Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The blessing and curse of silence: on voiceless protagonists

One of the most remarkable and interesting things about the just-released Dead Space 2, a game which has received accolades both for its storytelling and artistry in horror and tension, isn’t the fact that the game has received a visual facelift, or that the monsters are more terrifying than ever, or that the play is better balanced.  What struck me, rather, in examining some of the pre-release information on the game, but especially after coming into contact with the game itself, is just how different Dead Space has become now that its protagonist is fully-voiced.  The world of gaming has a fairly long-standing tradition of silent protagonists, including veritable lineages of heroes who speak with their actions, not words, and rather than continue in that direction, Dead Space has left those ranks, presumably in the interest of moving its narrative forward.

Isaac Clarke’s decision to open his mouth isn’t one that has implications for fans’ conceptions of the character, however.  Rather, the decision to move away from a silent protagonist has greater, farther-reaching consequences than that.  Dead Space draws heavy inspiration from two games in particular, Half-Life and System Shock 2, which are also well-known for having voiceless heroes.  In this article, I will examine those two games in order to understand the effect a silent protagonist has on a game’s design and narrative, and ultimately, how Dead Space, and games in general, are changed much more significantly by the decision.

Half-Life

The original Half-Life is one of the most influential games of the last twenty years, notable for being among the first shooters to set its gameplay not within nondescript castles and spaceships, but to create a believable, lived-in world that was itself used as a way to further the game’s story. In Half-Life, players take on the role of Gordon Freeman, a scientist working at the top-secret Black Mesa Research Facility; disaster strikes when a teleportation experiment results in the facility being overrun with hostile aliens.  As Gordon, players have one real goal: to escape the facility using both firepower and brain power to overcome the aliens, the facility’s increasing stages of degradation, as well as the government troops which are called in to “erase” the mistakes made by the science team.

Throughout, Gordon never says a word, and yet Freeman is one of the most fondly-remembered characters in all of gaming, a curious phenomenon considering that Gordon himself only really appears on the game’s box artwork and in the main menu screen – the game never breaks its first-person perspective, right from the beginning.  How can a character who effectively has no personality and nothing to say to others even be considered a character at all?  And how can players’ relationships towards him be so deep and affecting?

 Players likely absorb more of Gordon's personality from
promotional artwork such as this, than actual in-game events.

The reason, it occurs to me, is that players aren’t fond of Gordon Freeman himself; rather, they are fond of the experiences they had while in his HEV suit.  Gordon is not a military man, or (at least on-screen) a genius, or a romantic, or even much of a male to begin with.  Almost any and all traits about Gordon can be inferred not from the things Gordon does, but from the way players interpret the game world and the comments of other characters.  “Catch me later, I’ll buy you a beer”, a security officer tells the player.  Gordon’s locker features a number of unimportant items, yet appropriate for a scientist.  A colleague mentions “delays in the project again”.  The world, the characters and the dialogue are at once specific, but also open and abstract enough to allow for nearly anyone to put themselves in Gordon’s shoes.  Thus, it’s misleading for players to say they like Gordon.  What they really mean is that they like how Gordon facilitated their journey through Half-Life.

Yet despite Gordon’s lack of speech, the game and level design in Half-Life is so phenomenal not simply because it creates good gameplay out of convincingly real environments, but because it always provides a plausible reason for why he never opens his mouth.  The vast majority of Half-Life’s character interaction occurs early in the game, and during this time the player is ushered on as quickly as he or she arrives, on account of Gordon’s tardiness.  The subsequent dialogues in the game come mostly from characters who the player has no direct access to: scientists behind closed doors, a voice over a radio, soldiers who chat amongst themselves but open fire as soon as they detect the player, and so on.  Those that the player talks to more directly often have no reason to linger, as they themselves are also in the process of hiding, running, and, of course, meeting grisly ends.  The various characters that populate Black Mesa serve both a way to visually communicate danger and story to the player (scientists lined up and shot by soldiers, security personnel wounded by a new alien foe, etc.) and to inform the player of game mechanics or provide hints on how to proceed.  They are functional in terms of guiding the player along, but their purpose is served as soon as their lines are spoken.  Few would benefit much from any additional dialogue.

 Funny, I can think of another protagonist whose whole
shtick was his self-awareness and in-game commentary...

