Friday Night Rants: The problem isn’t silent protagonists; it’s inactive ones
(Turns out I was busy Friday doing a livestream. Oh well… one more day isn’t TOO late, is it?)
Friday Night Rants is a series of often long-winded commentary on certain issues that are split up into digestable chunks and spruced up with the occasional helping of humor. The opinions throughout reflect those of the author, Michael Urban, and not necessarily Velocity Gamer as a whole.
Imagine picking up a book right now (or film, or graphic novel, or whatever) in which the character has no control of their journey. Other characters explain the plot to them and tell them where and when to get to all the significant plot points. They save the protagonist from being incinerated in the opening and then provide them with the rusty spatula to stab the villain with during the climax. Not once does the protagonist get to speak up and propose what to do next. If they do, another character yells “Shaddup, foo!” in their best Mr. T voice and the hero agrees like the submissive little bitch that he is.
Would that not be the most boring, uninvolving book/film/comic/porno ever? I believe the answer starts with the letter Y.
And yet, this generation, countless video games have done this. They’ve put you in control of a character without actually GIVING YOU CONTROL of them. And since nobody likes being on a leash and dragged around without any say in the matter, this leads to immense amounts of boredom the likes of which would rival a dry lecture on Macroeconomics.
It wasn’t long into this generation when the plot of practically every FPS grinded my gears until their pegs wore off. For some reason, they were just so boring.
At first, I thought this was simply due to the silent protagonist trend. Yeah, that had to be why? Those personality-deficient assholes! Screw them! In fact, screw all the games they’re in! They’re like Tom Cruise, infecting every story they touch with their blandness and lack of charisma.
Except… I’ve enjoyed some of those games. Quite a few of them, actually. The Fallout and Elder Scrolls series, Dear Esther and Half-life 2, among others, are all games whose narratives I thoroughly enjoyed, despite starring silent characters.
That’s when I realized that it wasn’t necessarily the fact that they were silent that was turning me off. It was something else, something deeper and more fundamental…
jerking off wracking my brain for long enough, I finally found it. The real reason most silent protagonists are more boring than a glass of water:
They’re not Pro-Active. They’re Reactive.
By that I mean, they simply REACT. They don’t act on their own. They only exist to serve other characters and do what THEY say.
First, lemme tell you I’m an aspiring screenwriter. Yes, take a minute to laugh and mock me. Go ahead.
Finished? No? Ok, another minute then.
Finished now? Ok, let’s move on.
I’ve quickly learned that the cardinal sin any writer can perform is making a protagonist that is not in control of his ultimate fate. Oh sure, a protagonist can still have flaws. Ideally, they should have some in order for there to be a character arc and room to grow. And of course, they should have obstacles they have to deal with. That’s called conflict, and it’s pretty damn important to a story. However, here’s the thing:
Ultimately, they have to deal with those flaws and obstacles by themselves.
Yes, a protagonist can have help. That’s ok; everyone needs help. Like, for instance, shitty game writers who don’t how to write proper characters.
But at the end of the day, when they’re forced to confront both their worst flaws and the worst villains, they have to stand up for themselves, goaddamnit.
They can’t have support characters babysitting them the whole time, telling them which generator to blow up or which place to investigate. And if they ABSOLUTELY must, then there has to be some other, more urgent goal they’re actively trying to achieve.
Imagine if right now, Barack Obama wasn’t doing anything to help the economy (well ok, some would argue he already isn’t, but let’s all pretend that he really isn’t for the sake of this metaphor).
Random legislation bills magically fall out of the sky into his hands, which he then proposes. Biden has to go make all his speeches for him. He accidentally trips over a mystical rune, unleashing fairies onto the stock market that go sort everything out for him.
Does that sound like the kind of president you’d vote for? Probably not; you’d end up voting for Biden or the fairies instead. Or a Biden fairy.
And if theoretically such a person would not be fit for the role of the president, what makes developers think that a person of similar ineptitude would be fit to save the fictional world of a videogame?
We like our heroes to have flaws, but we also want to them to be capable role models that we admire and whom we can learn from. And trust me, there’s nothing to learn or admire from a guy who sits on his ass all day waiting for others to solve his problems for him. I’ll tell you right now; even if such a character had a voice, they’d still be uninteresting. That, my friend and enemies, is the true underlying problem with silent protagonists.
