Theme Party: Silent But Deadly
I grew up in a time where main characters tended not to have too much to say. Mario, Link, Samus, Sonic, all of them were more or less too distracted by the whole not getting killed thing to spend too much time opining on the nature of their struggle, and so when I got to games where the protagonists spoke, I was a bit taken aback. Heaven forbid the character deems to tread upon my own internal monologue with his or her speech.
But really, what is there to be gained by the silent protagonist? Does it serve a narrative purpose, or is it there just to prevent the writers from having to squeeze more dialogue out? I’ll be looking today, then, at three approaches to the way protagonists have come to communicate, and the ups and downs of each. In doing so, I’ll be looking at three games: Chrono Trigger and its mute hero, Final Fantasy VII and its talkative Cloud, and finally, the Mass Effect series and the ever-changable Shepard.
Chrono Trigger is much beloved for its story, and for good reason. As a writer, I don’t want to think about all of the narrative gymnastics that had to go into plotting out discrete era stories combined with an overarching narrative that tracks the individual plots and their effects across time. A vast menagerie of characters awaits in every era, and all of them are interesting and memorable.
So where does the almost-titular silent protagonist Crono fit into all of this? Well, he’s not telling. Crono is the catalyst for much of the game’s story, but the designers felt it necessary to make him speechless throughout the experience. Why?
The obvious answer is that when a protagonist is silent, the player fills in the gaps. A silent protagonist enables the player to connect with the main character using their internal voice, without the distraction of the character’s own dialog there to supplant what the player is thinking. The obvious upside to this decision, then, is that you get a more personal vehicle for the player, a character who for all purposes is the player. Crono does what the player would do, even when he’s not in the player’s control. He’s a perfect modular hero.
The downside to all of this, of course, is that Crono doesn’t get much of a character of his own. We can surmise various aspects of his personality from the way he acts: he’s heroic, he’s selfless, he cares for the members of his party a lot, and he’s a bit silly. But beyond that, his character is mostly lost in favor of our own insertion. This, then, places a heavy burden on the strength of the artistic and visual direction to convey Crono’s character through appearance and animation, which in this case, was done successfully. Crono, like Mario in Super Mario RPG et al, is designed well enough to be able to pick out his personality in a non obtrusive way just through what is conveyed visually. Less strong art direction might have simply led to him being forgettable (see: Ryu in early Breath of Fire games).
Final Fantasy VII’s Cloud, like most FF protagonists, is quite the talker, on the other hand. Despite his myriad of personality disorders and general insanity for half of the game, Cloud has quite a lot to say and conveys a fairly identifiable personality for most of the game. He develops interpersonal relationships with the party in a way that Crono doesn’t, he has a hatred for Sephiroth, and he has an existential quandary that would’ve been impossible without the ability to talk.
The obvious gain here, then, is that Cloud is much more obvious as a character than a silent protagonist and is able to fill a much more active role in the events of the story. We’re able to sort of neatly observe how the story fits together and how Cloud fits into it because Cloud is a character just like all of the others.
What’s lost, though, is that level of connection that we had with Crono as a result of his silence. We can’t insert ourselves into the narrative via Cloud nearly as well because Cloud has so many of his own hangups and issues in the way. We control Cloud, but there isn’t a huge amount that makes us connect with Cloud, and so in gaining a more interesting character, we lose a bit of the effectiveness of him as a vehicle for our perspective. Most Final Fantasy games do this, although some of them utilize techniques to soften the blow (see previous Theme Party entry on why Tidus is a great protagonist along these lines).
Is this a better or worse way to handle things, then? No, it’s just different. The writer needs to bear in mind the kind of story he or she is telling. Chrono Trigger is largely about the exploration and discovery of the situation of various eras, and so having a chatty, savy protagonist would’ve lessened our ability to connect with the feeling of discovery and uncertainty that went along with the time travel odyssey. But in Final Fantasy VII, we’re more concerned about the plot and the drama of the characters than we are about the setting, so it makes sense to have a talkative character with a huge personal investment.
SHEPARD: I HAVE OTHER QUESTIONS. I SHOULD GO.
But what about a middle ground, you ask? Is there a way to have a protagonist speak and have personality without eliminating their ability to be a vehicle for player perspective? Bioware thinks so, and their answer has long been a simple one: let the player speak through the protagonist. And thus, with the advent of Mass Effect, Commander Shepard was born, and we were given the ability to guide his/her dialog according to our whims.
And it worked pretty well, too. Shepard’s dialog is changeable, but well written, so intelligent players find themselves generating a personality for Shepard themselves through their decisions. Shepard can be by the book or a loose cannon, kind and understanding or a crazed hardass.
This, then, seems like an obvious upside: the player is able to essentially write the character of Shepard as they go (and indeed, write the entire story of the series). We can both connect with Shepard as our place to insert ourselves in the story, and resonate with the personality Shepard exhibits and the relationships that grow out of that as a result. It’s the best of both worlds. Hooray!
Well, maybe not completely. The big problem here is that if Shepard can be everyone, Shepard can be no one. It’s possible to present Shepard in a manic, inconsistent way and the story has to just grit its teeth and bear the fact that Shepard isn’t behaving consistently. Mind you, this is something of a self sabotage by the player, but it creates a lot of narrative legwork for the writers to have to design scenarios with every possible Shepard in mind, even one that is a wacky bipolar Renegon. I can play mass effect by rolling a d6 for all my dialog choices.
Obviously if I’m doing that kind of thing I’m sort of asking for the story to be messed up, but the problem really comes in when I’m playing a Paragon Shepard, but I feel compelled to pick a Renegade option for one particular decision; Bioware has a habit of making these discrete personalities for Shepard play out in this situation, which means my kind, patient Shepard suddenly becomes a raging lunatic if I decide to be Renegade just this once. It’s an extremely difficult authorial task and Bioware handles it admirably, but there’s always going to be some level of inconsistency if I’m picking from a wheel of dialog to determine who my character is.
The main point here, then, is that none of these are perfect. The writer needs to look at the type of game they’re making, and decide how to prioritize certain aspects of the story when it comes to the way the player interacts with the world. Chrono Trigger is about encountering settings, so we place the player inside a neutral viewing point. Final Fantasy VII is about interpersonal drama, and so we give the player character a distinct history and personality. Mass Effect is about creating your own story, and so we give the player character the writing pen and let them loose with it. All of these work, it’s just a matter of deciding what’s most appropriate. Silent, talkative, or pieced together by choices, the protagonist’s nature as a story vehicle is a key aspect of the narrative experience.