Opinion: I don’t like mute protagonists anymore

Many of gaming’s greatest heroes have never uttered a word. Gordon Freeman, the bespectacled hero of Half-Life went through an entire trilogy two-part series without ever interacting with anyone with his voice. For all intents and purposes, he was a floating crowbar that can occasionally throw around boxes with a weird looking gun. There are many reasons why game developers choose a silent protagonist, but I’m here to say that I’m not down for it anymore.

This dawned on me while I was playing through Far Cry New Dawn. The game features a character creator and you can also pimp your character out with various clothes that you’ll never see because the game is first person. This created character has zero effect on the game and is only really viable when you play co-op. But even then, it’s just aesthetic changes that one or two other people will see.

The problem came in when I started going through the story. Everyone was calling me The Captain, which was obviously a way for them to avoid the fact that you can be either male or female. Since I was the protagonist in a shooting game, I was the most important part of the whole thing and was even literally considered the chosen one. What was my character’s reaction to this? Well, from their reaction, stark indifference. All I am is someone that goes to objective markers and kills people.

You see any enemies, Cap? Do tell me if you see any enemies in front of us.

My character was massively depersonalized. It was even hinted at that we were some genius weapon crafter and some kind of combat veteran, but we’ll never really know because the character seems encased in cardboard. The story felt like I was just some random bystander that people shouted at and I could do nothing about it. Someone said some awfully ignorant thing and directly challenged my values? Guess I’ll just say nothing about that and move on with my life.

This is especially frustrating when you have a look at Far Cry 3. The game’s protagonist, Jason Brody, was a fully realised and voiced character that was thrown into a spectacular circumstance way out of his comfort zone. Jason was an integral part of the Far Cry 3 experience. His reactions to the incredible scenarios were what propelled the game forward and his personality was at the forefront most of the time. You still couldn’t see him, but his voice and the little body language he had caused him to be one of the best parts of that game.

Oh Artyom, how are you so dreamy? Artyom: …….

Compare that to Far Cry New Dawn and you can see where my frustration comes from. It’s especially egregious when the characters talk directly at you and even though they ask for a response, they’re going to get nothing. The Metro series of games is the biggest offender of this. Artyom is as mute as a stone, but sometimes vocalises during loading screens. It’s being obtuse for the sake of it because clearly Artyon can speak, but due to some crippling social anxiety or something, he can’t respond to characters even if he wants to. He is also apparently devilishly handsome because he even romances someone without uttering a single phrase.

I haven’t played it yet, but Metro Exodus also apparently keeps this weird trend alive. I’ve heard reports of people thinking it was some kind of bug or glitch that he couldn’t talk because the characters clearly want a response from him. It’s an outdated style of storytelling that only really makes sense in certain contexts, not in a story-driven shooter.

It makes sense to have a mute protagonist in a game with an extensive character creator and various different paths that you can follow. You project yourself onto this created character and their personality is entirely dependent on you. A game like Skyrim does this well and your character can still participate in dialogue and develop a personality in that way. Dragon Age Origins was a massive narrative-driven RPG that featured a mute protagonist, but you could still choose dialogue options to alter the world and craft a unique character, even if they often just stand around looking dopey.

Oh Alistair, the things I wanted to say to you…

The only time I’ve seen the mute protagonist get used correctly in a narrative context is with DOOM. The space marine isn’t complex, he just wants to kill demons and anything that doesn’t involve killing demons is a waste of time. He doesn’t say a word, but his visual personality is what’s important. He smashes priceless relics and destroys door controls because he’s a badass and doesn’t care about these petty obstacles. Him not speaking isn’t a hindrance, it’s a character trait. That’s how you do a mute protagonist.

I love the Persona series with all my heart and I will go to bat for it any day of the week. But the protagonist you play is always this mute boy that can seemingly only answer in two-word replies and a ton of nods. The other main cast talk your ear off and have fully bombastic personalities where you, the alleged chosen one and giant flirt, has the personality of a warm glass of water. This is obviously done with the intention to allow players to craft this character’s intentions and personality, but it usually just comes down to you being a giant douche or a complete sycophant. What ends up happening is that the protagonist just gets dragged around to various events and is just expected to say nothing about it.

Some characters even crafted their image on not being able to talk. Link is the biggest example of this. We’ve seen him in a ton of games across many generations and in all of them, without fail, he never talks. We’ve been forced to make a personality for Link instead of him just getting a voice of his own. To imagine Link with a voice is something strange, but imagine him speaking his mind and actually talking to Princess Zelda instead of blindly rushing to her rescue every time because he stared at her lovingly one time. The most puzzling thing is that this is entirely intentional.

*Stares intently*

Eiji Aonuma once had the following to say about Link’s muteness:

Personally, I don’t want to have Link speak in the game. We haven’t had him talk at all up to this point. It’s part of the series history. It would just, to me, break the image of Link to have him speak.

It’s a part of history at this point. The argument is made that Link being mute is because he’s such a blank character and since you can often name him at the start of the game, you can project yourself onto the character and become him. That, in my personal opinion, is horse hockey.

When you make the decision to make your protagonist a mute, you remove an entire dynamic from the game just like that. The person you play isn’t important anymore, they’re just a tool. Master Chief is a walking suit capable of nothing but combat, but due to him making his voice known, he’s now an iconic character. Silent protagonists can present an element of mystique such as Valve’s main characters in their games. The Portal protagonist is as much of a mystery as many things in the game and that can sometimes be exciting. But more often than not, this strange narrative device just makes things awkward.

English, motherf**ker, do you speak it?

Have you ever tried to speak to someone who refuses to respond? It’s extremely frustrating and it’s even more frustrating when you’re a character that can’t respond even if their life literally depends on it. You sit there going “SAY SOMETHING”, but alas, no vibrations go through those vocal cords whatsoever. I have stopped coming up with excuses for why this weird trend happens because at this point in the gaming industry, it just doesn’t make sense anymore.

We’re moving to more and more ambitious narratives in the gaming industry. We’ve stopped worrying about visuals, gameplay is still important but we do so much of it that it doesn’t really factor into it anymore unless you’re a multiplayer gamer and we have started to incorporate more and more real-world struggles and existential questions into the mix. Having a main character that says nothing isn’t the way to go forward. It’s an archaic remnant of a time where it was more prudent and cheaper to not have a fully voiced main hero and the reasons for it still remaining are crumbling at the foundations.

Do you dislike mute protagonists as much as I do or do you actually prefer them? If you do, please explain to me why so that I can get a different perspective. You know my argument, now I want to hear yours.

I am way too tall, played way too many games and I love to write about what we love about games. In the end, I'm just being #Thabolicious

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