Eater of Trees

Silent Protagonists

Posted on: January 19, 2011

I recently was reading someone talking about how silent protagonists in video are awesome because they let the player assume the role of the character, and the character is basically an insertion of the player into the game or some such.   Which seems reasonable on the surface, except in practice it doesn’t work that way.

My biggest issue is that they completely are not representative of the player.  At least, not if the player is me.  Most notably, almost inevitably these silent protagonists are male. (Examples coming to mind: Crono from Chrono Trigger, Gordon Freeman from Half Life (and sequels), Link from Zelda; I know there are more, feel free to look up ‘heroic mime’ on tvtropes)  They’re also often white, lack disability, and straight, but those don’t quite effect me in the same way.  (Which is to say, I’m not straight and do have several disabilities but the latter rarely would come up in the game’s story–possibly in the game play though–and the former means that I still generally like the same gender as the protagonist.)

The issue that I’ve found comes up is that I completely cannot relate to male characters.  It’s probably especially significant that I’m trans here.  This means that when I’m playing a male character, if I am in some way percieving the character as me, that I’m being forced into a roll that I have a very long history of being coerced into assuming and really would rather not.

For example, recently I was considering playing Half Life 2 again and found that just considering playing it was enough to cause me to panic about how flat my chest was.  Which is a rather unpleasant experience.  (And also: my chest isn’t flat. So it was mostly unpleasantly recalling a time when it was.)

This is, obviously, a significantly more dramatic reaction than many people would have.  But it still highlights something important: a character who is depicted entirely as silent is very rarely depicted without numerous traits that the player may not have. Race and gender being quite common but not the only examples.  And that can completely break the ability to relate to said character.  (It certainly doesn’t have to. And I will readily admit that again, my experience is not typical.  But it’s also not unique.)

Really, once this connection to the character is lost, it quickly becomes problematic.  Especially if the story is at all complex, which is less the case in early Zelda games or Mario, for example.  But when the protagonist barely has any sort of interaction and somehow drives the plot, or even more so when they don’t drive the plot and just do what people around them say, as is more or less inevitable in a video game, you suddenly have a weird situation where the game focuses on a remarkably uninteresting character at the expense of the much more interesting ones around them.

(This can also apply to the much more detail-free AFGNCAAP type protagonist if they turn out to be significantly less GN or CA than the trope would imply.  Which the TVTropes article on this points out is not entirely uncommon.  And for examples, see the advertising of nearly any RPG with character creation ever.)

And this of course doesn’t touch on the fact that most linear narratives are not remotely player controlled, and so inevitably the ‘protagonist’ is not driving the action at all.  Which, much like when some incorrect assumption about the player’s identity breaks your connection to the character, also leads to a very boring character being the focus of things at the expense of those around them.

(When games acknowledge this, though, it can work really well.  Portal, for example, works really well because the focus is not on the players character, but on GlaDOS.  Also I may be a tad biased because the silent protagonist isn’t male. But regardless the game’s focus is not on Chell at all.)

So in short, I really hate silent protagonists, especially when they’re male, and except occasionally when I don’t.  Because the narrative of “they let the player take the role of the character” frequently falls apart in practice.  Especially when your identity is non-normative or the narrative is at all complex.

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