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Why so Silent?
by Matthew Warren on 10/22/12 04:17:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


(Minor spoilers for Dishonored)

Why are so many protagonists in games these days silent?  Back in the old days of videogames nobody talked.  They didn’t have the technology to fit in any voices outside of the occasional villain screaming. But as the technology grew, space on disks and such grew and voice acting was added gradually. Games would have more spoken words.  Characters started grunting when they jumped, calling out their attacks and eventually full on acting in cutscenes.  These days most games have a ton of spoken dialogue.  Games have scripts!  Something unheard of in the old days. 

Now that voice acting in games is a near must for nearly any AAA title the choice to make a protagonist silent is a conscious and deliberate one. Out of literature and film and games, only games commonly have a silent hero.  Think of your favorite silent main characters in movies and books.  Take out the ones that are animals and you’ll likely have a pretty small list. So why all the silent game heroes?

I’ve never been particularly bothered by a silent protagonist but I’ve been playing Dishonored lately and the main character in that game is completely silent.  While everyone in the game is so well defined and the setting has so much character, Corvo is the odd man out.  So why doesn’t he speak?  Does he fall into the classic excuses for a silent protagonist?

I want them to be relatable.

This is one of the excuses I find the most suspect.  The creator is afraid that if the player character speaks, they’ll say things the player wouldn’t and it would break their immersion.  This can be done well and it can be done extremely poorly.  The audience surrogate heroic mime act works if the player has ways to express themselves through gameplay and in other ways. 

Examples would be Dragon Age: Origins or Persona 4 along with plenty other RPGs. The hero is silent in both games outside of grunts and odd quips during combat.  These games worked because the player is given choices of dialogue and while the dialogue isn’t spoken aloud, the player has enough options to make them feel like they are speaking through the character. 

Persona 4 doesn’t have you giving any soliloquies like you might in Dragon Age but you are always given a chance to react to whatever is going on.  You can comfort friends, tell people off and diffuse situations. You have more choices on how to play your character. (Although I’m pretty sure everyone plays him like a ladies’ man.)

The games where this idea of a silent audience proxy doesn’t work are the games where the player isn’t given a chance to express themselves in any way.  In that case, the character is completely silent and we’re just supposed to project our feelings onto them.  But nobody finds that relatable, because nobody is a mute blank slate all the time.  Even if you physically cannot talk, you still communicate in some way.  We can’t get attached to a completely silent character because we can’t see ourselves in them.  

This is probably the best excuse for Corvo’s silence.  The player doesn’t get any dialogue options with him outside of “Yes I want to buy stuff” or “Please take me to the next area”. The player certainly doesn’t have freedom with dialogue choices but instead gets their characterization through how they play. The game gives you so many choices on how to deal with problems that Corvo is supposed to become an extension of your personality.  This idea is perfect for the gameplay aspect in that it lets the mechanics serve as their own narrative.  The problem comes later, in the form of a little girl.  

I don’t want a voice to screw up the player’s interpretation.

Aka “The Nintendo Excuse”.  This is the reason Link and Mario don’t talk. For these two I’m not really referring to spoken voice acting but just general dialogue, especially in Link’s case.  I’m not too upset about those two actually.  Mario gets his classic lines from Mario 64 and he gets enough characterization in Super Mario RPG and the Paper Mario games that we don’t need to hear him speak.  Obviously the players aren’t really going to relate to Mario very much but we don’t really need to. 

Link is an odd case.  He’s been around long enough and is beloved enough that there’s sure to be a backlash if he says anything outside of his grunts and yells (and that one time he yelled “Come on!”). If he talks it’d have to be extremely well written otherwise everyone will just hate Nintendo for ruining Link.  Right now he’s just a dude that rescues princesses and fights evil and we’re all okay with that.

The problem is that recently Nintendo has been giving him more characterization.  Skyward Sword had more of a love story in it than any Zelda game before.  Zelda was a pretty well defined character who laughed, loved and sacrificed.  Link on the other hand had no such characterization and as such we didn’t really believe the romance between the two of them.  We could see why Link loved Zelda and why he fought monsters to save her, but there was really no reason for Zelda to love Link, he had no personality.  Like I said, Link’s a fine character as a force of nature who fights evil but if Nintendo wants him to be more than that, they’ve got to start giving him a little more.

