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Solamon Blog

Why Do Games Still Use A Silent Protagonist?

Old Man (NPC): So your the chosen one, eh? Hmmm, don't look like much to me.

Golden Knight (The Player): ...

OM: And you need me give you my crystal of light so you can save us all from eternal torment?

GK: ...

OM: Well, before I do that, you need to go in this cave and kill 10 fire drakes and bring me their scales.

GK: ...

OM: You don't say much, do you?

GK: ...

OM: No matter. Come back to me when you get the scales, okay?

GK: ...

A variation of the conversation above could have taken place in any number of games with very little alteration (btw, I hate when games try to be coy by pointing out the fact that the main character doesn't speak). Old games, new games, it doesn't seem to matter; the basic structure is the same regardless. More importantly though, the above conversation illustrates one of the things about video games that irritates me to no end. One of those things that needs to be left in the annals of video game history … something you won't find in ANY other narrative driven art form... the completely silent protagonist.

First off, I'm not talking about the protagonist that simply doesn't have a voice actor yet converses though text. I'm referring to the main character who doesn't interact with the world except to kill monsters / Nazis / zombies / etc. When I was a little kid playing Final Fantasy games on my NES & SNES, I remember walking up to the townspeople, pressing A, and reading the one or two lines that NPC was programmed to tell me. Usually it was something about the situation in town I needed to fix or general flavor text designed to fill out the world and I would wonder to myself, what prompted that townsperson to say that to me? Did I walk up to him, grunt, and then stand there to listen how monsters killed his wife? Did I just stand there silently with a disturbing look on my face until I creeped him out sufficiently that he told me anything just so I'd go away? I don't understand because these tactics almost never work for me in real life. Usually when I walk up to people and grunt, they just look at me funny and hasten away.

I suppose I understand why games USED TO use the silent protagonist: memory conservation. Not having to program actual back-and-forth dialog for every single NPC conserved precious space on the very limited memory of a game cartridge designers could use for something else. Just look at anyone who attempted a fan translation of any of those old JRPGs on the SNES to see just how limited that memory is and how much they had to sacrifice in order to fit the new English dialog in (ie: "You spoony Bard!).But why is it still happening nowadays? We're no longer limited in such a strict manner. Aside from the DS, cartridges have gone the way of the text adventure.

All I can figure is that developers assume that since video games are largely a type of wish fulfillment, a way for you the player to leap into the shoes of whatever hapless protagonist said game is featuring and experience the world first hand, the protagonist should remain silent so we can better project ourselves into their role. I don't know about everyone else, but I don't have a problem stepping into a character that already has a personality. If anything, it helps me empathize because the main character feels like a real person. One of the primary reasons I play video games is to experience a life I can never lead. I want to see my dreams projected onto the TV screen in full 3D glory and guess what… I can't recall the last dream I had about being a mime.

Using a silent protagonist is holding back the development of video games as a legitimate dramatic art form. As video games have progressed from quarter-eating, high-score based arcade games of the past, where the protagonist was silent and made up of little more than a few pixels (and the most well spoken of them was Q*Bert and all he did was swear), into 15,000 polygon models (with mo-cap actors defining their movements) which we control from the comfort of our couch, the ability for video games to convey meaningful and emotional content has deepened greatly. In my opinion, video games are already the most atmospheric was of experiences a fictional world ever conceived. When the protagonist doesn't actually respond when NPC's talk to him, the resulting conversation feels stilted and unnatural…which is a huge distraction. As a thought experiment, I like to imagine a movie where the main character doesn't talk, yet everyone responds to them as if they did. Imagine "The Godfather" if Michael just walked around through the movie standing in front of people and then they'd just run off their lines. Stupid, isn't it? It's the same for story based games with a silent protagonist. Imagine trying to get into the world of Red Dead Redemption if John Marston was just named "Outlaw Cowboy" and he didn't have any lines.

Probably the most recent game I played that got me thinking about this was Homefront. Among the many other problems this game has (it was short, the graphics were only serviceable, you get stuck on every corner, it was short...), choosing not to give your character a voice was a strange design decision and one problem that could have been avoided. In this game you play as a helicopter pilot that is saved by a rebel group fighting against North Korean aggressors who have taken over America, but not once do you speak (come to think of it, I don't think they ever even show you what your character looks like). Your character just blindly follows whatever anyone else tells him to do (mostly Connor since 90% of the objectives in this game are "Follow Connor"). In a game that prided itself on it's stark and moving presentation of an America under siege, not giving my character a voice really pulled me out of the game world. I never felt like an actual part of the resistance And honestly, how hard would it have been to add some dialog for my guy to speak? The dialoge in Homefront gave me a feeling similar to how I feel when I'm listening to someone else's conversation, but for whatever reason I can't actually contribute to it I'm picking on Homefront, but there are PLENTY of other games guilty of the same sin.