You see, many developers say that a silent protagonist is more immersive than a voiced one because it allows players to project themselves onto him/her. I disagree with the immersive part, since a well-written likable character will be easy to follow anyways. But you know what, there’s something to be said for imprinting yourself on a character. It allows you to shape their journey and personality. It’s certainly appealing, and if done well, it can be just as engaging as a voiced hero.
Problem is, it’s not being done very well at the moment. The lack of a voice is just being used to hide the fact that the hero has no crucial role in the story around him.
So, why has this been happening? Why have so many game plots begun starring characters with no control over their actions? I think I have an idea:
The On-Rails Blockbuster Mentality Gone TOO FAR
“Cinematic, my dear Watson,” said lead designer Sherlock Holmes to one of his employees during the development of a game. Unfortunately, Sherlock was no Sherlock; at one point he failed to realize that they focused on spectacle so much, they ended up hurting the whole game as a result.
It’s no secret that games are trying to emulate bombastic Hollywood films in many ways. The enormously bloated budget is one such instance, but another is ERMAGOD, SET PIECES!
Set pieces are explosive and exciting events where something really cool happens. Here’s the problem, though; they’re scripted. They’re designed by someone else, and there are a lot of prerequisites for them to happen. You have to be facing X location, standing at X spot, at X time, etc.
Pretty soon, developers found out that the easiest and laziest way to make set pieces work is to simply have the hero follow a support character. That support character would lead you to the set pieces, pretty much acting as a tour guide. Pretty soon, it became mandatory to follow these guys; The mission would fail if you didn’t. And soon after, entire game plots were built around these characters as they practically steered the plot themselves.
Another reason this might have happened is the trend of dumbing down and linearizing everything. Lately, developers seem to think that we have rocks for brains and that we can’t play a game unless there’s a person within that game telling us where to go. In other words, hand-holding. You know who has their hands held? Toddlers. And toddlers do not make for strong heroes, I’ll tell ya that.
But you know what, not all games are like this. We’re going to take a look at some good examples of the silent protagonist in action, right after we look at some bad examples.
This is one for the history books, kids. And not in a good way.
Syndicate already gets bonus points by not really being about anything for the first half of the campaign. There’s really no overarching plot to speak of, and the first three or so hours play like a series of routine everyday assignments carried out by you and your partner. You could have been out fetching lunch for your co-workers at Eurocorp during those hours and little would have changed later on.
However, the real problem is that Miles Kilo is a submissive nobody. Despite being implanted with the most high-tech chip imaginable, he never really does anything. You partner, Agent Merit, calls all the shots during those missions and gives you your objectives. He actively pursues a rival agent, sets up reconnaissance tools to spy on somebody, and otherwise coordinates everything, leaving you the table scraps and petty tasks to complete for him.
Why don’t we get to play as Merit himself? He seems to be the more active one in these missions, with actual goals. Oh wait, set pieces and hand-holding. Right. I apologize, Starbreeze Studios. Please, I insist; borrow my controller.
Despite playing as an ex-military pilot, you have very little power in Homefront. In fact, the whole game seems to take a perverse pleasure in restricting you and framing the narrative around your friends.
10 minutes in, you’re rescued by resistance fighters. Then you’re taken to their base, and from there they send you on various missions for the rest of the game. In fact, they often group up and have discussions about what they’ll send you off to do next. That’s right; your best friends are treating you like a dog on a leash before your very eyes. I feel like I’m a hostage in a chair while my kidnappers discuss which of my parents to make the ransom note to first.
The support characters also seem to have the only actual goals here. Throughout the game, they periodically take time to argue in front of you about what they should do next. If you were actually one of them, participating in those argument, it would obviously be exciting and involving. However, since you have no say in their squabbles and must simply watch, it just feels like a waste of time. You know, just like a bystander in a real argument.
Then there’s the ending. I won’t spoil it, but I will say that one of the support characters does a brave heroic deed to save a bunch of people. Meanwhile, you get to stare at the credits feeling uninvolved and unrecognized. That’s ok, game. I didn’t need to be rewarded for my time with you or anything.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3
In this third entry of the Modern Warfare series, it’s established that Price and Soap are on a personal missions to kill Makarov. Exciting, right?