And that’s the problem with Corvo.  While his silence is perfectly fine during missions and assassinations, it starts to fall apart whenever Emily is in the picture.  The little girl clearly idolizes him, says he’s a caring fella who’d obviously never let her be hurt.  Much like Link and Zelda, the player has a bit of trouble believing that this silent monster of a man is just so likable. The Empress is further indicative of this problem.  For the brief time she’s in the game she treats Corvo like an old friend and Corvo cradles her as she dies. He still says nothing to her.  Corvo would be a great character if he were silent nearly the whole time except for when he’s with the Empress or Emily.  You could learn a lot about a character by paying attention to when they choose to talk but if they never talk at all, you lose a lot of characterization. 

Silence fits the character or setting.

The last example, the character isn’t the talking type or it really isn’t the time for talking. Chell from portal is an example of this if you believe the creator’s opinion on her silence.  She doesn’t want to give the robots the satisfaction of hearing her speak so she’s stubborn and shuts up. The player doesn’t see if she talks to other humans because there aren’t any.  It says a lot about her relationship with the other characters in the game by her silence. 

In a lot of horror games, the player character is silent most of the time.  Obviously silence builds tension and people want to hear a human voice to reassure them.  A fantastic example of this is in Penumbra, the spiritual predecessor to the terrifying Amnesia.  You’re alone in a bunker filled with monsters that have better ears than they do eyes.  You stay silent, terrified of alerting them.  It builds the loneliness in your situation so when you discover there’s someone else alive in the bunker you spend your whole time trying to get to her.  When you get a parasitic monster in your head that speaks in a kind sarcastic voice you’re just glad to hear someone talking to you even if it’s a monster.  Because you’ve waited so long for another voice you, the player, instinctively trust the monster which makes its betrayal all the more sudden and tragic. 

There are non-horror games where silence fits the setting too.  Fallout and Skyrim would be a lot different if the dovakiin was constantly making jokes, it’d ruin the desolate atmosphere of being alone in the wilderness. 

As said before Corvo’s silence in missions makes perfect sense both from a story and gameplay perspective.  He’s silent because he’s being stealthy and the player gets enough characterization in the missions by choosing how to get past obstacles. The atmosphere changes when he’s with Emily or the Empress though.  He’s not “murder machine” Corvo, he’s “defender” or “Father-like figure” Corvo.  His silence no longer fits the character that’s been established previously and he loses that bit of characterization. 

Games are a very unique medium, the only medium where a silent protagonist can work on a regular basis.  In order to utilize the concept, however, there has to be a specific reason for the hero’s silence whether it’s to give the player complete freedom over their character, to invoke a feeling of loneliness or unease, or to demonstrate how the character reacts to other characters.  It’s the failure to identify the reason for silence that so often causes it to fail. 

So what do you think? Are you glad Corvo doesn't talk?  Do you relate to Corvo?  I want to hear your comments!

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Jake Shapiro
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There's also the fact that speaking protagonists are awkward in first-person games. In the first-person view, the player is meant to "be" the protagonist. And perhaps until voice recognition is advanced enough that the player can have real conversations with NPCs (Seaman style!), it will always feel unnatural to hear someone else's canned words coming out of "your" mouth.
Complex conversation trees that are spoken aloud like we see in Mass Effect are a step in the right direction, but again, that's third-person. It'll be a while until we see this done right in a first-person game. Many first-person titles like Fallout 3 feature a "speaking" protagonist who has branching conversations with NPCs, but although the other characters respond out loud, the player's lines only ever appear in text form. So Fallout 3's main character is still effectively a silent protagonist, despite talking so much in text.

Luis Guimaraes
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I second that. In first person anything the protagonist says is distracting and non-immersive, and mostly works with games that don't take themselves and immersion too seriously but are all about fun (borderlands, duke nukem, bulletstorm), while games that strive for immersion work better with silent protagonists (penumbra, amnesia, bioshock).

Soon as the character says anything, the world becomes a level made by a designer, the characters become the work of a writer, and the whole experience becomes a human-made piece of software.

