Tuesday, September 8, 2020

General RPG Lists: Best Silent Protagonists

To reveal, here and now, that I generally don’t like silent protagonists is probably not going to blow your mind, for a couple of reasons. The first, of course, is that I’ve already mentioned my disdain for the concept in the past, multiple times. The second, though, is that I can’t really believe that there’s anyone out there who has so strongly positive a feeling about non-verbal protagonists that they’d be scandalized at the idea of another person disliking them. Oh, sure, there are many gamers who don’t mind the idea of pouring 40 - 100 hours into a title without once getting any indication that the protagonist around whom the narrative world turns is in the slightest way invested in what’s going on around him,* and even some who buy enough into the bullshit rationale that a silent protagonist is easier to put oneself into the shoes of as an audience that they actually do have a mild appreciation for the concept. But is there anyone out there, really, who strongly enjoys and appreciates silent protagonists, who is an actual, enthusiastic fan of them? I dare to presume there is not.

But if there is, then this is the rant for you, baby! Because today we’re gonna look at the 5 best silent protagonists in RPG history (as far as I know it), and appreciate these rarities whose reticence actually benefited their game!



5. Sasha (Severed)

As I mentioned back in my rant about why Fire Emblem 16's Byleth is terrible as a silent protagonist, there are a few rare occasions in which a hero’s silence can accentuate a game’s atmosphere and mood. I specifically noted the Metroid series’s Samus and Undertale’s Frisk** at the time as examples. Well, Sasha is another specimen of this phenomenon: much like Samus, the fact that Sasha never utters a word as she embarks on her unhappy quest effectively accentuates the darkness of the game as a whole, the pain of what she has lost, the discomforting solitude of a desperate stranger in a hostile world, and the loneliness Sasha feels as a girl used to the constant, supporting presence of her family now violently forced to survive on her own. And it’s worth adding that though she never expresses herself verbally, and we rarely even get to actually see her (since the game’s point of view is first person), Sasha’s emotional personality is shown quite well in Severed, through the subtle context of the game’s events and world, and the few visual glimpses we do get of her in its course. So with Sasha, we get a protagonist whose character still manages to come through adequately without words, and more importantly, a heroine whose muteness actually works to her game’s benefit, working with and emphasizing the aesthetic of Severed in an effective way.


4. Mario (Mario Series)

It kills me to credit silly, cheery, kid-friendly Mario more highly than Sasha. But honestly, I just can’t see a way around it: as a hero who says nothing, Mario does what he does pretty perfectly.

See, it’s like this: Sasha’s taciturnity reflects and benefits much of how Severed wants to present itself, and that’s a definite advantage. And that advantage isn’t outweighed by the inherent downside of a silent protagonist (a severe detriment to the character’s ability to express themselves and undergo character development), because Severed mitigates that downside very skillfully. But that benefit to Severed isn’t extreme or anything; it’s a good thing, not a great thing. Mario, on the other hand, doesn’t really benefit RPGs like Paper Mario 2 or the Mario and Luigi series with his penchant for being non-verbal...but that lack of speaking also, amazingly, completely avoids being an obstacle for his character’s expression, and actually becomes a signature personality trait.

Nintendo (and Squaresoft, in the old SNES Super Mario RPG) manages the near-impossible with Mario, and transforms the fact that he never really engages in any dialogue in his RPGs or most of his other games into a strength, rather than a weakness. He’s visually expressive to such a great degree that whether he’s volunteering to help out in Paper Mario 2, babbling incomprehensibly in sort-of-but-not-really Italian gibberish in the Mario and Luigi series, or showing his readiness to start kicking ass and taking names by walking forward while swinging his fists in Super Mario RPG, there’s never any question in an RPG starring this lovable little guy of what he’s feeling about what’s going on, nor of what he’s trying to tell others. Mario has a definite, demonstrable personality in each game he’s a part of, and always having to communicate his thoughts through expressions, gestures, and motion never hinders him the way it does almost all other silent protagonists. And his games don’t shy away from it, either; they frequently go all in on his participation as the game’s hero during discussions.

Super Mario RPG actually had Mario be the one who gives recap exposition to other characters who need to be brought up to date on current events. RECAP EXPOSITION! That’s arguably the most straightforwardly verbal form of storytelling there is! But by having Mario do energetic pantomimes of what had gone on, and some inexplicable but fun shape-shifting to show the other characters that had been involved, Squaresoft not only made the guy who never says anything a perfect vehicle for describing his adventures thus far, but also made the player actually look forward to the occasions in Super Mario RPG where a recap was needed. Name me a single other game, show, movie, whatever in which you, as an audience, have looked forward to the next moment you’d see a character or narrator give a rundown on previous events that you’d already seen. I mean, by Desna, imagine if Xenogears had had Mario instead of that fucking chair--it might have actually been an enjoyable game!

