I’m Sorry, Gordon: An Apology To Silent Protagonists

“Gordon Freeman is a silent protagonist, and I didn’t like that.”

In the original Half-Life we never hear Freeman speak but he still interacts with people, even if those interactions mostly consist of him being talked at or tapping the use key to toggle between “follow me” and “stop following me” when he meets friendly scientists and security guards. And for the purposes of Half-Life’s story, this is enough. I griped about it at the time, but not too loudly: we’re clearly not meant to think that Freeman is literally mute. It’s a narrative conceit, hypothetically allowing the player to put their own words in Freeman’s flat textured mouth.

Which as of Half-Life 2 doesn’t really make any sense, the traditional abstraction becoming harder to justify. Freeman finds himself transported to the future, and presented with a dystopian European city ruled by alien invaders he… does not ask for any kind of explanation. As “blank slates” go, Freeman isn’t entirely blank: we know he’s a scientist from the Black Mesa research facility, and we soon see that in this strange new world several former colleagues remember him. And it makes no sense for Freeman the character to not question his bizarre new circumstances, not to ask the friends he encounters to explain and elaborate on matters. And of course the writers wouldn’t even need to make Freeman speak out loud to do that: we can imagine him asking questions in much the same way that we imagine him asking people to follow him. At the time I admit to thinking that Freeman’s silence was a little lazy, an out for the writers to avoid addressing certain parts of the plot: nobody explains these things, because Freeman never asks.

The first game began as a survival scenario. It was enough to know that things had gone badly wrong and that most everyone left alive was as clueless and confused as the player may well be. Half-Life 2 upped the ante, presenting Freeman as a messiah-like figure to lead the Resistance against a multidimensional empire known as the Combine. And while the rebels had reason to assume Freeman knew what was going on, Freeman had no reason not to correct them on this. Maybe he was just too awkward and embarrassed to bring it up.

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Despite being known for their dialogue options, many classic RPGs do not feature a voice-acted protagonist: the player will customise their character, selecting their name, abilities and appearance, and then experience their lines of dialogue in the form of text. This perhaps helps a player to personalise and sympathise with their creation, to put themselves in their shoes and imagine their voice and mannerisms… and it also means less work and less expenditure for the development team. Of course it wouldn’t do to mention RPGs without bringing up the gamut of modern roleplaying games that do feature hours upon hours of voice acting. This is generally tied to a decision to feature a player character that’s already named and specifically designed (or previously established) rather than someone built from scratch by the player: JC Denton in Deus Ex, Shepard in the Mass Effect series, and of course Geralt in the The Witcher trilogy. The Witcher 3 alone, I’m told, contains 70,000 lines of Geralt dialogue, and the Mass Effect series had not one but two Shepard voice actors so that the player could select their gender at the beginning of the game. And the options afforded to each of these named characters still allows for some degree of player freedom in terms of how they speak and behave, which just makes for yet more studio time for the cast.

A more recent trend is the inclusion of voice-acted narrators. Divinity: Original Sin 2 made the decision to read out every line of text displayed in the dialogue window, so that the entries pertaining to descriptions of environments and events didn’t result in periods of silence mid-conversation. This includes the sex scenes. Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire also has narration, but only for certain points, in much the same way that the NPCs don’t have voice acting for every single line of dialogue. I don’t think either game would fall apart without the narration, but at the very least it’s memorable and it must help satisfy the players who don’t like quietly reading a novel’s worth of text.

Original Sin 2 deserves further mention because it combines the character customisation of older RPGs with the more modern trend of premade protagonists: you can select either, with the “Origin” system allowing you to play as a voiced character with their own extant motivations and sidequest(s), and the same characters can potentially join your party as NPCs if you’re not opting to play as them. It also lets you pick a party member’s class and specify all their abilities. That last part doesn’t have anything to do with voice acting, I just thought I’d mention it because it’s neat.

As odd as it might be to state after bringing up all those examples: I’ve never particularly minded silent protagonists in RPGs. Years ago I resigned myself to the impracticalities of voicing all those potential lines of dialogue, many of which might go unheard by a significant portion of players, and so when AAA-games with ludicrous budgets and dedicated dev teams set about deciding to do it anyway it was very welcome to see (and the enormous amount of effort expended shouldn’t be understated) but it’s still not something that I necessarily demand from my roleplaying experiences, especially if I’m playing as a character that I named and customised myself. Sometimes it’s enough to see that I’m asking questions even if I can’t hear them.

And you know what? Sometimes I click to skip ahead before a character has even finished speaking, simply because I’ve already read the subtitle and I’m impatient. I don’t deserve voice acting.

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In Doom (sorry, DOOM) there were no living humans left to talk to. The player character would grunt in pain or scream when he died and that was about it. The modern Doom (2016) featured a small cast capable of holding a conversation but chose to make the Doom Slayer’s silence a deliberate character trait: an angry, angry man whose response to being told to carefully deactivate machinery is to break it to pieces with all the force he can muster. Subjected to untold centuries of battle and strife, the Doom Slayer communicates through acts of extreme violence. It’s ridiculous, and it works perfectly. It certainly helps to explain why even Hell fears him.

Yet unlike the new Doom, BioShock Infinite bucked its predecessors’ trend, making the decision to give us a voice-acted, speaking protagonist. Nadia has already delved into Infinite but suffice to say this voice-acted, speaking protagonist is a jerk. We can’t shut him up or bench him as we might an RPG party member who rubbed us up the wrong way: we are him.

While sometimes voice acting can fall flat, and poor delivery can undermine lines intended to be dramatic, most problems with characters can be attributed to the writing behind their actions and motives: and this is especially true for protagonists, the viewpoint characters that the players are stuck with.

I had complained about events and circumstances going unexamined, with player characters failing to comment on or react to their surroundings no matter how much sense it would make for them to do so. I hadn’t engaged with the possibility that developers might have their characters do this and end up providing analysis that’s terrible, or that for the most part the game would expect us to nod along agreeably. I’d rather not know I was playing as such a complete ass, or worse, know that on some level the developers expected me to sympathise. Instead of asking why the player wasn’t talking, ala Gordon Freeman, we can find ourselves wishing the player character would shut up. The double edged sword of putting effort towards characterisation is that not every character ends up interesting or likeable.

Here’s a fact that I didn’t fully appreciate at the time: nobody knows how Gordon Freeman feels about his situation. Contrary to my initial thoughts on the matter I’m starting to believe that this can be a good thing. Gordon never said he cared about anyone or anything, but he also never proclaimed that the Resistance was just as bad as the Combine. Back then I’d elided the distinction between skipping something entirely or doing it badly and for better or worse, in this regard Freeman is a blank slate after all, his emotions and reactions an unknown quantity and entirely open to player interpretation.

And so we won’t interpret Freeman as a jerk who we all hate. Unless it’s funny to do so. But most of the time, no.

Gordon Freeman was a silent protagonist, and in truth that wasn’t so bad, and I owe him an apology. But it’s too late.