Roger Tober
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Yes, I think the only way to handle it is to jump to 3rd person during conversations, which actually helps give more variety as far as I'm concerned.

John McMahon
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What? That seems silly to me.

Master Chief talked. Cortana talked (she was in his suit). Faith in Mirror's Edge talked.

Duke Nukem talked, one-liners I agree, but he still talked.

The ODSTs in Halo 3: ODST talked (In single-player and multiplayer). The Spartans of Noble Squad talked (in multiplayer).

Seriously, as a gamer and a indie developer, I find this logic wrong. It's not an absolute. Gaming is artistic expression, so that means there cannot be these "rules" that everyone has to follow.

I understand from a publisher's point of view they may not like it cause it would be against the norm, but I'm speaking as a member of this community. That is a type of logic that leads one to painting themselves in a corner.

EDIT: Oh I forgot. The Left 4 Dead characters speak all the freaking time. It gave them personality.

Michael Silverman
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Good article. Haven't gotten to Dishonored yet, but I really don't see a compelling argument for silent heroes at this point. I can relate to tons of characters I have no control over at all in other mediums. This whole "its not immersive if the character speaks" is bull. It breaks the immersion if the character says something really poorly written or their voice actor is horrible. Otherwise I think talking heroes are perfectly serviceable.

Bob Johnson
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Yes i "third" that the silent in first person is used because it seems awkward otherwise. I speak for the character.

And there is another excuse....

It's the "we don't want to spend the money" excuse. Nintendo probably exercises this one. And it doesn't help that in each country which Mario is sold in, Nintendo would have to hire a new set of voice actors. It probably adds up.

And then any level of facial animation is only geared to one of the languages. The rest will look (even more ) over-dubbed.

Combine that with the fact that what makes a game a game; what makes games interesting; is the gameplay. YOur interactivity with the screen. So put your money where it counts the most.

And Nintendo, for example, treats its gameplay as a universal language. They speak to their customers through the gameplay.

Michael Silverman
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This is actually a compelling argument. But if you had enough resources, you could have great mechanics AND interesting characters. I think the Uncharted guys go for that, though I haven't played those games that much.

Eric Schwarz
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The lack of a voiced protagonist is one of Dishonored's biggest missteps, narratively speaking.

The big problem is that the world of Dishonored is fantastical and exotic in a lot of interesting ways. It's not really typical steampunk, and there is a lot of interesting backstory that the game has floating just underneath the surface. However, the problem is that in such a setting, the player needs to ask questions and get answers. In videogames, and stories in general, this is usually done by the protagonist, serving as an outlet for concerns the player might have and giving the writers a chance to fill in plot holes or just paint a more convincing picture of the world.

Corvo is mute, and it hurts the game because there are all sorts of questions that are going to logically come up while playing, and the game has no good way to answer them. All that lore and backstory is great, but it feels superficial and even nonsensical because we never get a real sense for how Dishonored's world actually works. Moreover, in an unfamiliar setting it really helps to have a character the audience can empathize with, a sort of emotional compass or center. Dishonored really does not have one, and as such it's very hard to identify with Corvo's motives and struggle. The "they killed your wife/stole your daughter" thing just does not work for me - it feels shallow and manipulative without knowing Corvo as a character, and by the end of the game it only begins to make sense once a few pieces are filled in (and even then, many of them are kept very vague).

I'm not saying that a game needs to show every detail and hold a microscope to it, of course, just that Dishonored is much harder to get emotionally invested in than the Deus Ex series and other similar games. Things happen *around* you, and the lack of a protagonist that is an active participant in the discussions that drive the story leaves you feeling less like a hero and more like an errand-boy. That dissonance between a player avatar and a preset character just cannot be reconciled.

Luis Guimaraes
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I thought he was just the queen's bodyguard, not her husband (wouldn't that make him the king?).

They killed the queen and kidnaped the princess to strike a coup d'état and begin a dictatorship, blaming the player as a traitor in the process, while the player was the queen's body guard and held great status, trust and loyalty with the queen, aswel as friendship and a paternal-like admiration from the princess.

