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Silent Protagonists & Hero Personality 
 PostWed Sep 02, 2020 12:23 pm
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A longstanding tradition of videogame RPGs is to have a hero who isn't voiced (not just literally no spoken lines, but also no text-based dialog).

In oldschool dungeon crawls like the first three or so Ultima games, the first Wizardry games, the original Dragon Quest/Dragon Warrior, the first several Legend of Zeldas, and the first and third Final Fantasies the point of not giving the main character dialog or personality was to leave all the emotions up to the interpretation of the player rather than dictating them through the story; your player character is more a game mechanical vessel for you to use when interacting with and exploring the world. The overall plot of the game was usually unimportant - it's the journey of exploring the world, collecting treasure, and fighting monsters rather than the destination of rescuing the princess/slaying the dragon/dethroning the evil overlord.

Later, developers wanted to start telling more involved and intricate stories in which various party members had ties to specific (not necessarily Doomed Hometown) in-game locations, give the heroes and villains relationships to each other from friendly rivalry to actual hatred to family to romantic and all sorts of other combinations. A lot of characters in these games would have fully realized personalities, archetypical or not, but there was often a single exception.

If there was a definitive main character, that character would for some reason still never have a single spoken line. Instead, other characters put words in his mouth and react as if he'd had full dialog ("What's that, Timmy's in the well?") even if all he did was throw up his arms or shake his head. The game might give you an illusion of control over what your character says/what other people claim he says by giving you a yes/no choice once in a while, but if the difference between saying yes and no actually means anything at all then they'll just keep asking you until you "get it right" (granted, this started with Dragon Warrior 1 but that game had a lot more open choice than it's given credit for; it's possible to win without collecting the legendary sword, to not ever rescue the princess, or to carry the princess with you from her prison all the way to the final boss's throne).

Personally, I think this weird middle ground limbo, trying to have a character who is voiceless "for the audience to project himself onto" while still having everyone behave as if he was as fully voiced as the rest of them is a big mistake. The more plot-heavy Pokemon or Zelda games get, for example, the weirder it is for the player character to just stand in place staring off into nothingness as the real main characters carry on full conversations. The smarter examples will still give the hero some form of emotion (Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker has a link who looks around, screams, and expresses himself in general; he doesn't need to tell his emotions because he shows them; South Park: The Stick of Truth has your main character constantly being bullied and spoken over by the other characters, particularly Cartman, even when he's trying to tell them his name or other innocuous things and this makes sense in-universe enough to justify use of the convention and is a bit of a parody of the way things are usually done).

It gets even weirder when games have full voice acting but your main character is renamable...nobody ever refers to your character by name in the spoken word while their onscreen textboxes have slightly different dialog entirely because your name string is in there clear as day. This is often combined with the above limbo state of trying to have your cake of player projection onto the character and eat the cake of character personality. Dragon Quest 8 was difficult for me to play anytime characters acknowledged the existence of the Hero for this reason. If you're going to go this far, you'd might as well just give the hero a canonical name (just assume Link's name is Link in any Zelda game instead of inserting whatever 5-8 letter string the player types out on the file into in-game text; everyone's still going to call him Link anyway) and some form of personality, however rudimentary.

Some silent protagonists actually have a good bit of personality. Lucas (Mother 3) is timid, Ness (Mother 2) gets homesick easily, Quote (Cave Story) has a total of one line of dialog if you choose to play a character other than him. These are things the audience will connect with more than they connect with a pure blank slate from my experience. You can have "the character doesn't speak much" or even "the character is a total mute" as part of their design so long as you have the cojones to actually follow up on it in your writing (in Cave Story's Curly mode: Curly should be sassy and comment on cutscenes instead of falling into the silent protagonist role).

It's...bizarre that in most of the Mario RPGs (Super Mario RPG, Paper Mario series), Mario is a silent protagonist when he's been known to be talkative and have a personality in other side content (Super Mario Bros. Super Show, Nintendo Comics System), spinoff games (Mario Teaches Typing 2, Mario's FUNdamentals), and even main platformer games (Super Mario 64). When Luigi, consistently depicted as the more timid brother, strangely talks more than Mario even in games where he never appears...that's just bewildering. Why is it that platformer hero known for having a personality + genre that celebrates its use of characters with personality = character who barely does more than smile and wave between combat segments? At least the Mario & Luigi series balances Mario and Luigi's respective personalities by having them both be just as talkative in-game as in their main platformer appearances and both express themselves with gestures and pseudo-linguistic babbling.