So anyway, yeah, that’s why Mario trumps Sasha. Sasha is a benefit to her game, and full credit to her for it, but her game also doesn’t require very much of her as an interactive individual. Mario, on the other hand, has to pull his narrative weight as a member of a highly expressive cast in every RPG he’s a part of, and he turns his inability to articulate a full damn sentence into a strength rather than a weakness, a lovable quirk of his character rather than a lack of one.


3. Pogo (Live-A-Live)

Pogo (as well as the rest of this list’s occupants) is 1 of the great wonders of the RPG world: a silent protagonist who actually has a reason not to say anything. Much though I may like Mario, there’s no actual in-universe cause for him to only speak Charlie Chaplin, and while one certainly understands why Sasha wouldn’t be especially chatty, there is, at the same time, no particular reason why she wouldn’t at least occasionally have a thought to share verbally. Pogo, on the other hand, has every reason in the world not to have a single line of dialogue, because he’s a caveman living before the invention of a spoken language! EVERYONE in his chapter of Live-A-Live says nothing.

Of course, even if it’s a strong point in a character’s favor, just having a reason not to be speaking isn’t enough on its own to qualify for this list. If it were, that terrible failure Byleth would be here, heaven forbid. But much like Mario, and some other decent silent protagonists who didn’t quite make the cut for this rant, Pogo is an expressive, active part of his story even without the ability to speak to others, employing actions and expressions to get across what his thoughts and reactions are. And it works very well, not only by its own virtue, but also with the aiding factor that the entire story of Pogo’s chapter in Live-A-Live is being narrated, as such, by everyone else involved. Where other decent silent protagonists still stand out as strange for being surrounded by normal characters who actually speak their pieces, Pogo fits in naturally when everyone else is equally non-verbose. Also, I pay the folks who made the prehistoric chapter of Live-A-Live extra due, because for them to be able to so effectively tell Pogo’s story with such tiny sprites to work with (even by SNES standards, LAL’s character models are miniscule) shows a heck of a lot of talent. I really wish a character like Pogo, with both cause for no dialogue and a personality that shines through well enough without it, could be the standard for silent protagonists.


2. Red (Transistor)

Now see, this is how you do it! Red’s inability to speak is a consequence of the major event that sets the entirety of Transistor’s events into motion, and a significant component in the player’s understanding of her situation--since she was an incredibly poignant singer famous for her voice prior to the game’s opening, the fact that she’s lost the defining trait of who she is and who she was to others helps to emphasize the tragedy she’s suffering. Her silence is even better a symbol of her loss, and a symbol of what the antagonists have been destroying in their attempts to save, when the game contrasts it against her haunting, soulful music, which we get to hear as part of Transistor’s soundtrack. Finally, Red’s being a mute allows us the pleasure of the unbroken narration of her companion and lover, Subject Not Found, whose one-sided conversation with Red as the game goes on is well-written as to personalize both of them better than most other RPGs can manage to develop characters who can both speak to each other. It also allows for an interesting physical representation of Red and Subject Not Found completing one another, as she has lost her voice and he has lost all but his voice, and of how much they need one another for that fact, for Red’s voice was the most important part of her, and as the man who protected her, physicality was similarly Subject Not Found’s most important quality (narratively, at least).

Ultimately, Red’s inability to speak isn’t just a quirk, or solely an element of the game’s aesthetic. It’s a moving part of her character and her story, and Transistor would be far less artful and powerful otherwise.


1. Amaterasu (Okami)

Red’s silence may be the most artistic and meaningful, I must admit, but...awww, heck, how can you possibly outdo Amaterasu as a silent protagonist?

One of the many, many ways in which Okami soundly beats The Legend of Zelda at its own game is by also having a notably silent protagonist...but one who, in fact, SHOULD be unable to talk, and whose silence is actually noticed by other characters, rather than inexplicably ignored. While Link’s perpetual inability to communicate with anything beyond grunts and surprised or determined expressions has never been given explanation nor remarked upon by a world in which all other members of his race can communicate verbally, Amaterasu’s a wolf, and is thus reasonably restricted to barks, howls, whines, and the like. Not only that, but the fact that she can’t speak for herself to human beings actually, wonder of wonders, affects her interactions with people and the way the events of the game play out. This is a protagonist whose silence is actually real, not just for us, but for her, as well, as a part of her world.