Failing at his task of protecting the queen, she makes him promise to save her daughter right before she dies. Accused as traitor he also loses his status and honor (hence Dishonored) and becomes an enemy of the kingdom. He has to keep his promise to save the princess (both from his loyalty to the queen, but his care fore the kid herself), clear his honor (from accusations of being the traitor and the killer) and overthrow the real traitors from the power.

At least that's what I got from the presentation of the game.


Just making use of the post to to mention the movie Drive as an example of other artistic and narrative aspects of trim dialogue.

Eric Schwarz
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*spoiler alert*

It is implied that Corvo is the Empress' lover out of wedlock, and that they had a daughter (guess who). It's true it's never officially stated, but the game implies enough to certainly draw that connection. I don't think the developers ever intended it to be set in stone one way or the other.

I was over-simplifying the story motivations of course, it's just that it's clear that in Dishonored you are supposed to take what happened personally, to a degree, and that you will support the revolution unquestioningly. But the 5 minutes of gameplay you have before you are set up for the assassination hardly does enough to tell you why you should *care* about the empire and its fate, the Empress, etc. Maybe she is a tyrant and the people taking over are the good and noble rebels? Maybe they think Emily is too young to assume the throne and want to train her themselves?

The fact is that the player needs to see and understand the game world before he/she can be expected to care about it. Dishonored simply does not do a good job of allowing that.

Luis Guimaraes
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Got it, you mean "care" at personal emotional level. Quite hard to achieve indeed, but still possible, but many people will ahve different opinions of what it takes to reach it, from both developer and player willingness.

But (as it's also a case of personal opinion) I thought the premise was enough to provide a reason for the player to "care" at a rational level. Simply "if they did that to me I'd feel like that, and would do that, which's the only one course of action in those big-picture circunstances".

"Care" in the sense of "relate and do what you would as if", not really "feel personally yourself as if". I hardly think I could really emotionally care for the characters in a game beyond an empathetic rational level leaping towards a personal level of emotional immersion. But again, it's all personal.

TC Weidner
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silent? not sure I get it, in real life unless you are speaking with another person, we all are basically silent. We may utter a phrase or two here or there, and games have reflected this as much. Im not sure what the point of this article is, is it that you want the avatar to just talk to itself as if its some crazy street person? Or do you want the avatar to talk "through" the screen and have a conversation with the gamer? I suspect that could work in a very few comedic instances etc

John McMahon
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They are talking about the fact the player in Dishonored or other games just never speaks. Like ever.

No dialogue choices are given to the player and you never hear him speak.

Andreas Ahlborn
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I only started to play Dishonored yesterday, but i already "suffered" through the muteness of the main protagonist during his first encounters with the princess and the Queen, and though it was not completely "odd" for me that my character wouldn`t talk to his surroundings, I´m convinced that this was more due to the fact that we gamers have "learned" to get used to the muteness, not because we would "like" or "need" it for "immersion".

While reading your article I Imagined in this special case it would have been far better for the Gamedesigners to actually let my character speak, even the scene where Corvo hands the letter to the Queen with the informations he gathered would have been far better solved through conversation.

The only game-scenario I can really think of that would profit from a total silent and even faceless character is -like you mentioned- the Horror-Survival genre.
I actually liked the faceless/silent Issac from Dead Space 1 more than the personalized/talky from DS2. His behaviour fitted the situation. It made him more iconic.

The argument that was brought up, that in a stealthy game it would be odd if the main character would talk to himself doesn`t consider the fact that there is sth. called "inner monologue" that is not easy to do, but can work very well.

The original "Thief" series comes to mind, where the main protagonist would often comment on his finding of special loot or when he got to a dead end the inner monologue was hinting the player in a non-paternalizing way in the right direction ("Was this guy not known as an illiterate? And yet there where this bookshelves"...- hinting at the possibility that behind the shelf there was a secret room.)

Michael Silverman
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"How do I tell them that because of the unfreezing process I have no inner monologue... I hope I didn't say that out loud just now."

The Austin Powers people have been much too aggressive about protecting the movie b/c I can't find a link to the clip, but if you haven't seen the movie just trust me that its funny.

I'm thinking of playing with inner monologues for my next experimental game. Haven't decided if it will be comedy, but probably.

Andreas Ahlborn
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For you Michael: