Thanks for reading, adventurers!
“Hey hey, hold the phone, what the heck was that? Certainly not a post!” Of course it was a post! Obviously I was communicating incredibly valuable and entertaining information in the manner of a silent protagonist. Does that not work for bloggers, too? Alright, alright, I’ll use my words.
Today’s post is the last answer to a question from the Charming and Open event. If you want to see all the questions I’ve answered this week (and some of other folk’s answers to my questions), then you can click this link to head to the masterpost and see everything. The final question was asked of me by Athena of the blog AmbiGaming. While you wait for her answer to my question, be sure to check out her blog – I particularly recommend this discussion on whether or not games are intentionally aimed at specific genders.
Athena’s question to me was this: “what is your opinion on silent versus voiced protagonists, in regards to the player ‘connecting’ or identifying as the character?” That’s a big question and honestly I’m pretty sure there’s only one way to solve it – A BATTLE TO THE DEATH!
Here are the rules. I’m choosing four characters for each camp: four silent protagonists and four voiced protagonists. While the games I’m selecting from are of varying genres, they share the common theme of having enough story elements that I should be able to theoretically connect with the character. My plan is to compare characters either from similar genres or who play a similar role – I’m not gonna compare a super serious character to a really goofy one, for example. Whichever camp has the most victors will be the one that comes out on top. Oh, and remember, this is NOT “who would win in a fight,” but “which character do I connect to more?” This isn’t Death Battle. So don’t flame me with comments about how so-and-so could totally kill what’s-his-name. Are you ready, adventurers? Let’s get to the battle!
CHARACTERS YOU CREATE – ROBIN (FIRE EMBLEM: AWAKENING) VERSUS THE DRAGONBORN (THE ELDER SCROLLS V: SKYRIM)
A popular trend in modern gaming (particularly in western RPGs) is to have characters that you design from top to bottom. And while many such games don’t really give that character a voice, or they give you dialogue options but never cause the lines to be spoken out loud, there are some games that give a fully fledged personality to the character. For this category, we’re gonna compare Robin from Fire Emblem to the Dragonborn from Skyrim.
When it comes to customization, the Dragonborn EASILY wins out here. With Robin, you basically name the character, pick a gender, choose from like five preset appearances, and then choose a voice actor. With the Dragonborn, you can literally customize every feature from race to hair style to facial hair to body type to nose bridge length. But does being a more customizable character make the Dragonborn a more identifiable character? Do I connect more to a character that I create from top to bottom?
My answer is no. While The Elder Scrolls, or Fallout, or any game in a similar vein allows me to create a character that is totally mine and even choose dialogue options to match, what I end up with is just sort of a weird extension of myself. I don’t CARE about that character. At all. I care so little about the Dragonborn, in fact, that I have never completed the main quest line of Skyrim. The fact that the Dragonborn is a blank slate is exactly why I care absolutely nothing about the character.
Robin, on the other hand, has predetermined dialogue and a predetermined personality created by the developers of the game. But Robin’s character is very easy to identify with. (S)he has no memories of the game world due to amnesia, which means that this character is meeting all of the characters and learning all of the aspects of the world right alongside you. Robin is determined, but careful, and has a thoughtful personality brimming with wit and intelligence. When I learned Robin’s true history and origin, it mattered to me. Conversely, I care so little about the Dragonborn’s true history and origin that I’ve never even bothered to progress the main story past learning the Fus Ro Dah shout. Voiced protagonists take this round: a character that’s totally customizable visually needs to have a set personality, or I’ll just feel like I’m playing as a generic nobody and form no attachment.
Winner: Robin for the Voiced Protagonists
GOOFY CHARACTERS – MARIO (SUPER MARIO RPG) VERSUS PHOENIX WRIGHT (ACE ATTORNEY SERIES)
Some games have a distinct sense of humor that really sets them apart from other titles. For me, two series that capture just how fun and funny games can be are the various Mario RPG titles and the Ace Attorney series. But is the silent hero Mario a more hilarious protagonist than the objection-shouting defense attorney Phoenix?
Kind of a running joke with Mario in his RPGs is that because he is silent, he has to figure out different ways to communicate. None of them capture this better than Super Mario RPG, where he does charades Courage the Cowardly Dog style, turning into whatever he is describing and going through a ridiculous series of motions to explain situations to other people. Even his buddies who talk get in on the action and help him with the charades! These sections are funny and they successfully communicate what’s happening in a way that goes by quicker and is a lot more pleasant than traditional RPG dialogue.
Then you have Phoenix Wright. The Ace Attorney games are all about dialogue, the back-and-forth of the courtroom and give-and-take of investigating witnesses. Phoenix navigates all of that with dumb luck and persistence. He’s great at puns and wordplay but not quite as great as his opposition in the prosecution, and our insights into his thoughts show that he isn’t always confident in where he’s going with his arguments. But it’s his determination in the face of unblinking opposition that leads us to cheer for Phoenix – and come on, who doesn’t love a good pun?
So which one edges out? I think both of these games do what they do very well. Super Mario RPG makes a very intentional choice to have a silent protagonist and owns it. Ace Attorney is all about dialogue and the main character is an enjoyable one whose words are a key part of the experience. Honestly, this one is really difficult for me – both of these characters are great and they both capture the idea of the goofy hero well. I’m going to give a slight edge to Phoenix here – both characters are funny, but this challenge is about connecting with the character and it’s easier to identify with Phoenix than with Mario.
Winner: Phoenix for the Voiced Protagonists
CHARACTERS WHO ARE PURE AND GOOD – OLIVER (NI NO KUNI) VERSUS LINK (THE LEGEND OF ZELDA)
While some games allow us to play as miscreants who make the world a worst place with rampant crime and intentional destruction, some games place us in control of a character who is the pinnacle of righteousness and purity. These characters are ones for us to aspire to be like – they represent the best of humanity, what we could be if we constantly presented ourselves with integrity. Two such untainted characters are Oliver from Ni no Kuni and Link from The Legend of Zelda. But who shows more strength of character – he who speaks or he who is silent?
Oliver is a child whose innocence is lost when a terrible accident takes his mother away from him. He’s given one glimmer of hope – if he travels to the magical world of Ni no Kuni and rescues his mother’s soulmate (not the romantic kind, more like a parallel version of her from an alternate reality), it could revive her in Oliver’s world. Determined to reclaim his mother from death, Oliver journeys to Ni no Kuni and uses his powers as a wizard to help the broken souls of that magical kingdom. Oliver is a sweet kid who just wants his mother back, but a horrible turn of events reveals that this isn’t going to be possible for him. He is temporarily cast into self-pity, but quickly rises above his personal desires and does what’s right for the good of Ni no Kuni and his own world.
Link exists in many games, but his story is always the same. A relatively normal, sleepy kid is chosen in some manner when darkness covers the land. A terrible evil has risen to claim the golden power of the Triforce, and only a hero can rise up to wield the sacred Master Sword against the wicked menace. This hero must travel the lands, helping everyone he can and honing his courage and skills with a blade in order to prove himself worthy and take down the evil presence in Hyrule once and for all.
With Oliver, we get some insight into his character through his dialogue. We see his highs and we see his lows. The points where his purity falters, where he questions the path of goodness – we as the player are aware of those moments and can empathize with Oliver’s struggle to do the right thing when it is hard. As for Link, we see none of that. Just his stoic march forward through the kingdom of Hyrule, his quiet determination and unblinking courage in the face of evil. So who is the purer, braver, gooder of these two heroes?
In this category, I’m going to have to hand the trophy to Link. Oliver is not a flawed protagonist by really any stretch of the imagination. He’s a good kid, innocent despite the tragedy in his life, and he overcomes the temptation to give in when he discovers that his personal, more selfish goal can never be achieved. But while we see Oliver waiver, Link is a constant paragon of courage and goodness. He is what we strive to be, a true hero worthy of being reborn again and again in a never-ending legend. His silence allows us to see him as nothing more and nothing less than courage personified.
Winner: Link for the Silent Protagonists
JRPG HEROES – CRONO (CHRONO TRIGGER) VERSUS LLOYD (TALES OF SYMPHONIA)
When it comes to roleplaying games, eastern RPGs are the ones that I prefer and have a lot more experience with. The open-world western RPG experience tends to have too little story, too much focus on just doing whatever in a vast empty world. I like a story-driven game, and JRPGs have characters of all sorts. Some of the most recognizable JRPG protagonists are Crono from the celebrated classic Chrono Trigger, and Lloyd Irving from the GameCube era hit Tales of Symphonia. But who do I feel more connected to?
Both of these young men are just typical village kids thrown into a crazy, world-saving journey. Both are skilled swordsmen whose abilities make them valuable to teams dedicated to making change. Both are eligible bachelors with different characters who are drawn to them. The main difference is that Crono’s story is told through his actions and through the words of other characters, while Lloyd can speak for himself.
Crono’s value to the party becomes clearest when he is no longer a part of it. Crono, in a sacrificial decision to save the life of a young woman, dies at the hands of the monstrous being Lavos. This devastates his allies and they become determined to find a way to bring Crono back from the dead. When the party reclaims him, the emotional reunion between him and Marle is truly touching.
Lloyd is an impulsive young man who has a lot to learn about the world. He can’t solve all of his problems by swinging a sword at things, but just because some enemies can’t be fought doesn’t mean that some values should be compromised. Lloyd is determined to approach every situation looking for the best possible outcome, no matter how illogical it is or how impossible it seems. It is because Lloyd refuses to settle for anything less than the optimum outcome that he is able to lead others to create a better world.
Both these guys are great characters, and it’s hard for me to make a choice in this bout. Chrono Trigger is a classic and Crono is an iconic silent protagonist that I feel a connection to. But I think the key point here is that the connection I feel to Crono is not a result of Crono himself – it’s because of the words and deeds of the characters around him as a reaction to his death and resurrection. His silence doesn’t endear him to me – the way others feel about him does. Lloyd endears himself to me through his words, and so I give him the victory here.
Winner: Lloyd for the Voiced Protagonists
THE FINAL RESULTS
If you’ve been counting, you can see at this point that Voiced Protagonists have won the day. When it comes to connecting with characters, generally I find that those with a voice trump those who don’t have one. A character with a voice is more likely to have a fleshed-out backstory and personality, and I connect with that on a much deeper level than I do with a blank-slate character that is just supposed to be me in the game world.
While silent protagonists are a staple of video games and there are certainly silent protagonists who have distinct character and personality even without a voice, when it comes to creating a character that people really care for and connect to, protagonists with a voice take the cake for me.
What do you think about the subject, adventurers? Do you prefer silent or voiced protagonists in your games? Does it depend on the genre, or the style of character? Let me know in the comments, and thanks for reading!
I think it’s merely a question of, “am I supposed to control a character, ” or “am I supposed to project myself into this character.” Overall, I prefer the latter.
In the Ys series, they always refer to Adol (your character) in the third person (“Adol explains what he just discovered in the cave.”) I think this is a good way to handle playing a role – I don’t like when my character starts speaking, for the most part. I did not like Tidus in FFX.
Good question though!
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One thing I see a lot of silent protagonist games do is just skip over the player character’s dialogue. Many of the Zelda and Mario games are like this – it isn’t that the character is literally silent, it just doesn’t put words in their mouth. Ultimately, I think it’s different strokes for different folks, and I certainly don’t dislike silent protagonists by any stretch of the imagination.
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For some reason I didn’t see this! I’m so sorry!
Thanks for answering! That’s so interesting; I think a strong case can be made for both silent and voiced. I tend to like silent protagonists, since I can give them a voice myself, which helps me make the character “mine.” But I can completely get behind a voiced character providing more details for you to empathize with, as well! Like Geddy, I like projecting onto the character or “becoming” the character, although there are plenty of voiced characters that I absolutely adore, as well!
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No worries! If I was smart I would have commented back to people when I answered their question, haha.
This was a tough question in that I don’t dislike either silent or voiced protagonists. Both types of protagonist can be done incredibly well – but a poorly done voiced protagonist is easier to identify with than a poorly done silent protagonist, in my view. I think for me a big part of why I prefer voiced protagonists is because I am also an avid tabletop gamer – if I want to create a character that is truly mine, tabletops give me way more freedom to do that than even the most customizable of video games. Still, both kinds of characters rank amongst my favorites, and I think the fact that so much discussion can be drawn out of it shows just how compelling of a question you’ve presented here.
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There are definitely pros and cons to each! You make a good point about table-top games. I’m sadly not a part of that world (…yet?) but I can see how other somewhat-created characters could still not feel like they are completely “yours” compared to that!
I’m glad you liked the question, and I appreciate you taking the time to answer! Mine will be up soon!
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Looking forward to it!
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