Writing For a Silent Protagonist – A Game Developer’s Journal

Greetings, friends, and welcome to the beginning of a new week! The weekend was actually quite long for me, and it was nice. I’m not doing too well emotionally, but I’m keeping my mind on other things so as to not dwell on that. I made plenty of advancements on the game, and I even managed to write a few pages of Black Crystal last night, so it was a very productive weekend, even though Sunday was supposed to be my lazy rest day. Things never go to plan, I suppose.

Anyway, this is yet another new blog series I would like to start—A Game Developer’s Journal. Just sort of an occasional blog entry discussing some of the things I go through as I work on my games, the scripting for them, the music, all that jazz. Today’s entry will be about writing for a silent protagonist, which is a trope you see in many games, but a lot of the time, it’s for the sake of making the game more immersive for the player… I suppose. Take the Legend of Zelda series, for example. It’s had the same silent protagonist Link in every game, and while he’s talked on a few occasions that we as Zelda fans usually don’t mention, you almost never see him talking.

Based on things I’ve heard over the years, I guess this is to make it easier for the player to put themselves in Link’s shoes (or Pegasus Boots or whatever) and immerse themselves fully into the game’s universe. Instead of Link being his own person, the player becomes Link. We see this sort of thing happening in plenty of other games, the more notable ones in my opinion are Persona 3-5, the original Final Fantasy, and Xenoblade Chronicles X. These are games intended to put the player in the game. Instead of controlling a character who already has a name, a life, a personality, their own beliefs and all that, these games allow the players to enter the universe of said games and experience it all from their own perspective. (While the Persona protagonists do indeed have their own canonical names, these names are never stated within the games and are only mentioned in outside media, so that doesn’t count.)

But is that the only purpose to having a silent protagonist? That’s actually a concept I’ve been exploring ever since I came up with the basic plot for DATABASE – Thank You For Calling. (I guess Undertale explored it too, but still.) The main protagonist of my game has a name—Jack Hemlock. (Which is actually the pen name of an author friend of mine. Inspiration always comes from the most unexpected places.) He is introduced as silent protagonist heading to his first day at a new job, but you’re actually prompted with a very vague question right from the start of the game that (SPOILERS) actually affects which ending you get. During Jack’s walk, there’s a flash, the screen fades to black, and all that comes up on the screen is the word “name”. No capitalization at the beginning, no punctuation, no pause. It just appears with a prompt to answer either Yes or No. Answering yes allows you to name Jack, however, this ruins any chance of getting the Good ending, and I’ll explain why later.

When you actually get to meeting the other characters, they acknowledge his silent nature by saying things like “you’re not one for talking much, huh?” and other similar lines. Also, it seems that only a few people address him by name as well. There’s only one person who addresses him by name in the real world, and everyone in the DATABASE calls him by name. Yet here’s the strange thing. Even if you choose to name Jack something else (I always name him Chrom in my test files), you find scattered journal entries throughout the game that give insight as to the kind of character you’re playing as, and you learn that he’s actually had a past of suicidal tendencies. Even before his ex broke up with him shortly before they were to be married, he had to see a shrink, and the game goes on and explains why, and it will actually foreshadow events of the next game if you discover all the journal entries, but my point in saying this is that their called Jack’s Journal Entries. Even if you named him something else, he’s still named Jack, and whatever name you give him is false.

Here’s the reason for all of this, and here is the MAJOR spoiler. I won’t go into deep detail, but I’ll at least explain that when you play the game, none of the choices you make are actually your own. Jack is silent because he’s being controlled. Not by the player, but by… something else. (I don’t want to give too much of the story away.) But basically, most of the game is a battle between what’s controlling Jack and Jack’s own will. The ending changes depending upon whether you follow the will of the controller, or Jack’s will. Once you break Jack free of its control, he can speak again, and this is shown in the Neutral and Good endings, but not the Bad ending. (Though since there will be sequels, the Good ending is the only one that’s canon, as Jack will be in the sequels.)

Writing for a silent protagonist is both fun, challenging, and even a little easy as well. It’s less dialogue that needs to be programmed (though it does indeed need to be replaced by his physical reactions to things), it allows you to get attached to the characters around you easier since you hear from them more, and it makes it easier to progress the story. It’s kind of hard to describe the perks, but all in all, my point is that writing for a silent protagonist can serve different purposes. It all depends on the type of game you’re going for. Anyway, that was enough of a rant for one day. I’ll be back here tomorrow with a new entry. I hope you guys have a great Monday!

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