I Can't Hear Myself Talk
When I first booted up Christine Love’s Digital: A Love Story, I was looking for nothing more than an enjoyable diversion for a lunch break or two. What I did not expect was for a short visual novel to finally make clear one of gaming’s oldest and most inscrutable tropes: the Silent Protagonist, the decision for the player character in a story-driven game to not utter a word of dialogue.
Before Digital, I had always thought of the Silent Protagonist trope as vestigial, a bizarre leftover from a time of simpler games with simpler stories. Would Super Mario Brothers be vastly improved if Mario spoke? But I did not understand why any designer would deliberately choose the Silent Protagonist for a game which was at all about traditional forms of story or character.
Every justification for the Silent Protagonist I have encountered hinges on the emotional distance between player and character. If a game is going to involve a player in any kind of meaningful way, it needs to make the player sympathize with the player’s character. In the best games, the player is scared when the character is scared, happy when the character is happy, etc. Silent Protagonists are thus spawned out of a fear that players will be less likely to sympathize with a character who has an established personality. While I understand this worry, I think taking this route usually generates an equally serious problem.
Gordon Freeman holds a PhD in theoretical physics from MIT, a distinction most players of Half-Life 2 can’t claim. More importantly, he has already established relationships with people before the player ever controls him. Despite his silence, Gordon remains a person separate from the player. He knows things and people the player doesn’t. This is easy to forget during firefights or long exploration sequences, but this tension is readily apparent during most of the game’s conversations. These conversations are when we most need to sympathize with Gordon and understand his perspective, when we most need to understand him as a person, and we have absolutely nothing to hold on to.
Writers and actors are taught that in order make their characters human and sympathetic they must imbue them with specific habits and details. People will sympathize far more easily with a character who seems real than with one who is a hollow archetype, and real human beings are composed entirely of specifics: of quirks and idiosyncrasies and particular experiences. The old admonitions against cardboard characters all relate to the fact that there is nothing less sympathetic than the blandly generic. If specifics are what generate sympathy, then the Silent Protagonist might be the worst possible approach.
For most games, I still think this is true. But about fifteen minutes into my first playthrough of Digital: A Love Story, I finally began to understand that if a game is properly designed around a Silent Protagonist, it can generate a wholly different kind of sympathy. If done properly, a heroic mime can become the lynchpin for a very different kind of storytelling.
If you haven’t played it, Digital is free, only an hour or two long, and found here, so it might be faster for you to just do that and get back to me. The 30-second summary of the relevant parts, however: you fall in love with and then uncover a Mystery regarding a person, all through the clunky proto-Internet of the late ’80s and early ’90s. All your communication is through proto-emails and proto-message boards, and the player character’s words are completely hidden from the player—there is no “sent” box.
Despite my previous dislike of the Silent Protagonist, I didn’t initially realize that Digital was using it, because Digital’s player character functions entirely as an avatar for the player. Nothing about the character is fixed in advance, not name, not gender, not race, save that he or she lives in someplace called Lake City, reads English, and has a shiny new late-’80s computer.
This instantly reduces the distance between player and character to almost nil, since the player is effectively playing him-or-herself. There’s no asymmetry of knowledge: the computer’s interface is new to both player and character, so the time spent learning how it works is entirely justifiable. The character doesn’t know any of the people or events referenced in the game, either, so introductions don’t feel stilted and awkward. The player and the character are one.
That said, there are still certain types of scenes and situations that simply won’t work with a mute main character, so Love keeps things simple and broad and approachable. The relationship at the core of the game is established, imperiled and resolved over the course of an hour or two, such that the game does not overstay its welcome. NPC dialogue is broad and appealingly earnest, such that it’s never difficult to know exactly what your character would be saying in response. Emilia is scared, so your character reassures her. Paris has information you want, so your character asks for it.
The broadness of these encounters allows your mind to fill in details without bumping into unanswerable questions about the person you are supposedly playing. The actual dialogue exists in a strange, ephemeral space between the computer screen and the player’s mind, not wholly belonging to either.
I may not know exactly what my character said to these people, but Love shows me the consequences of it, such that my mind automatically fills in the details without any conscious effort on my part. The game provides the space and the outline of the situation, and the player then automatically fills it with life.
In this approach, targeted vagueness allows the player’s mind to take greater control of the situation and gain a greater sense of ownership over the proceedings. The act of playing the game feels remarkably different and more personal than simply reading a story. It requires a delicate balancing act between just enough detail to get the player’s imagination going and so much detail that the player loses the connection to the character.
It’s fascinating, and it seems unique to interactive experiences like videogames. I don’t think Digital would be particularly interesting if it was a story or film chronicling the same events. I’m equally sure that it would lose its resonance if a fully fleshed-out character replaced the Silent Protagonist. So I take it all back: the Silent Protagonist can be more than simple nostalgia. Well-deployed, it can obscure the line between player and character tell an entirely new kind of story.