It’s good to see a half way decent stealth game these days, but the main character in Dishonored is taking it a bit far, don’t you think? I imagine if he did speak he’d have a voice that’d put Brian Blessed to shame, so he figured it’d be best he kept his gob shut at all times to avoid the guards catching him playing with the rats in the sewer. The only trouble with that is we as the player don’t get to empathize with him or connect with him on any level since he could easily be replaced by an angry feather duster.
“But with a silent protagonist we get to project ourselves onto the main character as if we were him” I shout at the computer screen pretending to be my nonexistent audience. Alright, me, let’s use that logical lens of yours to look at movies. Did Batman remain silent in The Dark Knight Rises? Did the filmmakers think it was best to duct tape Leonardo DiCaprio’s mouth shut in Inception so the viewer could pretend they were the ones who stole the idea of a certain writer who currently writes for a certain video game site? No, because the writers of those movies and every movie ever made have two things most video game writers don’t, besides talent anyway.
In order to be anything as a writer of fiction, you have to be able to create good three dimensional characters, as in ones that have actual depth and complexities. That goes for novels, movies, and video games. But we’ve seen before that developers and publishers aren’t necessarily interested or confident in story, so they push it aside for more explosions.
Without a main character the player can be interested in, the story will never go anywhere. Perhaps this formula can be toyed with by not making the player character the main character, but that’s never been done, not successfully or purposely anyway. This issue is only made worse when the other characters order you around, and try to talk to you about how their wife won’t make him sandwiches anymore.
In Call of Duty 4, no one gave a toss about Soap because there was nothing to toss. Now compare that to Solid Snake in any MGS game. Snake has regrets, flaws, memories, and true friends and enemies. This gives him depth and complexity that Soap in COD4 could never dream about. Then there’s Lee in The Walking Dead, or Shepard in Mass Effect. They’re real characters with complexity and voice acting like Snake, but they also allow the player to project themselves onto the characters by offering dialogue options and multiple play styles. And since you care about the main character, those feelings you have extends to the characters that he cares about, and the ones he hates.
But in COD4, the game’s trying to force you to care about what is essentially a floating pair of hands. If the game wants us to project ourselves onto the player, that’s one thing, but to then try and make us care about that character? That seems a little disingenuous, like they’re trying to have their gritty realism and eat it too. The scene with the nuke wouldn’t have been any less powerful or shocking if we had a speaking player character. Hell, it’d be even more shocking because it would have been a real human being, and a main character at that.
But the developer could hire Shakespeare to write the character, and they’d be pretty stupid since he’s been dead for nearly 400 years, but they could hire Terry Pratchett to write the script and it wouldn’t mean shit if the publishers/developers didn’t back him. The problem these days is that story is already so low on the list of priorities by the time they come to it, they don’t have the time or resources to put into creating interesting characters (i.e. pay the writer for more work or hire another voice actor).
Oh sure you can go on about how video games are all about the player becoming the main character, and that the only way to truly feel like you were in the game was to have a blank slate on which one could project oneself. But ask yourself this, why is it that someone like Gordon Freeman already has a name, face, and background? What happens in a Fallout or Elder Scrolls game when the player chooses a dialogue option? Does the player character use telepathy?
It’s possible to have a character that you can relate to without having to go so far as making them nameless, faceless, voiceless robots. What, movies, novels, comic books, poems, and even certain kinds of music just aren’t enough proof for you? Developers just say it makes characters relatable because they’re too lazy, cheap, or scared to actually put any work into writing interesting characters.
There is one exception to the rule, however. Portal and Portal 2 were successful with its silent protagonist due to a number of factors. None of the other characters expected Chel to answer or carry on a conversation, there were only two other characters in the whole story, the other characters spoke directly to the player rather than speaking at them, the games were short and concise, and in Portal 2 at least there was a reason given for Chel not being able to speak.
But say in Half Life 2, Alex will ask Gordon a question and when Gordon obviously doesn’t say anything, Alex will burst out laughing or make some kind of retort as if he did. In a Call of Duty or Battlefield since the player character can’t speak the game has to find some other way of conveying what you’re supposed to be doing, so you end up taking orders from a private despite you being a sergeant. Black Ops is widely considered to have the best story in the COD franchise, and why is that? Because Alex Mason has a voice to which he can convey his feelings, and communicate with the people around him. Funny thing, isn’t it? How else do you explain everyone who’s reviewed Dishonored saying the story is awful yet still giving it 9’s and 10’s?
And yes, I’ll take the worst voice actor of all time over a silent protagonist.