Sure, there are some games that work well without the main characters speaking. Mario games for instance. Even in his RPGs keeping him silent works great. I'm perfectly content having the only words I've ever heard come out Mario's mouth be: "It's-a me! Mario!" but Mario games (and a couple other mostly Nintendo produced games) are the exception to the rule, not the rule itself. I, for one, would like to see this practice ended. It's time for our medium of choice to shed another habit from it's youth and grow ever more into adulthood. Just as we no longer use passwords to save our games, so should we be done with the silent protagonist.

Nobody is Ever Converted in a System Wars Argument

I just can't wrap my head around this system wars thing. Not in this day and age. They made a little bit of sense back in the earlier days of video gaming when systems were different enough that ports were different depending on what it was played on, but now? 95% of the games on the PS3 and 360 are the same. They share the same library. Sure, some games might be a hair better on one console or the other, but not so much that anyone really has the inferior version. Companies have developed ways of producing almost an identical product regardless of platform. You can play most of the same great games no matter what you own.

It's as if people think Sony or Microsoft is watching them and is going to hand out a prize to their most stalwart defenders. As if they are waiting for that email that reads:

"Dear 360pwn$ony, This is Steve Balmer, CEO of Microsoft Corp. I noticed your argument with SonY_BoY15 the other day and I wanted to personally commend you for defending the one, true, Microsoft way. Since you're such a huge fan, we are shipping you this tester model of the new Xbox 720 to help you get your arguments in line early for when we launch a couple years from now. Keep up the good work!"

Guess what. It's not coming. Both MS and Sony are huge multi-national corporations that really don't give a hoot about you and would gladly sell out their whole fanbase if they though they could replicate what Nintendo was able to do this generation. And this is not meant to be a statement that the Wii is somehow better. It's just that all these companies care about is selling as much stuff to as many people as possible and that is what Nintendo was able to do this time around.

Arguing about what console is better is a lot like saying "My CEO can beat up your CEO!" because that's what it boils down to: a bunch of guys in a board room deciding the best way to earn as much money as possible. Entertaining us is just a means to an end, not the end itself. They are in the business of making money. Creating and publishing games is just a bi-product of that drive. These companies have responsibilities to their shareholders to produce results and these are the people they are trying to please. Not us. If we are happy in the process, sure, all the better, but as long as we keep paying, they could care less.

I think people participate in these dumb system wars as a way to make themselves feel better over not being able to afford both consoles. Nobody wants to feel like they just spent $300 - $400 dollars on second best so they find justifications as to why what they own is superior to what they don't own. And it only gets worse as they invest more money into their systems in the form of games and accessories.

That's all it is: people trying to hide from the fact that they think they MIGHT not have the best system. And this is why nobody is EVER converted in a system wars argument. In order to be converted, a person would have to admit they were wrong (something most people are pretty terrible at), abandon the hundreds (maybe thousands) of dollars they spent on their systems, and then buy something completely different.

I call on everyone who reads this to stop with the whole "The PS3 is better! No, the 360 is better!" garbage. Especially if you are older than 13 years old. They are both totally great systems with enough differences to stand apart, but similar enough so that both markets are playing mostly the same great games. This system wars crap chokes too many of our video game forums. Enough is enough. Lay down your swords and go play some games.

Is Mobile Gaming (iPhone) Going to Kill Traditional Consoles?

Recently I read an article where the Peter Vesterbacka, maker of the hit game Angry Birds, suggested that mobile, social gaming was some how going to kill traditional, console gaming (http://venturebeat.com/2011/03/13/angry-birds-console-gaming/). I disagree. I imagine Mr. Vesterbacka is flush with confidence right about now after such a run-a-away success his game proved to be, but it seems he is confusing his growing market (casual mobile games) with our mature market (core console games). Just because one market is growing, doesn't mean it's going to kill the other, more established markets. DVDs aren't killing the cine so how would the iPhone kill the PS3? It wouldn't. Just as the theater offers something you can't get at home, traditional games offer an experience you won't get on the iPhone, iPad, iWhatever, etc.

The AppStore is based on the premise of quantity over quality. The glut of cheep software available in AppStores is actually working against the creation of deep, engaging games... as in the kind of games one would expect to find on a console or a more traditional handheld. This is no mistake, it's exactly how Apple (and others like Apple) want it. Apps are set up to be impulse buys, something a dollar can be thrown away on. Something that can be charged to your bill at the end of the month and forget about. Traditional gaming doesn't work like that.