What does everyone else think about the subject of silent RPG protagonists? Generally favorable, generally unfavorable, generally indifferent, polarized between different examples? Me, I'm only really bothered with it when it winds up being done inconsistently (a silent hero with well-defined allies, a silent hero tossed about by a plot he has no agency in, character personality does a 180 within the same franchise like Isaac/Felix in Golden Sun or RPG Mario/literally-anything-but-an-RPG Mario). It's an artistic decision, and like all artistic decisions there's not a single answer that will work for all cases, but there might be general guidelines of things that won't work for most cases.
In the past, I apologized when I was in the right because I was afraid of peer pressure. For this, I apologize.

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 PostWed Sep 02, 2020 4:28 pm
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Silent protags were just fine and dandy back in the day when games were a bit more primitive. Part of the fun, for me at least, was using my imagination to fill in the blanks between the concrete story beats and the abstract implications set by the environment. That's part of what made me love Earthbound so much, and it was much easier there thanks to the size of the world, the relative freedom with which I could explore it, and the more relatable setting, being much more modern and Westernized than most other RPGs. Ness's journey was my journey.

There are also some games that I play with relative disregard to the story, like Final Fantasy I, the Etrian Odyssey series, and most Western RPGs (such as Skyrim), where I actually really appreciate the absence of my character/party from the greater plot. Doesn't matter who I choose to be, all that matters is the quest at hand. I am [insert adventurer title here], I'm not part of the drama, I'm part of the action. Most plot developments are just distractions from the fun of adventuring.

RPGs dedicated to their stories are becoming the norm, and I have plenty of love for them too. Voice acting and good writing for everyone, including the player character, goes a long way to enhance your suspension of disbelief, and it's helped make games like the "Tales of" and Xenosaga/Xenoblade series into really memorable experiences. (Sometimes; your mileage will definitely vary from game to game.) Even Bug Fables decided to break off from the "silent protagonist & several plot-unimportant helpers" trend set by Paper Mario and built a core trio of protagonists that are all vital to the story, in their own little ways - the plot would be completely different if even one of them was removed. The writing in that game worked really well, in large part because its main three characters all played off of each other in natural and interesting ways. No matter what you're doing, they've all got something unique to say about it, from hunting down artifacts to witnessing the bug kingdoms' political feuds to simply scanning an enemy in battle.

I genuinely enjoy every one of these approaches to RPG storytelling, and it's really hard to pick favorites. Which game I play depends on what kind of mood I'm in. But I will say that I very much prefer that RPGs pick something and stick to it, and don't try to split themselves in opposing directions. Pokemon games generally keep things light and let you do your adventuring at your own pace (well, they used to, can't speak for the most recent games), but they've recently started incorporating weird little pockets of "save the world" stories that just come and go abruptly. If they're going to try to build a plot with a serious threat to take down, they should make it the entire focus of the story, like Pokemon Colosseum, where your entire purpose from start to end is dealing with the Cipher crime syndicate and their Shadow Pokemon network. Colosseum's kind of a weird case anyway; you play as a silent protagonist (Wes), but have a talkative NPC (Rui) permanently glued to you. I wish that weren't the case, because Wes has a boldly established personality based on the opening cutscene alone, where he abandons his former gang of thieves, steals their most valuable piece of tech, and blows up their HQ as a final insult. I can only imagine what kind of potential the story would have had if Wes and Rui actually got the chance to play off of each other; there could have been a great dynamic between a snide free-wheeling punk and a naïve Pokemon-loving empath as they overcome their differences to fight crime.

There's also the potential for an opposite problem, where the protagonist is too chatty and their involvement in the plot genuinely gets in the way of an otherwise fun time. I haven't really played any games like this that I can remember, but from what I've heard, Metroid: Other M, while not an RPG, is an egregious offender of this kind of story-gameplay balance.

My conclusion, I suppose, is that your protagonist's involvement in the plot should reflect what kind of experience the player is supposed to have. Games with strictly linear stories and a well-established protagonist tend to suffer by making them silent, whereas the opposite can be true for games with a loose narrative and plenty of room to explore, especially with player-made characters.
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