Don’t Speak: Silent Protagonists

I’m using video games as illustrative texts in the first year composition course I’m teaching this semester, and we’re focusing a lot of our attention on identity. It’s a topic I think about a lot, particularly when I’m playing narrative-heavy games or games that are meant to be especially immersive. I wouldn’t say I actively or consciously think about it, though. It just kind of buzzes around my head when I’m creating a new character or interacting with people in RPGs. “Would I have really said that?” I might wonder as my character says something particularly barbarous to a party member who I actually kind of like. Moments like this, in games like Mass Effect, or Fallout, or Final Fantasy make me think of the days when the silent protagonist was the default lead character in RPGs. While they’re still around, they’ve mostly been replaced by protagonists that do speak, even if prompted by specific user input. Were they better at creating immersive narratives?

EarthBound Ness

Well I’m not here to answer that, but I wanted to sort of work my thoughts out about it. I don’t remember thinking about the fact that my character was ‘silent’ in NES games like Faxandau or The Legend of Zelda. It was just how things were. ‘You’ were Link, or Mega Man, or the countless and nameless other lead characters of many classic games. But when I made the move to RPGs like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy III, and EarthBound (a console generation later) I found myself thinking about my character, or ‘me’ more, likely due to how much dialogue there is in games like these and the fact that you actually interact with characters and make decisions that affect the story.

Chrono Trigger

I had some things in common with Crono. We were both teenagers who lived at home and had a particularly hard time waking up in the morning. But he had pretty bulky biceps for a ‘kid,’ spiky red hair, and he ended up being pretty fierce with a katana. I had pretty average biceps, a shaved head, and was only fierce with an SNES controller. I knew I wasn’t Crono, but I named him ‘Joey’ anyway, because I wanted to pretend that I was him for the adventure I was about to embark on. In fact, Chrono Trigger was the first game I remember having a party of characters who I could name, and it is where I began the tradition of naming the main character for myself and my supporting cast for my friends and/or celebrities. It didn’t really matter if I matched up very well with the main character; I was the one playing so I was the character who would make the most difference in how the story played out. It makes sense, given that as a child I wanted to be the main character whenever I played, whether it be something with a clear main character (as with Batman action figures) or with an ensemble (like make-believe Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). It makes me wonder about roles and identity in play outside of gaming, but I’ll have to dig into that in a later blog. I’m rambling enough as it is.

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James Paul Gee talks about the idea of identity in narrative games, with there being three distinct identities at play: the player, the character (a reflection of the developer’s own identities), and the character with the player’s identity projected onto it. The player brings their own identity to a game: they are, let’s say, adventurous but cautious. The character is written in a way that might be somewhat different than the player: maybe they are adventurous but brash and not very cautious. So the player projects their identity onto the character, reading those moments where the character does something brash as momentary lapses in judgement on their own (fictional) behalf. The player does not become brash in real life, and they can only make the character be cautious some of them time (because the developers choose points in the game where the character must act brashly to develop the plot how they want to).

Dragon Age Inquisition

With silent protagonists, it seems like developers are careful and very conscious of this interplay of identity. They want players to feel like they are in charge of the character’s actions and motivations, but not so much so that they mess up the game’s plot. Even in more recent RPGs, that have speaking protagonists but offer many choices for how your character interacts with other characters, you usually can’t do things that would spoil the main story of the game. You can’t simply leave the Capital Wasteland in Fallout 3, searching for a better life. You can’t build a little house on a remote planet in Mass Effect 3 and live out the rest of your days with Tali. The games give you many choices, sure, but it’s never really you in the role. You can make all of the choices that your character might make, but not all the choices that you might make if you truly had the options.

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The same could be said about your interactions with characters in these games. The BioWare RPGs are especially known for giving the player a host of dialogue choices and relationship options when it comes to your party members, but again, you can’t truly say whatever you want. If you’re trying to woo Dragon Age’s Morrigan, who is easily offended and put off (but worth the effort, because holy crap, I mean, come on), and you say something that angers her, the game doesn’t let you immediately apologize or try and smooth things over. Usually, you’ve blown your chance to advance your relationship with her and have to wait for the next opportunity to try again.

Morrigan

I’m not trying to make a point about limitations and reality, because I understand that for every player action, the developers have to code for a reaction, and coding for enough reactions to cover the breadth of human creative input is impossible. I’m just thinking about how these choices impact the player’s sense of projected identity. Games that allow you to choose how you interact with the game’s social world and shape your relationships with party members almost certainly make for a more immersive identity experience, even if it means that the character will say and do things that the player doesn’t necessarily want them to. Silent protagonists allow the player to fill in the blanks, imagining what the character would say to party members or how they would react to plot events. This may allow for a different kind of immersion, but it seems difficult to argue that it would be more effective than the characters that you create and use to carry out conversations with party members.

Visas Marr

I’m also a little curious about why they’ve fallen from popularity, especially in western RPGs. They were, at one point, a bit of a punchline (as many tropes end up), but I don’t recall hearing many complaints about their use in games like Dragon Age: Origins, Knights of the Old Republic or The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. It will be interesting to see if their use declines further, and even more interesting to see if they make it to the (eventual) virtual reality RPGs. With language detection becoming more widely used, I can easily imagine an RPG that shows you your dialog choices and gives you the option of saying them out loud. Anyway, I’m rambling again. I’m not so silent about this topic (see what I did there?), and I could go on and on, but I just wanted to work some of my thoughts out for later use.

