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?
OM: Well, before I do that, you need to go in this cave and kill 10 fire drakes and bring me their scales.
OM: You don't say much, do you?
OM: No matter. Come back to me when you get the scales, okay?
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.