The Silent Protagonist and its Effect on the Psyche

Something interesting I noticed about myself, and I’m curious if anyone else shares this experience.

I grew up playing a *lot* of Zelda, JRPGs and point-and-click adventure games, particularly the Sierra style with the interaction icons. Many (most?) of these have silent protagonists, and in some recent discussions with friends, I’ve come to realize that this may have been a notable formative experience that’s flown under the radar for quite some time.

In a lot of these games, you play a character who “talks” to a lot of other characters. Really, what happens is that the other characters are prompted by you to monologue at length, and the things they say can become useful things for you to do later. When you have a (rare) choice to select some kind of response option, it’s generally abstract and it falls into one of two categories: the more common “which information do I tell you next” monologue branch or the less common “choose the right answer to proceed” selection.

I’d like to contrast this with certain other major types of RPGs, specifically the ones like Black Isle’s CRPGs (Baldur’s Gate, etc), Arcanum, nearly every Bioware game, etc. In a lot of these, even when NPCs are the only characters with speaking voices, you’re making conversational choices that define your character (and, while they may get you in trouble, rarely cause a point of no return where you need to come back and choose the “right” answer from the same dialogue). I’ve played a number of these, and while they are in many ways spiritual successors to the previous, “classic” type, there’s a really subtle difference that leaks in: how you feel (and what choice those feelings drive you to make) is relevant. Not just from a “the game progresses when you choose the right answer” perspective, but from the perspective that your experience is different based on how you express yourself.

Here’s where it gets interesting for me. The classic silent protagonist goes out and does a lot of things for a lot of people without expressing his or her opinion on any of the things being done. People ask you to do things, and you do or don’t, but you don’t weigh in on them, except privately. For me, this is the sort of interaction that defined my game-playing childhood, and it happens a LOT.

While it’s not a connection I made for a long time, it’s a pretty easy hop to get from that to a developed personality that very rarely divulges what it thinks about things even when talking to people. I’ve been called a good listener because I’ll pay attention to what people tell me without judging, because I’m used to prompting (virtual) people to tell me things and acting (or not) on the information received, but not expressing any opinion on the matter.

I find that, in a lot of cases, I don’t even *develop* opinions on things. I’m generally guided by very broad tenets, rather than specific opinions– as an example, I’m in favor of easy access to birth control not because I have a particular opinion on the politics or medicine involved, but because my general tenet of “live and let live” means that I’m in favor of people having choices about how they live their lives, particularly when it doesn’t directly affect me in any meaningful way. I strictly follow a number of rules that I apply to myself but don’t hold other people to, for similar reasons. There a link there, I think, to the nonjudgmental silent protagonist whose opinions on a given subject are inscrutable at best, absent most of the time, but who behave through broad tenets that are universally applied throughout the game– help people in need, don’t harm the innocent, etc.

It’s kind of problematic as well. Slipping into the “silent protagonist” mindset is easy, and tends to cause me to just listen to people and not offer feedback unless directly asked. I also have in the past had a very bad habit of filing people I talk to in terms of how relevant they are– are they a random person on the street or are they a close trusted friend and party member? Someone being “upgraded” is generally accompanied by a bit of mental fanfare and occasionally comes as a surprise to me, where I realize that a given person isn’t in the file I thought they were. This manifests frequently in the form of people I don’t think I know very well saying things to me like “I really appreciate your advice, it was extremely helpful” which is followed in my head with “oh shit oh shit oh shit what did I say to this person I hope it wasn’t anything really stupid” because, like the random beachgoer in Costa Del Sol, I said some things to someone, they seemed pleased with the result, and I put it out of my mind.

Even typing that sounds callous to me, like I don’t care about people, and perhaps it is– while I do care very deeply about people and want to help out where I can, I tend to have conversations, offer advice when asked, and not really think about it more– again like that silent protagonist interaction with an NPC– the protagonist’s input is silent and essentially null, but is effective nevertheless, as is my own. What matters is that the person I’m interacting with gets the help/listener/actions they need, and whatever opinion I (don’t) have on the matter doesn’t really enter into it.

I remember the advent of RPGs with a distinct player voice, where my character actually had spoken lines. I saw it in the King’s Quest series first, and was heavily detached from the characters in that series because they spoke, said things I didn’t think I would say, and expressed opinions, and rather than being the self-insert that the silent protagonists were, they were more like friends who I was helping out and guiding along. In retrospect, I can’t help but wonder if the prior years of silent protagonists made me treat games like King’s Quest differently, where I silently watched and helped a character through a story but kept my opinions and thoughts to myself unless they were directly helping out.

I also remember getting into the more modern, “Bioware-style” RPG, with Mass Effect, the first one I played with a fully-voiced protagonist that I nevertheless dictated the personality of. These fit a weird sort of semi-self-insert, where I made the choices I would make, but they were spoken and done by a different person. I can’t help but wonder if these games coincided with me taking a more active role in my interactions with people– the timing is right but my memory for specifics is murky.

It’s interesting playing more explicitly silent-protagonist games now. The Persona series comes to mind, where the mostly/fully silent protagonist seems like a familiar shell to slip into, but doesn’t *quite* fit; I find myself mentally inserting my opinions and trying to express them (something the game seems to recognize and gives you the ambiguity to do, which is a big reason I like the games so much).

This blog is actually an intensely difficult venture for me, because it requires that I push back against years of childhood conditioning to listen and react to people but keep my opinions to myself unless asked, because they (in the game and in my head) aren’t relevant. Expressing an unasked-for opinion is a struggle unless I’m talking to my very closest friends (and sometimes even then).

Source: Digital Initiative
The Silent Protagonist and its Effect on the Psyche

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