It’s the early-to-mid 21st century and a lot of video game protagonists still don’t talk. Even after Ray Liotta’s standout performance as noted psychopath Tommy Vercetti in 2002’s Grand Theft Auto: Vice City—a game that definitely made floral shirts cool again, I won’t hear different—there continue to be hundreds, maybe millions, of silent main characters. I don’t know, I didn’t do the research. The point is, it’s a popular and potentially hazardous design choice. You know who else doesn’t talk? Babies. And nobody cares about them. Imagine trusting a baby to save a princess. Now you want me to care about Jimmy No-Mouth who doesn’t even have cute chubby cheeks.
Caring about video game characters amid the explosions and waves of zombies or dragons or man’s unending cruelty to man is already difficult. Most of them are dead boring at best, irritating at worst. A lot of them are named Nathan or Ashley. Honestly. So imagine the uphill battle faced by a silent protagonist as they attempt to stir a sense of empathy in the cold, rotten heart of the average player.
But the smart ones, the iconic ones, they know you have to feel something physical. They know that you can fool willing people into empathising with anything if you make memorable physical contact. It’s like giving a stuffed animal a name, you can’t take it back to the shop now. That’s what makes games into games, after all: the presence of an active participant in the system. Films and books can tug the heart strings, but a video game can force you to tug them yourself. However, it’s not simply a matter of buttons to press, levers to pull, punches to knuckle into the softly rendered flesh of enemy cheeks. You can approximate the simpler stuff—pulling a gamepad trigger to pull a gun’s trigger, or pushing a joystick to move—and rely on the user’s imagination for the rest, but triggering human empathy requires something a little more special.
Take a look at this Isaac Clarke nerd, for example. He’s a space mechanic (although his Tinder bio says “engineer”) and his tongue is permanently tied. Sledgehammer Games’ Glen Schofield, creator/director of Dead Space, stated in a recent Ars Technica piece that Isaac’s silence was a very conscious choice for the sake of immersion. And to sell that decision, you needed to get under his skin; you didn’t just need to think Isaac Clarke was cool, you had to feel like you were actually him. Isaac’s design is memorable for many reasons—the iconic shutter-shades helmet, the diegetically-friendly on-suit health bar, the recognisable three-dot sight of Isaac’s plasma cutter—but these aren’t what really force you into the man’s boots. Ironically, his boots do that. Those humble foot coverings, stained with the blood of a hundred twice-dead space workers, represent the last line of defense between the protagonist and the unending body horror of the necromorphs; something comfortingly familiar to avatar and player. We’ve all seen boots, we know how useful they can be. Vigorous stomping is one of the default melee actions in Dead Space (along with a rather pathetic arm swipe) and generally gets used in one of two situations: either you messed up so badly that gyrating your dumb space foot in a blind panic, hoping to accidentally crush the nightmare skull of a motorised corpse, is your only viable option, or you found a box.
In the first case, Isaac does what any of us would do when something absolutely horrifying skitters along the ground with malicious intent; what many people do when a spider appears and is absolutely minding its own business: he flails madly and tries to use his god-given feet to eliminate the problem. The classic fear response is more endearing than, say, an accomplished martial arts move. We can’t empathise with the expert handling of a 40 kilogram minigun by Doomguy, or a perfectly executed spinning kick by Yakuza‘s Kazuma Kiryu, but a panicked man curb-stomping his boot into the floor is something anyone can get behind. The animation is desperate, the grunt is uncertain, and the effect ripples out into our whole experience as players.
We recall the boots so readily because they take a mundane object and make it powerful. Blood sprays dramatically from the point of impact and the damaged monster is generally destroyed (after maybe two or three repeats), justifying the effort. Its the effect we imagine our own boots having when we squash that spider or stomp on an errant soda can. Even when crushing boxes to find what the kids tend to call ‘loot,’ Isaac carries over some of that anxiety and violence. Sure, you could just open the box the normal way, like some sort of terran loser, or you could obliterate it with all the force of a great typhoon. And there’s always a small chance that there’s a space snake inside, ready to heck up your day, given Dead Space takes so much inspiration juice from Resident Evil 4: Snakes Everywhere Please No Who Put Snakes in All The Boxes. The boots are there for us, giving us protection, finding ammunition, making us feel safe and safe enough to be terrified in the echoing metal corridors of the USG Ishimura.
