Bill Watterson, the author of the famous comic strip series Calvin and Hobbes, once considered a cartoon version of his widely popular cartoon duo. That is, until one thought occurred to him that stopped him in his tracks: he did not want to hear what Calvin’s voice sounds like. We often adopt our own personal narration into media such as books, comics, and even video games when a voice is not present. Each of the compelling characters that we love are carefully written to propel a narrative forward by means of their actions and emotions. Believe it or not, this is regardless of whether they speak. In fact, sometimes the quiet ones, such as the many silent protagonists, have the most to say.
The Strong, Silent Protagonist Type
Have you ever wanted to hear Link’s voice? How would you feel if Nintendo decided to make a game in which Link responds to all of the conversations he gets into with dialogue of his own? If you love the Legend of Zelda games, you may think that the mere idea of it is a blasphemous affront. Link is a beloved character with decades of character development, all of which has been through his experiences and emotions. Throughout the series, we have seen Link experience true sadness, rage, and happiness. If you are looking for an example, look no further than Skyward Sword.
When Zelda awakens from her crystallized form, her reunion with Link is one of the most emotionally charged moments in the game. For just a few moments, they have a happy respite from the constant chaos that is their existence. In this scene, Link shows compassion, concern, and joy through his actions alone. He rushes forward to embrace a weakened Zelda and walks with her hand-in-hand. In the moment when Ghirahim attacks and separates them once again, you can see unabated fury in Link’s eyes.
For those reasons, Link is the perfect representation of a voiceless character who expresses his feelings through action alone. However, can you make the same argument for a character that you cannot see? Can first-person characters still harbor that same capacity for emotion and relatability? They absolutely can. Many first-person games, even shooters in fact, have characters that exhibit personality through wordless acts and gestures.
We all know Doomguy, for example, as the guy who kicks butt and asks questions later. Just mentioning hell to that guy would probably send him in a murderous rampage of demon genocide. Some of the best moments in Doom (2016) were those in which a side-character would try to explain something to Doomguy. Instead of stopping in his tracks and listening, he would completely disregard it. Through those small indications, we get the gist of what Doomguy is all about. He is not a detail man. He just wants to put his fist through the meaty husks of the howling creatures that surround him.
Flawed Writing or Heartless Sociopath?
However, that is not to defend every silent protagonist. Some characters go through entire stories and campaigns without ever reacting to the world around them. Gordon Freeman from the Half-Life series has every aspect of his existence ripped out from underneath him. Yet, he does not do so much as shed a simple tear. Call of Duty often suffers from the same issue. You are expected to believe that a soldier will never feel fear, grief, or anger. Some games, however, are coy enough to poke fun at the hollow shell that its protagonists inhabit.
Portal 2, for example, begins with a sequence in which Wheatley, your robot companion through much of the game, asks you to speak. The game prompts you to press a button in order to complete that request and when you do, you jump instead. It confirms a piece of dialogue in which Wheatley says you might have severe brain damage resulting from your extended period in stasis.
To make light of it is an interesting, but not always effective way to establish a character’s personality. You need to have some clever form of emotion or interaction that indicates what your character is feeling in a given moment. Some RPGs handle this by giving your protagonist written dialogue options. Games like Fallout, Skyrim, and the recently released Outer Worlds give you the opportunity to put your own personal flare on who you imagine the main character to be. They accomplish this by varying the dialogue options by tone. Outer Worlds does a fantastic job of giving you (often hilarious) options with which to berate NPCs you encounter.
A Silence so Loud
It is an interesting dilemma for developers who decide not to give a voice to their protagonists. The ability to inject relatable emotion into a character that has no voice is a trademark of truly great storytelling. Often, the characters that say nothing are those that we hold most beloved in our hearts. Perhaps that is because, without a voice that steals our imagination, we find it easier to insert ourselves into those characters, those experiences, and those moments.