Theories of a Gamer – The Protagonist

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Are you familiar with the “Valve Narrative Formula”?

Y’know, the “Valve Narrative Formula”. It goes like this: your game is a first-person shooter where the only evidence for your character’s identity are the arms that carries the guns and possibly the reflections you see in mirrors/portals. Other than that, the protagonist is embarrassingly silent through their entire stressful ordeal, presenting the non-player characters as the almighty bearers of total narrative structure and progress.

Gordon Freeman from Half-Life and Chell from Portal are mirrors of the player, meant to say nothing and meant to be nothing besides a moving camera for the player to experience the story unfold around them. A story, I might add, that would have been radically different had the main character been given a voice with which to protest and reason. I mean, from nerdy nuclear physicist in a hazard suit to a one-man global-alien-regime-toppling army? Only in a video game. In fact, I would make the argument that Half-Life 2’s real protagonist is Alyx Vance, because the real character development (and loss of family, spoilers I guess) belongs to her – if Gordon Freeman lost family to the Resonance Cascade and subsequent Seven Hour War, he never remembers it in a flashback or reacts to it and the player never sees evidence of it. And for Portal 2’s case, I think you’ll find that GLaDOS is the one that develops from a cold and calculating AI murderbot to a cold and calculating AI murderbot that allows Chell her freedom. For GLaDOS, that’s saying something.

Most voiceless protagonists (especially the ones who use bigger and ever bigger guns to do the talking for them) are placed in a world where reason and compromise have been thrown out of window. For the Doomslayer, there are no words that will eradicate the forces of Hell (or force the enigmatic Samuel Hayden to back down from exploiting Hell for its power). For Samus Aran, you can’t talk your way out of a metroid’s maw (unless you make her into an overly dramatic and badly written character like in Metroid: Other M). For Chrono or Serge from Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross, let’s face it… your friends are going to talk for you, just nod and say yes (but they might just abandon you once you’re dead anyway). And as it turns out, Link is either too early to save Hyrule (Ocarina of Time), too late (Wind Waker), or just plain under-prepared (all of them, but especially Breath of the Wild for plot reasons), but he gets the courage to fight all the same.

Everyone has the same argument. Which one is better: a voiced protagonist that holds the plot hostage just like a movie or first-person novel protagonist would, or a voiceless protagonist upon which the player can mirror themselves and make their own decisions? And then what about voiced characters that speak according to the choices you make? Does the fact that Lara Croft and Nathan Drake can speak make Tomb Raider and Uncharted any less fun? Does the voiced protagonist in Fallout 4 take you further into or further out of your immersion? Does a voiceless protagonist make you wonder what your motivations are supposed to be beyond “do thing, get loot, level up, hooray”?

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Onward, Epona #75! I can’t afford to pay 1,000 rupees to the Horse God!

But instead of all those well-trod arguments, let’s instead turn the voiceless protagonist trope on its head: what if you have a main character that is an absolute chatterbox, won’t stop talking to himself (or herself) about everything he (she) observes and experiences, makes all the decisions for himself (or herself)… and is surrounded by “NPCs” that have no voice, no emotion, and no personality? Or, better yet, what if they develop a personality based on the kinds of inputs and interactions the player has around and with them?

Could this be fun and entertaining, or in the very least, not annoying?

A game that comes to mind first off (that is certainly not annoying) would be What Remains of Edith Finch and other games that could be called “walking simulators” . The narration in the game comes solely from Edith revisiting her childhood home for the first time in many years, and retelling all of the stories she heard and lessons she learned while living there as a child. But that kinda breaks the rules, as all the other characters presented have “voices” all their own as you learn their stories. No, I’m talking about a game where the characters have little to no personality besides what the player can reflect onto them instead of the other way around.

The first type of this game that comes to mind is a person who starts off sane, but starts talking to random objects around their office/cubicle/workshop/tool shed/submarine/nuclear launch bay/presidential bunker and gives them personalities by talking to themselves at first, then to the objects themselves as they go slowly insane from boredom or isolation. The isolation would be necessary to maintain an excuse for the lack of actual active NPCs, and the tone could turn anywhere from comedic and light-hearted “oh look the shiny red button is talking to me” madness to tragic “why won’t all the voices stop” madness. I think a game like this would either require a very talented team of writer/designer/programmers who know how to take dialogue and mix it up so that every game is a unique, player-driven experience, or a team of writer/designers working to tell a very specific story about isolation, mental illness, the power of boredom, or all of the above. An example of this (but only kind of) would be the Lab Rat comic from the Portal series; poor Rattman has only one friend in the whole world left, and he slowly hears the voice of his bestest friend in the whole world (the Companion Cube) go silent right when he needs him the most after he takes his antipsychotic meds.

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The Enrichment Center reminds you that the Weighted Companion Cube will never threaten to stab you and, in fact, cannot speak. In the event that the Weighted Companion Cube does speak, the Enrichment Center urges you to disregard its advice.

Another idea that comes to mind would be more akin to the whale from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxya character that is so brand-new to the world that they start giving names to objects they see, and then giving them personalities based on what you think they do (naturally everything will HAVE to be taste-tested first). I think it would be rather silly to be in control of an infant learning about the world while the thoughts going through the baby’s head sounded very excited and slightly British, but that’s just my enthusiasm for Douglas Adams. Again, it would have to take place during a period of isolation, in a crib or a playroom, some place without other active NPCs. Maybe you can meet an object that hurts you or smells bad, creating a negative personality that then calls you bad names, making you upset enough to cry and call for Mom, which would reset the experience. Again, you could set the tone to be light-hearted and funny or as tragic and terrible. It reminds me of Among the Sleep if you’re angling for horror, as experiencing a dark and stormy night as an infant can be a very frightening experience.

Just a thought exercise, that’s all. What other ideas come to mind when you play a chatterbox protagonist surrounded by mute companions?

Edit: It just occurred to me that my theory put into practice could produce something like Bubsy 3D. Heaven help us.

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