When I look at the AppStore, I'm reminded of how gaming looked on the Atari 2600 pre-crash. Sure, the 2600 had THOUSANDS of games, but many of them were terrible and so many ended up in bargain bins that money was getting siphoned away from new games. Who would buy a new game at $50 when you could pick up a dozen new games out of the bargain bin for the same price? Worse yet, the AppStore's biggest sellers are apps that aren't even being sold! About 92% of all downloads from the AppStore are for free apps. What does this say for anyone trying to make a living here? It says that success is a large part serendipity and that to be successful you have to put out as many apps as possible, kind of like playing the lottery.

Game makers on the iPhone actually have to compete with free products. So instead of focusing on quality, they focus on quantity. They throw a bunch of quick, easy to make apps at the wall and see what sticks. Is this saying that there is another game industry crash coming? Not at all, the iPhone market is supposed to work like this. Is this saying that the AppStore is going to function as the bargain bin, drawing away people from purchasing the $50 traditional game? Not at all, as stated above, it's the difference between a throw-away impulse buy and a carefully considered investment.

If anything, iPhone-type gaming is actually going to draw more people into traditional gaming than siphon them away. It will be similar to a person who buys a piece of beef jerky and then gets a craving for a nice steak. Microsoft is already anticipating this by linking the 360 to their new Windows Phone 7. If gaming was an army, the iPhone and other mobile, social game platforms act as are our recon unit and our spies. They sneak in and get people who wouldn't consider themselves gamers to play games on a daily basis... all the while preparing their users for the inevitable charge of gaming's standing army: the console games. As people find they are enjoy their simple mobile games, they'll being to consider trying out something more substantial and maybe check out a traditional 360 game for that fancy new Kinect they bought their kids over the holiday because, "Hey, doesn't that thing (the 360) also play that Call of Duty game everyone is talking about?" After all, even the Kinect bundles ship with a regular controller.

Thinking the mobile casual market is going to spell doom for the traditional gaming market is to assume beef jerky spells doom for steak restaurants (Steak Chef: "Oh no! Who will come buy my steak now that they can eat beef jerky on the go!?" :lol:) These new devices will serve as a gateway to deeper experiences or at worst exist peacefully in tandem with traditional games. After close examination, one can see that there is no reason consoles, handhelds, social platforms, and mobile game platforms won't exist together.

Hybrid Kinect / Controller games: The Real Frontier of Video Games

Shortly after Kinect came out, Microsoft made a quiet announcement saying that games would eventually come out fusing together controller use with Kinect sensor functionality and personally, I can't wait. This is where the frontier of gaming is.

We've all heard comments to the tune of "I don't want to have to make a finger-gun to enjoy a FPS with Kinect so I'm not interested" and I completely agree so I'm writing this blog post to leave everyone with a couple thoughts on how Kinect can spice up some of our old favorite genres.

  • Imagine playing any modern day military FPS. You are ambushed by a horde enemy soldiers... far more than you would ever be able to take on your own, but to your surprise, they don't kill you. Instead, they want to take you prisoner. They shout: "Put your hands up now or die!" As the gamer you have to immediately drop the controller and put your hands in the air. Problem is, by dropping the controller, you are completely helpless. So maybe you try putting your hands up, but NOT dropping the controller. Do they fall for it?
  • Or maybe after they take you captive and are walking you to wherever they are taking you, you have to watch the screen for the right moment to slowly put your hands behind your back to pull out a hidden knife which you use to slit your captors throat!
  • Imagine playing your favorite fantasy RPG. You are defending the walls of a run down fort from an army of goblins seeking to over run the pass for which the fort is the sole protection. If your small, badly maintained fort falls, the way to the Capitol city is all but secure. Standing there on the ramparts brandishing your longbow, you and your troops begin to fire upon the goblin army as they try to push their war-towers in place... and of course, since it's Kinect, you are actually using your arms to mime your longbow's shots! In your left hand is still held a controller which lets you run up and down the rampart kicking (with your actual foot) goblin ladders off the wall, sending goblins plummeting to their doom.
  • Sticking with the fantasy RPG theme, you have just spent the last 20 hours of the game researching and reconstructing an ancient ritual that was once used in ages gone by to seal the Darkness away for eternity (or at least a while since Darkness has a way of cropping back up time and time again! ;) ). Now that you have all the magically components in place, you actually have to act out the somatic components of the ritual, using what you learned to infer what you need to do next to keep the evil at bay.


These are just a few quick example I personally can think of that I would love to see in a Kinect game... and I'm a 31 year old man! I've been gaming a LONG time (since I was 2 and owned a Pong system) and I think that, done right, Kinect can really take video games to the next level. Anybody who has been gaming for a while can attest to the fact that most games feel like they already been done before. These examples can't fully be done on anything but Kinect. It is actually offering something new and while I don't own the Motion Sensor yet, I think the horizon is looking good for this little piece of hardware.