Jan 20 2012

The Curse of the Mute and Invisible Protagonist

Published by at 12:00 pm under Editorials,Video Games

I’ve been racking my brain to find one big reason I just couldn’t make Skyrim my game of the year this year, picking Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Yeah, combat can get repetitive, and the quests aren’t terribly deep very often, but it was something more than that.

What I’ve realized now after playing games like Mass Effect, Deus Ex or even Saints Row, I no long can appreciate the long-held tradition of the mute protagonist portrayed, especially if the game is in first person.

As more and more games are having their lead characters fully voice acted, it becomes almost jarring when you play a game and your character is literally a blank slate. You may think that the ability to customize appearance, as in Skyrim, might be enough to make you relate to your character as your own, but without a voice, without a backstory and gameplay almost always in first person view, you  don’t relate to your character nearly as well as you would in other games.

If you spend hours tweaking someone’s facial features to perfection, you damn sure want to be able to see it often in the game.

I’ve found a combination of three things makes for the most relatable leads in games that truly feel like an extension of yourself

1) They speak

2) You’ve customized their appearance

3) You can see them constantly in the game.

Combining the first two, the ability to make your character look the way you want, be it their race, gender or even eyebrow thickness, and combining that with an actual personality and backstory, you have a character that really feels like you own them, or often, are them. Mass Effect is far and away the best example of this, but even in a game like Saints Row, I felt connection to my created character despite  the game being absolutely absurd on every level and a similar title like Grand Theft Auto IV having much better writing and voice acting. Here, the lead was my own.

The third item is something we don’t think about often, but really is true when you stop and ponder it for a minute. The idea of “first person” gameplay is that the game is putting YOU in the shoes of the hero. Therefore, by definition, you should be able to relate to the hero more, right? Not for me.

Everything is so one sided. Cutscenes exist for a reason, and you can’t have a good dramatic narrative with one person always talking into a void.

Rather, I find that third person games actually make me connect with my character more. We not only see them as real people in cutscenes, but in every moment of the game, you’re watching them. Call it exposure theory if you like, but the more you see them, the more you’re used to them and grow to like them. In custom character games, you can also see your creation at all times, making your work put into their appearance seem worth it.

But then look at Skyrim in comparison. You probably spent a decent amount of time crafting your character, but after those initial moments, how often did you ever see them? Unless you’re playing the game in third person (which is far, far more difficult and cumbersome) you almost NEVER see your character. Even in the equipment screen now, where you load them up with badass armor, you still don’t have an outside view of what they look like. And with not one cutscene in the game, the only time you can truly see your character is when you zoom out to third person, put away your weapon, and swing the camera in an arc around you. And really, how often do you do that?

This fact combined with the complete lack of voice, personality and backstory of your character is the majority of the reason that Skyrim fails from a story perspective. It obviously would have taken an insane amount of work to voice the other 50% of every conversation in the game, or create 12 different histories for each character race, but when you look to a company like Bioware who would do just that, you can see why their stories are always top notch, even if their gameplay doesn’t always match.

Whatever your Shepard looks like, he’s your Shepard.

The mute protagonist is starting to feel like a relic, and if you never see or hear him the whole game, it’s like he barely even exists. We need characters to start in games, not empty boxes, and I hope we’ll have less awkward silences in the future.

 





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23 responses so far

  • Kyle

    Great article, I had the same problem in Dragon Age. I loved the game but couldn’t connect to my protagonist as well as in the second one or Mass Effect.

    BTW, where did you get the hair for you Shepard in the second pic? (if it is your Shepard)

  • Limitus

    I’m part with you and part not…
    It’s true that the mute protagonist often doesn’t hold up to the good stories around him, because he/she is simply not taking part of it, when the NPC is voice acted and talks to you.
    On the other side, as I’ve encountered in Star-Wars: The Old Republic (where every conversation is completely voice acted and presented in cutscenes), I simply can’t stand my characters voice. As much as I love the look of him/her, I always get back to playing with subtitles because the voice sucks… I tried the german version, the english one… Both voices for nearly every character suck.
    These are times when I look back to the mute protagonist and can imagine him/her to have the voice I want.

  • HarshReality79

    Paul,
    That is a very insightful and well thought out observation. I do find the comment about crafting your character and then never seeing him again, quite absurd. I have logged over a hundred hours between ME1&2 (even started from scratch the other day in anticipation of ME3) and have yet to pick up Skyrim. I’ve always found replay and even completion for me is strongly dependent upon story development. Heck, I’m hard pressed to pay full price for a game and often wait the three to four months for it to fall to half that or less used. But the ME franchise has earned a coveted pre-order exemption due to its well crafted storytelling. Looks like I’ll pick up Deus Ex used before I get around to Skyrim.