What’s more, the dialogue in Half-Life is constructed in such a way that the potential responses Gordon would make are so inconsequential as to be easily abstracted out – other than an “okay” or “thanks”, the player is never left with the feeling that Gordon is “too quiet” because there’s never a compelling enough reason for him to talk in the first place.  Even if he were to have a voice, what would he say?  “Wow, that was a big explosion”?  “Ouch, that looks like it hurt”?  “Holy [expletive], this is messed up!”?  Such lines would totally weaken the game, and risk turning it into a parody, especially considering it’s a mostly solitary journey.  Even in situations where a voice might be useful, such as in the event of the player’s injury, Gordon’s voice is instead substituted by that of his HEV suit, which informs the player of potential hazards and communicates in-universe when ammunition and health are low.

Half-Life is a game whose story and narrative progression come not from gross amounts of exposition, but as a natural product of the player’s exploration and goal of survival in a hostile environment; Gordon says little because the environment already says all it needs to, and because were he to speak, he’d simply be mirroring exactly what the player is already thinking.  Valve were extremely wise to make Gordon a mute; the decision plays to the strengths of Half-Life as a visceral, personal experience, rather than an interactive film, as many games today aspire to become.

System Shock 2

Many of System Shock 2’s strengths mirror those of the original Half-Life.  Taking place aboard the Von Braun, an experimental faster-than-light spaceship, the player character is an unnamed soldier who has modest field experience in the military, which the player is able to tailor in order to influence his or her various starting skills and abilities.  In System Shock 2, the player is even more of a literal blank slate than in Half-Life  – all the more appropriate for the RPG-style upgrade system that offers up the ability to upgrade the player’s “cybernetic rig”.  After a disaster of unknown origin damages much of the ship and either kills or transforms the crew into monsters called “The Many”, the player must follow the commands of a Dr. Janice Polito, who sends orders via radio; the player has little choice but to obey.

System Shock 2 is, of course, most famous for its major plot twist during the second act (which I intend to spoil, so fair warning!).  The gravity of seeing Polito revealed as SHODAN, the quasi-dominatrix bitch-AI villain of the first game, and of the player coming to the realisation that he or she has been working for the enemy all along, can’t be understated.  Betrayal is, of course, a universal language, and so that alone should be enough to make players’ blood boil, but I’d like to take things a step beyond such rote storytelling tropes, and posit that the reason why this moment is so important and effective is actually precisely because of the silence enforced upon the player.

 Peeping in on the spirit world is pretty much the closest
thing to "character interaction" the player does in System Shock 2.
System Shock 2 resembles Half-Life in that the player must explore a lived-in world that has been hit by disaster and decay, but the mute protagonists in both games serve very different roles.  In Half-Life, a number of contrivances were required to ensure Gordon’s silence, as his dialogue would be redundant or ultimately useless to advancing the story, and potentially even damaging to the experience.  System Shock 2, meanwhile, places the player in a world where he or she is totally isolated.  There are absolutely no characters the player can actually interact with in any non-violent manner.  Rather, the player is occupied by ghosts of the events leading up to the disaster, audio recordings left behind by the former crew, and the radio instructions of Dr. Polito/SHODAN, as well as others later in the game.

In System Shock 2, as a result, the player is never author of his or her own experience with respect to the story, and never feels that way – it is only action that the player has control over.  Although the game gives a lot of freedom in how the player solves problems and deals with the challenges presented, the objectives are wholly forced upon the player.  When told to reroute the power at a particular terminal, or to turn on the ship’s engines, the player doesn’t have a particular understanding of why the request is made, and no real explanation is given – nor can the player request one, either.  The persona of Dr. Janice Polito, and later SHODAN, is that of an insistent, almost childish woman who cannot be placated; no matter what the player seems to do, it’s never enough to satisfy her, and despite successes, she grows increasingly frustrated, antagonistic and demanding as the game wears on and the player is made to perform more and more dangerous tasks.  When the player finally reaches Polito, only to find her dead body and the enormous, self-indulgent image of SHODAN floating above, the realisation strikes home so soundly not because the player has been betrayed, but because he or she is reduced to nothing before a god.  The player, a “mere insect”, cannot even speak; the privilege has been forcibly denied by the game’s design, as well as the narrative.

 SHODAN: villain, murderer, god-queen, cyber-dominatrix, and... weakling?