Too bad you play as some other dipshit. Yuri, a Russian Ex-Spetsnatz. You’re forced to accompany Price and Soap on their missions and help them out. However, why do we have to play as him if he has nothing personal to gain from killing Makarov? It’d be like playing as Weaver in Black Ops. Why can’t we play as Price or Soap? Oh right, hand-holding. You know what? You can keep my controller. I won’t need it during your game anyways.
Turns out Yuri does have a personal reason for hunting Makarov. Too bad it’s revealed near the end of the game, is slimly justified, and involves ret-conning the previous games in order to work.
There’s a reason the final missions of MW3 is the best one in the game. SPOILERS You play as Price, and you finally hunt down and kill the man that you’ve been actively searching for in two games. In other words, a satisfying ending to an otherwise dull game. SPOILERS END
Oh gosh, there’s too many other bad examples. Here, lemme list some more for you:
Dishonored. Crysis 2. Singularity. F.E.A.R 2. Bioshock 2. Dead Space. The list goes oooooonnnnn…..
The worst part is that many of these are still great games thanks to their gameplay. Yet their stories are content with leaving you to wallow through the shadow of more interesting individuals and their actions.
But enough of that depressing ranting. For once, I’ll actually praise something on this feature.
Fallout: New Vegas
From the minute New Vegas starts, your character is directly involved in the plot. As a courier, you get betrayed by your client and left for dead. After the doctor of a nearby town briefly nurses you back to health, he wishes you luck and lets you go to pursue the man who shot you. BY YOURSELF. ON YOUR OWN TERMS.
That’s right. You’re not some random guy who the hero enlists to help him. You’re not some butler or errand boy who has no choice but to assist someone. Instead, you ARE the hero. You have a personal goal. Now go accomplish it. You can get help along the way, but it’s ultimately YOUR journey.
It’s true that there are a lot of support characters in Half-life 2. However, rarely do they do tell you to sit down and do your tasks for you for you. Instead, they simply aid you. And they respect you while doing so.
From the onset, Gordon Freeman is admired. Everyone seems to look up to Gordon as the savior of humanity and trusts that he knows how to handle himself. Your teammates all treat you as an equally important part of the team and acknowledge that you’re useful.
You know that part when you have to get the rocket launcher from that resistance commander? He first asks who would like to volunteer to use it, then hands it to you. This implies that he either thinks more highly of you than the others, that everyone else is too afraid to accept the responsibility, or maybe both. In any case, it’s empowering.
Sure, you NEED that rocket launcher in order to succeed. You NEED the gravity gun and the H.E.V suit. But they’re given to you so that OTHER characters can help YOUR cause, not the other way around. Gordon is on a mission to stop the combine, and he largely has to do it himself. He lives up to his name: He’s a free man.
And then there are mishaps that you yourself must get out of. YOU got out of Ravenholm, with only occasional help from Grigori. YOU escaped during that first mission when Combine were chasing you. YOU, YOU, YOU.
As players of video games, we deserve better than playing as rookies and servants. Why would we settle for playing as Alfred when we can play as Batman? Why should we be providing the tools to the fixer when we can be that fixer?
As humans, we have egos. We have a desire for attention, as well as being in power. And you know what? That’s ok. That’s EXACTLY what games should try to appease.
A game should put you in control. It should allow you to have fun within its world as well as accomplish something within it. Whether you’re playing as a voiced protagonist or a silent one, you should have a role in shaping their journey. And the various NPCs, the ones who are digital entities made of 1s and 0s, should not be the ones who get to have all the fun.
Yet that’s exactly what’s happening. Games are becoming strict parents; planning your life for you and not allowing you to fully branch out and adopt your own pro-active personality. The stories games tell now barely have you in it. Instead, they make you re-active; responding to other people’s motivations. And they make your character silent in the hopes that you’ll overlook this and go along with it.
The next time you play as a boring silent protagonist, ask yourself: Do I dislike the fact that he/she is silent, or the deeper, underlying problem; that I’m not allowed to do anything in the game’s plot?