  • frikkenkids

    The problem with using Mass Effect 2 as an example is that they totally dropped the ball with helmets in that game. If your character was wearing a helmet, it stayed in place for cut scenes. This oversight meant that if you had a helmet on all you ever saw in a cut scene was that helmet with a voice coming out of it. Even in cut scenes where Shepard was kissing someone, the helmet was in place – an absurd thing to behold. If you want to watch Shepard talk, you have to play without a helmet or remove it for the cut scenes. Dragon Age had the helmets disappear for cut scenes (very sensible) but lacked the voice. They finally did it right with Dragon Age 2 where we got fully voiced heroes and no helmets in cut scenes.

  • JoeMamma

    I disagree, sorta.
    I don’t think this is a one size fits all thing. This is subjective and thus there is simply not a “correct” way. You (and others) may prefer fully voice acted protagonists ALL the time, every time, but some of us prefer a little more variety in presentation. It’s not as though there aren’t any games with voice acted protagonists, in fact they represent the majority with only a handful of games choosing to go the silent route.

    I know that I would never want to play a Half Life or Portal game with a chatty protagonist, but a Deus Ex game wouldn’t be right without it.

  • http://www.planethalflife.com Azenomei

    they should make it voice controlled so you can actually ask questions in your own voice

  • frikkenkids

    HarshReality79,
    I’m with you on waiting to play games. Not only do the prices drop by 1/2 or more in six months or so, but you can play the games including all the DLC that came out months later at the same time. Personally, I would have found it annoying as hell to have played through Mass Effect 2 a few times (different play throughs for different character classes) and move on to another game only to have to come back into ME2 to play the Shadow Broker for each character. Also, by that time games are patched so usually much more playable.

  • Kandice

    what a well-argued article. I wholeheartedly agree. I think the first game I played with a customizable character was Fallout 3, and I was so proud on how it came out, but I was disappointed when my character never spoke and really the only way I could see the product of my work was to go to third person and swing the camera around. It didn’t really bother me until I started playing Mass Effect and I could see my character in every cutscene and every time I just ran around. And the voice made all the difference because you could hear the attitude, or the judgement, or the sadness in their voice. With a storyline that was very emotional, it made all the difference.

  • Andy

    Deus Ex would have been cooler if you could customize your appearance. I should type more because everyone else did, but I’m lazy.

  • trashcanman

    I hear you, man, but the fact that you are still dissecting Skyrim and not Deus Ex says it all. If you need to spend weeks and hundreds of hours of gameplay trying to think of reasons not to make it GOTY, then it’s GOTY.

  • tuffy

    I don’t agree with saying Bioware does that better because if you look at the first dragon age they gave everyone custom back stories for each race and class but then had no spoken dialogue. The only games they’ve fully voice acted are the Mass Effect Series where you are forced to play as a human and Dragon Age 2 where again force to be a human. I love both companies and I thought Skyrim was incredibly engaging.

  • http://www.unrealitymag.com Paul Tassi

    @tuffy

    That was one of the reasons I hated the original Dragon Age. It’s an even stranger phenomenon when you CAN see your character and he’s still mute. Skyrim was engaging from an exploration and gameplay perspective, but not in terms of story. At least not for me.

  • Pijus

    I disagree.

    First, a nitpick. In Skyrim you couldn’t have 1 backstory for each race, because being a certain race doesn’t automaticaly make you into a certain character. What about character cla…Oh wait. They removed that.

    Okay, let’s say you have a backstory for each class. What does that do for you? For me, it doesn’t add anything. In fact, if my character has a backstory, then I can’t come up with his story myself, and thus, am less into the character. This is one of the things why I actually prefer a blank character to a Story character.

    The invisible protagonist stands in for me. He doesn’t need to speak, he doesn’t need an opnion. He just needs to do what I want to do in the gameworld. To put it in a fancy way, my character is the conduit for my actions.

    When you’ve got something like Shepard, it’s hard to project yourself into the character. When every other character is Shepard this, Shepard that, it makes me feel like I’m just helping Shepard along by choosing the right dialogue options.

    Also, a blank character needs no story to exist. I think Skyrim and mr. mute hero are more about being in Skyrim, while Mass Effect is more about what happens to Shepard.

  • tuffy

    If you give me the option between Skyrim voice acted or Skyrim mute with the main character i’ll almost always go with voice acting. However I’ve also played many games that have been terribly voice acted and it made me wish my character was mute. For example it seemed like they only used one voice actor for the Khajit. So if you play as a Khajit would you be stuck sounding like every other Khajit in the game or would you be the lone outcast among your people who sounds different? I’ve always liked how Saints Row 2 & 3 (never played 1) gave multiple voice options for your created character. I understand that’s not plausible (or too expensive (at least for now)) for the 1000’s of lines of dialogue in a RPG like Mass Effect or The Elder Scrolls series but it really makes a significant difference when you can choose how your character sounds as well as how they look. I think the best option would be if they gave you multiple voice options as well as a mute choice. Probably just dreaming on that though

  • Filip

    Dead Space 2 was a worse game than the original in the regard that it wasn’t me, the player, that got projected into the experience. Suddenly it wasn’t me running down corridors anymore, Isaac became tangible thus robbing me of a level of immersion.

