The Problem with Silent Protagonists

Silent protagonists are everywhere in gaming, and some of our most loved characters are silent protagonists. Characters like Mario, Link, Gordon Freeman, Master Chief, Chell, Crono, and many many more. I enjoy playing many of those characters, but I still have a fundamental problem with them.

What made me think about this topic was a friend mentioning to me that someone, somewhere on the Internet gave Chell from Portal as a good example of a strong female character. Well, I don’t think so. Especially when you could make Chell anything else, even a man, and not have the game change other than some of GLaDOS’ jokes.

I started to think about whether or not you could really classify a silent protagonist as an objectively good character, and I found myself saying no. While they aren’t bad, I feel silent protagonists lack something for me to call them a well-crafted character. That is still not to say that I don’t think there are situations where a silent protagonist would be a good thing.

I think there are two different aspects of a character that you have to look at in order to qualify whether they are well-crafted or not. The first would be the situation the character finds itself in. For example, Chell would lose much of her appeal, or strength, if she was just a mere test subject trying out the portal gun. But, she has to complete these tests for her life, to try and escape GLaDOS.

Chell lacks the other side that is necessary for a good character I would say. That would be any kind of personality, something that makes the character unique and where we could easily identify who they were just by what they have said or done. There needs to be some kind of expression there, some kind of emotional response or attributes to the character.

This does not mean that the character needs to speak in any way, though. There are ways for characters to express themselves without a voice. I can’t think of many in gaming right now, but take Wall-E for example, he basically only says the same two words throughout the film, yet we get a great idea of the kind of personality he has.

The second part to a character is basically the general information surrounding them. The history of the character, the personality, and the personal information, like whether or not they have a job.

Let’s take a look at Gordon Freeman for a second. We know a little bit of information about him. He was a theoretical physicist working for Black Mesa before the problems of the inhabitants of the planet Xen started making their way onto Earth.

But other than that, we know nothing more about Gordon at all. He doesn’t really speak or interact with other characters in any way, they just speak at us and talk to each other, something that makes us feel more like a viewer than a player. Instead of being a real character, the silent protagonist, like Gordon, becomes the tool which we, the player, use to make our way through the game.

That tool could be the various weapons and abilities that Link has to make his way through his worlds, the various sets of guns and weapons that Master Chief uses, or even the portal gun Chell has to use to make her way through her tests.

In many ways those characters become defined by the tools they use, the tools they really become within the game. One of the biggest things people always talk about with Gordon Freeman is his use of the crowbar. The crowbar has really become the identity of Gordon Freeman. Gordon Freeman is no longer the physicist, but a crowbar-wieldng, gunslinging, tool in which we make our way through the Half-Life world.

Silent protagonists are only as strong as the relationship between the tools they use and the situation they are in, which is the foundation for any character, not only silent. But the only thing silent protagonists have is the foundation. There is nothing really built on top of it.

Without the actual structure on top of the foundation, it is impossible for me to classify what is there as being well-crafted or well-built. There is no building there to look at, no building to search through, and no building to evaluate. However, you could put just about any structure you wanted onto that foundation, which tells me that these characters aren’t particularly good. Let me explain that a little more.

Without something unique to the character, other than the tools they use, there is nothing there to tell me what character it is I am using. We could switch out Crono with Link, and nobody would know the difference, just the tools they use would be a little different. The same goes with Master Chief and Gordon Freeman. We could switch them and the games would be nearly identical.

I don’t think that silent protagonists like Gordon Freeman and Link are particularly strong characters. I love Half-Life and Gordon Freeman, but I don’t think that he is a good character by any means. The same goes for all characters I have mentioned here.

Yet I inexplicably really love and enjoy many of these characters like Gordon. However, I think that is more for love of the game rather than love of the character.