This same attitude has also influenced their creation of Chell, the female protagonist of the Portal series who also is never given voice dialogue, despite hearing quite a bit from NPC’s.
One claim toward leaving Gordon Freeman as a silent protagonist is the preservation of his original character profile. As an everyman scientist in the Half-Life universe, Freeman is never really given a high status amongst his peers. Sure, he earns his Ph.D in theoretical physics, but unlike his heroes Einstein and Hawking, Freeman never uses his education to do anything especially profound. He accepts a job at Black Mesa, but gets caught up in an accidental inter-dimensional rift, leading to the events of Half-Life. While his return in Half-Life 2 earns him a reputation, Freeman is never interpreted as a hero in the first Half-Life. He’s simply a guy who was, as the G-Man states, “the right man in the wrong place.” Since he’s never interpreted as a hero in the first Half-Life, he’s never given much of a reason to speak as one. He’s generic, your average physicist who wasn’t given any special gift to save humanity; he just did it. Valve took full advantage of that standard nature of Freeman’s character by making him average and uncharismatic; what better way to do that than to give him no voice to express with?
In addition to Freeman’s place in the narrative, Freeman is also a near perfect example of immersive storytelling. No cutscenes appear in Half-Life outside of the typical in-engine ones. There are no cinematics that lock the player out of the typical movement controls, so the player is free to wander around and explore, even if NPC’s are having important plot-related discussions. With full control over Gordon Freeman, players are able to see everything through his eyes. There’s really nothing separating the player from what Freeman sees, making Freeman more of an avatar than a character, something the players can use to breach the barriers that a voiced and personalized character would only reinforce. Gordon Freeman is a true exercise in immersion, a character without any defining personality traits or voice to prevent the player from experiencing the game, its world, and its characters through him.
What Link and Gordon Freeman prove is that dialogue for a protagonist is simply not a necessity. While some games like The Walking Dead and Bioshock Infinite have capitalized on narrative-driven dialogue, Zelda and Half-Life prove that voice acting for a protagonist can be just as much a hindrance as a strength. If either of the two characters had voice acting, not only would their personalities and interactions change, but so would their entire respective games. A voiced Link would over-complicate the story and artificially layer settings when simple expressiveness and symbolism could do wonders. A voiced Gordon Freeman would destroy the everyman theme of his character, while also crippling player immersion. They are incredible examples of creating stories and settings in a very fundamental way; without dialogue for the characters, Nintendo and Valve are able to examine their game worlds in alternative ways, changing how we view their heroes and what they do. Sure, hearing a prolific voice actor command a lead role is cool, but if Nintendo and Valve have shown us anything, it’s that some characters are at their all-time best when they keep their mouths shut.