    And as for Skyrim, whenever I’m travelling about I always use third-person. This way I can run in one direction and look all around me finding a plethora of ingredients and interesting tidbits here and there. + My daedric looks baller.

  • Cas

    I also disagree here. In games like Skyrim I come up with the backstory and personality for my character, so in every dialogue I imagine my character talking and acting the way I like them too. So in games where the protagonist speaks and acts in cutscenes he most often completely breaks out of the character I’ve imagined. It doesn’t matter how much I can customize him or how many dialogue options I get, it’s still not my character, it’s the game developers

  • Wilm210

    I wholeheartedly agree with Filip. Another good example here would be the Half Life series as the main protagonist Gordon Freeman is a mute. By being a mute, both Gordons and the players experiences are one in the same. Giving Gordon a voice would ruin that immersion so Im content with him being silent. When I play Half Life 2, im not playing as Gordon but I am Gordon and so are all the other players.

  • RBourn

    Wow, lots of great comments. I think we’re getting to the point where we all sort of agree that both ways of presenting a character have merit but neither is actually superior.

    Voice acted characters are very good for telling an engaging story, and games take on the aspect of a film you control. Which is why i think Paul likes it. However, it does require freedom of character creation to be curtailed somewhat. Dragon Age 2 was very like that, I felt as though I was watching a film with Hawke as the lead character I controlled. But it was the same story over and over.

    Non-voice acting allows for the player to craft the character more to their personal taste, as there isn’t a voice blurting the chosen lines making the player feel redundant to the character. A player can imagine it’s them in that role, and possibly this works best with first person as well. Dragon Age worked better because of this, with more dialogue options, side quests and influence it was much easier to make a radically different character that functioned entirely differently and that meant playthrough and the end could be very different. Never managed to sacrifice Loghain though….

    What I will totally agree with is that any level of customisation needs to be added to a third person perspective, because if you can’t actually see the character then why bother making an interesting looking one? I play Space Marine a lot online and the armours are fully customisable, and I can spend a long time making a colour scheme I like the look of because I can see that colour scheme as I play.

  • elad

    difference between deus ex and skyrim…

    in deus ex, you control a guy named adam jensen.

    in skyrim you roleplay a character, give him a name, give him a voice, make decisions for him, etc.

    skyrim is not a movie or a show or a cutscene with some game elements in it, its an RPG. it doesnt have a single story because the player creates and lives the story. its not linear like deus ex.

    and so what if i cant see my character all the time? plus not everyone plays skyrim in 1st person.

    the curse of the mute protagonist? oh please…

  • Orion

    Not a mention of Gordon Freeman in Half Life 2? HL2 was THE most immersive story I’ve ever experienced. I found myself caring for the well-scripted AI companions that inhabit the game, and I found myself scared for my own safety in the more harrowing portions. The story was thoughtful and intense.
    All this with a silent protagonist. You definitely should have mentioned Valve in this article.

  • FNG

    they need to figure out a program where they sampled your voice. and then that voice will be applied for all the voice of the main character for the story.

  • Sky

    Bioshock did a wonderful job of telling a fantastic story, in an environment more immersive than Mass Effect or even Deus Ex:HR.

    Without the need for any cutscenes what-so-ever and with the use of a silent protagonist.

    Whilst I am not disagreeing with you, there are exceptions to the rule.
    And Bioshock has literally been the best story, and most immersed I’ve been in a game for years.

  • Anna

    I pretty much agree with most of what you wrote .. I have always greatly prefered third person games ..its one of the main off putting things about dead island that dispite most of its publicity stills making it look third person it is entirely FP .I also much prefer games were you get to choose race age gender and general appearance of your character
    I have rarely used the first person option in fallout and skyrim other than for shooting and picking up objects and have never found its third person view bad at all…
    Its cooler when your charcter has a voice on the whole but sometimes its a deficiet when the voice doesn’t fit the way you imagine your charcter to sound .
    still all that said games that include convo options are always restrictive in some ways since its often a case that the oiptions given do not include ones you would ever have wanted your character to say anyway .
    including voice acting for your player character would likely restrict the options even further .
    given a choice i would rather have a greater selection of choices for what my character says than so it increases the chances that they will say something more along the lines of what i would want them to say than have it voiced …

    Also i would have to say that your character in fallout 3 has far more in the way of back story than shepherd in mass effect or most characters in games do since you play your character in fallout 3 from when he/she is a baby you start out thinking you were born in one place and learn that was not the case so the back story in that game is pretty much one of the fullest i have seen

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