Because Ammy is a wolf, the normal, almost-impossible-to-avoid downsides of lessened opportunities for characterization are largely minimized--your expectations for development of an animal character are naturally different from your expectations from a human (or appropriate equivalent) character. But even if they weren’t, the creators of Okami also went out of their way to create a strong, demonstrable personality for this furry sun goddess that smartly uses her voiceless actions and expressions as a springboard for a cleverly comical personality--Amaterasu is about as amusingly irreverent a deity as you can possibly find outside of the Kid Icarus franchise. And it even works within the confines of her being a canine; Ammy shows her lack of interest in serious dialogue and over-long exposition by laying down to nap right in the middle of other characters’ speeches in a very doglike fashion, for example. Additionally, Ammy’s creators put in the time and effort with her reactions and conduct the way few silent protagonists’ creators do--even when, for example, the writers at Nintendo try to make Link seem slightly more human than a piece of furniture, they only do so by having him give facial and/or grunt reactions to immediately, forcibly engaging events, major happenings that surprise or dismay him, or call for him to look determined to succeed, stuff like that. Amaterasu, on the other hand, acts and reacts with enough frequency and to enough variety of stimuli that she feels authentically integrated into the story she stars in, a character within rather than just a mere tool of the narrative.

Also, gotta say, Amaterasu gets bonus points from me for the fact that she’s a good example of what I’ve wanted for ages from an animal character. Granted, she is far more sapient than an outright animal usually is, so I guess maybe she's not quite the definition of what I want more of in animal characters, but I think it's safe to say that intelligence or no, her general behavior, mannerisms, and personality are very authentic to a wolf or dog, far more than to a person.  So she’s not just the best example of 1 rare, tricky character trope, but also a great representation of another..

Lastly, I’d also like to point out that Amaterasu is a great match to her boisterous, loud companion Issun. Again, we see how much better Okami is at The Legend of Zelda’s tropes than TLoZ ever has been. TLoZ frequently attempts to cheat its way around the shortcomings of forcing Link to be silent by pairing him up with a talkative companion who speaks to him and at least some other characters frequently about what’s happening--Navi, Fi, ghost Zelda, that stupid boat, etc. This way Nintendo doesn’t have to find a creative solution around the impediment they’ve pointlessly imposed upon themselves, by instead having a voice that’s more or less always there in the game with the protagonist without actually being his. Well, Issun is that character to Amaterasu, and true, he is, ultimately, as much of a narrative cheat as any of Link’s companions. But unlike most of LInk’s companions, Issun is more than just a voice there for the writers’ convenience--he and Amaterasu actually interact with each other, and have a bond that you can see change and grow over the adventure’s course. While the most you can get out of Link most of the time is a stoic acknowledgement that Tatl or 1 of the other companion entities exists, Amaterasu pays attention to Issun, and reacts to him, such as stepping on him when he’s annoying her. He’s not just a convenient mouthpiece for her, he’s actually a character she acknowledges, reacts to, and works alongside over the course of the adventure. I’ll grant you that Link did once manage something similar with 1 companion, Midna, but there still was far less of a connection there than Amaterasu has with Issun, and it was still far more 1-sided (Midna did 90% of the work in selling the player that she and Link had any sort of dynamic connection).

For that matter, it’s more than just bad examples of silent protagonists that Amaterasu and Issun trump in this case--as great and even beautiful as the connection between Red and Subject Not Found is, it isn’t very interactive. Really, Subject Not Found’s lines are closer to monologue than dialogue; he has no greater influence on or interaction with Red during Transistor than the narrator did with The Kid in Supergiant’s previous game, Bastion, and that was a case of the narrator describing what The Kid was doing as past events. Amaterasu and Issun, on the other hand, are partners in real time.

So yeah, basically, Okami is a case where a protagonist is actually supposed to be silent. It uses Amaterasu’s silence as an opportunity to create a well-defined personality that, while pleasingly unexpected, fits her like a glove, rather than as an excuse not to develop her at all, as most writers would and do. And it more than makes up for its cheat with companion Issun by making sure that Amaterasu is an involved, important part of that dynamic. Amaterasu is the best silent protagonist, paws-down, and I desperately wish RPG developers would take cues from her on how you make an unforgettable character in spite of, nay, because of her silence.


Honorable Mention: New Kid (South Park: The Fractured But Whole, and South Park: The Stick of Truth)

The New Kid’s almost completely unbroken silence doesn’t make her or him a better character, it gets in the way of her or his ability to develop or form dynamic relationships with the rest of the cast, and it’s a noticeable impediment to several key plot points, such as the New Kid’s supposed ability to connect to and become besties with anyone she or he meets. The New Kid is, basically, a great example of what makes a narrative problem, rather than anything beneficial to a game.