Gordon Freeman—another mute nerd—does nothing at all with his boots, and may or may not have feet, but he holds his own in the physical empathy stakes. Right from the start, his entire job is to push a cart into a laser beam, a task he completely fumbles. He has a tangible, observable effect on the universe of Half-Life, rather than simply a narrative one. Freeman pushes the trolley, aliens invade. Then there’s his weapon of choice, an item indicative of no available choice whatsoever. Yes, the crowbar has heft to it, like Isaac’s boots; yes, it’s not a bad practical choice if you’re facing shambling monsters at work; but it’s embarrassing. A constant reminder of the awkward situation you find yourself in, forced to hold a tool of someone else’s trade and wobble it unconvincingly in the direction of the enemy. The soft, squishy thunk of iron against zombie is instantly recognisable and appropriately comedic, mirroring the absurdity of poor Gordon being the last hope for humanity. For a contrasting example, look at Red Faction Guerrilla, where our hero… uh… hold on a second.
Where our hero Alec Mason (according to Wikipedia) is gifted the world’s most powerful sledgehammer and told to literally smash the state. Now nobody actually remembers the protagonist in Guerrilla—he was bald, I think, with a green jacket maybe—but they think they do, all because of that preposterous hammer and its inexplicable ability to tear chunks out of any man-made structure. On top of being a lovely metaphor for the game’s anti-corporate, anti-government messages, it allows players to feel connected to the world. In a sense, it doesn’t matter that Alec Mason is an off-white nobody; in fact, you could argue that the power being present in the hammer itself strengthens the idea that a resistance is built on many shoulders, as long as they are willing to grip the handle of battle, so to speak.
But it’s not always about the physical object or unique action. Sometimes it’s just the simple ability to touch stuff and goof around. The chance to interact physically with the world in some logical but unexpected way to increase your connection with the setting and your avatar. Consider Half-Life 2‘s junk-launching gravity gun, balancing buckets on NPC heads in Skyrim, grabbing piglets in Wind Waker so you can hurl them off cliffs.
It may blow your mind a little when I tell you Dragon’s Dogma contains characters. Don’t be stupid, you’re saying, I played that whole game and I don’t remember a single character. True, the game’s writing is dramatically weak and forgettable, to the point where your response almost loops around to twisted fascination; but you do, no doubt, remember your own character. Minutes and hours spent in what was, for the time, an extremely robust character creator, tweaking shoulder width and lip size, deciding if they should speak like a golem or a chimpmunk. And then, once you get out into the world, you’re exposed to the most exciting part of the game: you can grab things. Object, people, the gargantuan thighs of monsters. Characters can climb or ride beasts to target weak spots, or lift explosive barrels and hurl them off cliffs. The absolute best use of this, however, is picking people up. Nobody has ever played Dragon’s Dogma without grinning madly the first time they realised you can pick NPCs up and hoist them over your shoulder. Enemies, your own pawns, important characters trying to give you missions or hoping to be escorted; pick them up and watch their silly legs kick around impotently before you toss them onto the cold stone floor. Demand that they bow before you and your unblockable physicality. The genius stroke is that all of this is done using one command, an ability I like to call “use hands to do something.” Being able to reach out and wrap your meaty Arisen hands around anything you like bestows an incredible sense of presence on the player. There is never any doubt that you exist within the world and can manipulate it, even as the story mumbles forward and the various locations bleed into one another.
So some of these silent jokers have tricked us into thinking they matter, that they’re real and we should care what happens to them. And it’s no coincidence that it’s also the ones that do it in ways unique to the medium. Empathy created not through seeing them as people, or experiencing events, but by grounding them physically in their worlds and allowing players to mess with them. They’re action figures, not commemorative statues. Maybe there’s life in the mouthless protagonist trope yet.