SHODAN’s insistence upon making the player do everything for her, however, ultimately ends up being her downfall.  SHODAN is a powerful, malevolent and wholly imposing villain, but she is also a wordy, self-obsessed, implacable one.  Her goal, the destruction of The Many, the bio-engineered life form responsible for the disaster on the Von Braun, and her own former “children”, is something that she cannot accomplish due to lacking a physical form.  The player, who goes on to defeat The Many and, later, SHODAN, is able to succeed not through the power of insults, or demands, or any words at all, but rather, through action, the one thing that SHODAN is incapable of performing herself.  The player’s resistance to SHODAN is not something of finesse, or logic and reasoning, but brute force.

Thus, System Shock 2 doesn’t use the imposed silence of its protagonist in order to render the player as a blank slate for the purpose of building a customised avatar, or for railroading the player down a particular story path without needing to provide an excuse for doing so.  System Shock 2’s use of a silent protagonist, instead, is utterly fundamental to the impact of the game’s central plot twist, and, ultimately to what the ending symbolises: the victory of deeds over words.  Of course, the suggestion that raw, “masculine” firepower is the solution to “feminine” talk and idleness has problems of its own, but that’s a topic for another day.

“I shouldn’t have said anything...”

The first Dead Space was a success largely because of the way it was able to blend a horror atmosphere and sense of isolation with action-oriented gameplay.  Effectively a continuation of Resident Evil 4’s game mechanics, but set to System Shock 2’s futuristic aesthetic, it leveraged its silent protagonist by once again leaving him as a blank slate – beyond being male in a rote industrial job, players had very little sense of Isaac as a character.  Even when he was made more human by the suggestion of his past relationships, these were typically abstract enough that most players could identify with him, without being pulled out of the experience or suddenly made aware that it was “Isaac’s story” and not “my story”; the fundamental line between self and other was not crossed.

For Dead Space 2, however, Isaac has become a fully realised character.  His past is now far more fleshed out, his role in the story is less of an outside observer and more of a fundamental player, and he is wholly identifiable as white, male and American.  Of most consequence, though, is that the division between the self and other has been breached.  Whereas Dead Space was focused around the player and his or her exploration of a terrifying, hostile environment, Dead Space 2 is focused around Isaac’s own endeavours; the player is largely just along for the ride.

 Isaac's girlfriend Nicole was probably the
closest thing he had to a personality prior to Dead Space 2

I want to stress that this doesn’t necessarily make Dead Space 2 a worse game, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that the narrative is weaker, or that players can’t connect to Isaac as a character.  However, the relationship between the player and the game has been shifted radically, and has dire implications for the future of the franchise.  Dead Space is no longer about the player and the science fiction universe, it’s about just another white male American with a history of personal anguish.  The language players use to describe their interaction with Dead Space as a franchise has been irreversibly changed.

In any case, I hope this article has served its purpose as a thorough analysis and has highlighted some of the important ways in which the protagonist of a game can vitally change the direction of that game, from its narrative, to its level design, to its mechanics, and to its central meaning and message.  What matters to me isn’t that games have silent protagonists or not, but rather, it’s that developers, as well as fans and critics, are sensitive to the impact such decisions have on the experiences they have.

2 comments:

  1. Personally, I think silent protagonists are a bit of a contrivance, but you do raise some good points. If you haven't already, I'd suggest watching an old episode of MASH from the seventh season called "Point of View". It's shot entirely in first person, and for most of the episode, the main character, who is a patient at the hospital unit, can't speak at all.

    If for no other reason, it's a good contrast between television and video games.

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  2. Thanks for the comment! It can absolutely be a contrivance to use a silent protagonist, especially in cases when there is a lot of character interaction going on. Obviously the rest of the game's structure needs to back up having a silent protagonist, otherwise it's going to fall flat or come across as awkward. That's why it works so well with Half-Life, which is focused largely on exploration and survival, while the cracks began to show in Half-Life 2 as Valve took the game in a more story-focused direction.

    Choosing to go with a voiced character has its share of problems, though, namely that the player really loses out on that "blank slate" effect. Playing as Gordon Freeman, our choices in the game world are our own and we don't feel like we're directing an individual separate from ourselves; were he to have a true personality, a voice, and so on, our authorship over the experience would be damaged.

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