And that’s all great, because as much as they are about poking fun at fantasy stories and comic book tropes, these South Park games are also all about mocking the conventions of RPGs. So yes, all the standard, immersion-breaking problems are present with the New Kid, but they’re there intentionally, so that the games can frequently make jokes about it, like having characters deliver exposition to the New Kid and then stand expectantly, waiting for a verbal answer that’s just never coming, before awkwardly moving forward. It’s often enough that there’s enough humor to make the silent act worth maintaining for the whole game, yet not frequent enough that the joke ever became stale to me. And frankly, even if it had, the final payoff to the New Kid’s reticence at the end of The Stick of Truth still would have made it worth it.

And I suppose it’s only fair to mention that even in being a parody of the silent protagonist trope, the New Kid is still a better specimen than most silent protagonists, because The Fractured But Whole actually DOES provide a few bits of characterization for her or him in the scenes we get of her or his unhappy home life, which even provides a tiny bit of explanation, perhaps, for the New Kid’s unwillingness to talk. Yeah, South Park is good enough that even their damn joke characters are a bit better than the standard.

I’m a sucker for in-genre jokes about RPGs, and The New Kid’s a great example of someone actually recognizing the silliness of silent protagonists, and making an amusing critique of it.

















* “Why “him” only, you sexist pig, women can be protagonists too!” you fire vehemently in my direction, perhaps. Well, because it’s really quite rare that a dedicated female protagonist (as in, a protagonist who is only a woman, not one which the player can choose to play as a man or a woman) is also a silent one. I don’t know whether I was right the first time I noted this years back in joking that there might some unconscious link to the old stereotype of women being chatty, or if perhaps the idea of a woman in a leading role is still relatively new enough that a writer is only going to think to do it when he/she gives enough of a shit about his/her game to also want that leading role to have actual dialogue, or if it’s another reason altogether, but the fact is that a silent female protagonist is just a very uncommon thing to find. And, more amusingly, it relates to my original sentence above even less for the fact that the only 3 invariably-female silent protagonists I can immediately think of are actually on this list as silent protagonists who don’t suck.

...Which is odd, thinking about it. What are the odds that of all silent protagonists, 3 of the 5 best ones would also happen to be all 3 of the definitively female ones (of which I’m aware, at least)? I don’t think it’s from any bias on my part; my reasons for their placement are pretty solid, I think. Hm. Peculiar.


** Frisk was a strong contender for this list, but Sasha just barely edges Frisk out for the fact that Frisk’s silence is a powerful tool for creating the terrifying and disturbing ambiance of a Genocide playthrough of Undertale, but it doesn’t really do all that much for the Pacifist path. I mean, it’s not useless or anything; there’re certain benefits it has in connection to Frisk’s personal history, but its benefits are mild at best. Since Sasha’s silence benefits her game in its entirety, rather than just 1 of 2 main paths (and the lesser of them, for that matter), she makes the list.

3 comments:

  1. I pretty much agree with all of these, so I don't have much of interest to say about them. I can't say that I like Issun very much, though--I spent half of Okami wishing that he'd talk less!

    As far as female silent protagonists go, I guess they can be more interesting (they're still better if they talk, the same as male silent protagonists). I've probably mentioned it elsewhere on this blog, but I find Maya Amano an interesting silent protagonist in Persona 2: Eternal Punishment. Her silence is incredibly eerie and off-putting if you play Persona 2: Innocent Sin before Eternal Punishment, as she's very talkative in the first game. I'm not sure how deliberate this effect is on Atlus's part, though; they probably just made her silent since she's the main character in the second game, and the main character's got to be silent in all of their Shin Megami Tensei and Persona games. The effectiveness of Maya's silence was probably just a dumb fluke.

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    1. Issun definitely had to grow on me, but I did like him in the end pretty well. But I can certainly see how someone wouldn't.

      I still have to play the earlier SMT Personas. Should probably move them up the queue.

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    2. I haven't played Persona 1 (the PS1 version has a horrific localization and I never got a PSP), but I like both Persona 2 games (why they're both called Persona 2 is beyond me). The earlier Personas are totally different from their social dating sim sequels...which is kind of a good and a bad thing, in my view. It's refreshing to not have social links, and the narrative benefits from the absence of the calendar--the pacing is much tighter, as there's no dead space where you might finish a month's task and are stuck waiting weeks for the main story to resume. Still, I like the social links, which can have some excellent character development, so I sort of missed them when I played the Persona 2 games.

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