Final Fantasy XV Forever

I spent the last two weeks of my winter break playing as much Final Fantasy XV as I could. I’d hoped to beat it before the semester started and things got busy, but of course that didn’t happen. I’ve since completed the story, using every scrap of free time I had, but it still wasn’t enough. FFXV is the kind of game that I don’t want to stop playing. I don’t want the game to be over. Luckily, this entry in the series is in line with some of the old-school Final Fantasy games in that it has tons of post-game stuff to do, like super hard dungeons to conquer and ultimate weapons to hunt down and wrestle from the jaws of some particularly nasty creatures.

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I’m sad just thinking about not having anything left to do once I complete my last few objectives. I’m currently grinding AP to unlock some of the pricier Ascension skills that I feel like I’ll need to take on the hardest secret dungeon in the game and Adamantoise, the enormous turtle that apparently takes hours to defeat. That will take care of the ‘big’ things, so if I’m really feeling depressed about finishing I’ll just have the high level hunts left to do.

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Prior to the game’s release I avoided virtually all hype or even discussion about it. I learned the dangers of buying into hype long ago, so for games I’m already excited for, I play it safe and stay away from news and previews (I still get burned, on occasion, but it’s pretty rare). There’s something about the purity of experiencing a game with little expectation. Anyway, I say this because I’m glad I avoided previews and reviews, because apparently some people really didn’t like the game (or some parts of it, anyway), and I can’t help but wonder if seeing that stuff ahead of time would have subconsciously affected my enjoyment of it. Would I have gotten to the section that seems most harshly judged and been looking for it to be bad, making me appreciate it less? Retrospectively, I don’t feel the way others do about that part of the game. I won’t be too specific, in case anyone except Russian bots (thanks, Google Analytics) reads this, but the complaints are mostly based on the sudden change of pace and a change in your party’s line-up. That’s sort of a Final Fantasy thing, though. It doesn’t happen in every game, but some of them definitely have major shifts in pace when the world map becomes inaccessible due to apocalyptic events, or cases like FFIII (VI), where you are forced to split your party into three groups for the final dungeon. Sure, it was a little annoying because I was so used to having my friends back me up in combat, and a little quiet because they weren’t there to add color commentary, but the change in atmosphere felt purposeful. I was on my own, a little anxious about what I’d have to face, a little worried about my friends’ safety… it was an effective change to the cadence of the game to that point.

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That aside, I just genuinely loved playing this game. I was resistant when Square-Enix began messing with (modernizing?) their traditional turn-based/active-time battle system, but I ended up loving the fast-paced and fluid combat in FFXII, and the combat in FFXV reminds me a lot of it, but even better. Initially I was hoping for a return of the gambit system from FFXII as well, where you can essentially program your party’s behavior, but I didn’t miss it all that much. I was always aware of my partner’s location, weaknesses, and strengths, and once I found a balance between using that information with my own attacks, it was incredibly fulfilling, especially against large, difficult monsters.

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While I had reservations going in, the world and characters ended up becoming a natural part of the Final Fantasy landscape for me, too. I know the worlds in previous games have been drastically different from each other, but the few screenshots I’d seen of FFXV before playing made me worry it was going to be too slick, modern, and realistic to feel like a, well, fantasy. I was wrong. I mean, there are better characters, but these characters seem to have more personality and are more memorable than most of those in FFXII and FFXIII.

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I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t build and customize my group for a fair chunk of the game, but after a while I grew used to and appreciative of my bromantic partners and the chemistry we’d built. [Some spoilers ahead, dear non-bot readers] Still, I wanted to see a lot more of Aranea Highwind, and I wanted her to be a (permanent) party member even more. It almost seems like she was meant to be, at some point, given that you fight her, temporarily join her later, and she has her own set of moves and weapons/armor. I would definitely play a Final Fantasy XV-2 that starred a group led by (or including) her. From the early days of my Final Fantasy playing, I wished you could choose and woo the romantic partner of your choice, as you can with BioWare games now. Sorry, FFVIII’s Rinoa – I would have gone to the moon for Quistis, and you would have had to help me get there. Aranea would have probably been the object of my romantic efforts in FFXV. She is, as the kids say, bae.

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Aranea was far from the only bit of beauty in the game though, as I was almost constantly catching myself in awe of how gorgeous the world, characters, and almost everything is. One of the weird things I pay close attention to in games is geography/geology. I appreciate open world games that seem natural and realistic in terms of how the land is shaped and the land features work together. FFXV’s canyons, mountains, volcanoes, hills, forests, etc. all seem to have spawned from actual geologic events, even if some of those events might have been more powerful or variable due to the magic-and-god-infused universe in which they reside. The grass, trees, boulders, bushes, etc. seem to be where they should and not just dropped in by the god-hand of some invisible programmer.

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I also caught myself appreciating how similar the CG scenes looked to the in-world graphics. I remember seeing the trailer for Final Fantasy VIII and feeling so awed by how stunning it looked… but then a little sad because I knew the game itself wouldn’t look nearly that good. We’ve come a long way, though. Still, the CG in the middle of the game, when you meet Leviathan and just after, has some of the most incredible and breathtaking graphics I’ve ever seen. I found myself crying during one of those scenes, and I can’t help but wonder how much of it was what was happening in the story and how much of it was how overwhelming the visuals were.

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I could go on and on (chocobos were cool, I like the car stuff, the post-game flying car sucked, etc.), but I just wanted to get some of my thoughts down before finishing the game. I’m sad to see it go, but I’m happy I had a chance to play it. I don’t know if it’s my favorite Final Fantasy game ever, but it’s easily top three. It’s hard to say, either way, because the series is filled with games that are so different from one another, but if I gauge it by how sad I am that I’m almost done playing it, FFXV is probably number 2 or maybe even number 1. I’ll end this blog by posting some of the pictures taken by my characters in-game, along with a few screenshots that I took myself so that I can look back nostalgically at some distant point in time. Farewell, beautiful friend.

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