I’m using video games as illustrative texts in the first year composition course I’m teaching this semester, and we’re focusing a lot of our attention on identity. It’s a topic I think about a lot, particularly when I’m playing narrative-heavy games or games that are meant to be especially immersive. I wouldn’t say I actively or consciously think about it, though. It just kind of buzzes around my head when I’m creating a new character or interacting with people in RPGs. “Would I have really said that?” I might wonder as my character says something particularly barbarous to a party member who I actually kind of like. Moments like this, in games like Mass Effect, or Fallout, or Final Fantasy make me think of the days when the silent protagonist was the default lead character in RPGs. While they’re still around, they’ve mostly been replaced by protagonists that do speak, even if prompted by specific user input. Were they better at creating immersive narratives?
Well I’m not here to answer that, but I wanted to sort of work my thoughts out about it. I don’t remember thinking about the fact that my character was ‘silent’ in NES games like Faxandau or The Legend of Zelda. It was just how things were. ‘You’ were Link, or Mega Man, or the countless and nameless other lead characters of many classic games. But when I made the move to RPGs like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy III, and EarthBound (a console generation later) I found myself thinking about my character, or ‘me’ more, likely due to how much dialogue there is in games like these and the fact that you actually interact with characters and make decisions that affect the story.
I had some things in common with Crono. We were both teenagers who lived at home and had a particularly hard time waking up in the morning. But he had pretty bulky biceps for a ‘kid,’ spiky red hair, and he ended up being pretty fierce with a katana. I had pretty average biceps, a shaved head, and was only fierce with an SNES controller. I knew I wasn’t Crono, but I named him ‘Joey’ anyway, because I wanted to pretend that I was him for the adventure I was about to embark on. In fact, Chrono Trigger was the first game I remember having a party of characters who I could name, and it is where I began the tradition of naming the main character for myself and my supporting cast for my friends and/or celebrities. It didn’t really matter if I matched up very well with the main character; I was the one playing so I was the character who would make the most difference in how the story played out. It makes sense, given that as a child I wanted to be the main character whenever I played, whether it be something with a clear main character (as with Batman action figures) or with an ensemble (like make-believe Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). It makes me wonder about roles and identity in play outside of gaming, but I’ll have to dig into that in a later blog. I’m rambling enough as it is.
James Paul Gee talks about the idea of identity in narrative games, with there being three distinct identities at play: the player, the character (a reflection of the developer’s own identities), and the character with the player’s identity projected onto it. The player brings their own identity to a game: they are, let’s say, adventurous but cautious. The character is written in a way that might be somewhat different than the player: maybe they are adventurous but brash and not very cautious. So the player projects their identity onto the character, reading those moments where the character does something brash as momentary lapses in judgement on their own (fictional) behalf. The player does not become brash in real life, and they can only make the character be cautious some of them time (because the developers choose points in the game where the character must act brashly to develop the plot how they want to).
With silent protagonists, it seems like developers are careful and very conscious of this interplay of identity. They want players to feel like they are in charge of the character’s actions and motivations, but not so much so that they mess up the game’s plot. Even in more recent RPGs, that have speaking protagonists but offer many choices for how your character interacts with other characters, you usually can’t do things that would spoil the main story of the game. You can’t simply leave the Capital Wasteland in Fallout 3, searching for a better life. You can’t build a little house on a remote planet in Mass Effect 3 and live out the rest of your days with Tali. The games give you many choices, sure, but it’s never really you in the role. You can make all of the choices that your character might make, but not all the choices that you might make if you truly had the options.
The same could be said about your interactions with characters in these games. The BioWare RPGs are especially known for giving the player a host of dialogue choices and relationship options when it comes to your party members, but again, you can’t truly say whatever you want. If you’re trying to woo Dragon Age’s Morrigan, who is easily offended and put off (but worth the effort, because holy crap, I mean, come on), and you say something that angers her, the game doesn’t let you immediately apologize or try and smooth things over. Usually, you’ve blown your chance to advance your relationship with her and have to wait for the next opportunity to try again.
I’m not trying to make a point about limitations and reality, because I understand that for every player action, the developers have to code for a reaction, and coding for enough reactions to cover the breadth of human creative input is impossible. I’m just thinking about how these choices impact the player’s sense of projected identity. Games that allow you to choose how you interact with the game’s social world and shape your relationships with party members almost certainly make for a more immersive identity experience, even if it means that the character will say and do things that the player doesn’t necessarily want them to. Silent protagonists allow the player to fill in the blanks, imagining what the character would say to party members or how they would react to plot events. This may allow for a different kind of immersion, but it seems difficult to argue that it would be more effective than the characters that you create and use to carry out conversations with party members.
I’m also a little curious about why they’ve fallen from popularity, especially in western RPGs. They were, at one point, a bit of a punchline (as many tropes end up), but I don’t recall hearing many complaints about their use in games like Dragon Age: Origins, Knights of the Old Republic or The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. It will be interesting to see if their use declines further, and even more interesting to see if they make it to the (eventual) virtual reality RPGs. With language detection becoming more widely used, I can easily imagine an RPG that shows you your dialog choices and gives you the option of saying them out loud. Anyway, I’m rambling again. I’m not so silent about this topic (see what I did there?), and I could go on and on, but I just wanted to work some of my thoughts out for later use.