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Bioshock Infinite: Praise the Prophet, the Silent Protagonist is Finally Dead

On 04/23/2013 at 10:29 AM by Pacario

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Without a doubt, Bioshock Infinite’s narrative is among the most sublime ever seen in the medium, treating gamers to philosophical conundrums and scientific paradoxes that most are still contemplating weeks after the game’s release.  Indeed, one could devote entire essays to any one of its many weighty themes, from the traps of predestination to the nature of evil.  But the game does more than challenge our conceptions of ethics and perceptions of reality—it also succeeds in critically damaging that long known fixture in digital storytelling known as the “silent protagonist.”

History, of course, is rife with this longstanding staple of game design.  Perhaps it’s a surviving legacy of a time when games were simply about earning points and enjoying brief highs of flickering euphoria.  No one, for instance, questioned why Pac-Man never spoke in his early maze-running days, or why Mario had nothing to say as he romped from left to right.  But games continued to grow in sophistication, soon offering relatively complex tales to go along with their adventures.  The heroes of Dragon Warrior and The Legend of Zelda traversed enormous kingdoms, interacting with allies and chasing villainy.  Soul Blazer saw its angelic avatar freeing souls in a land lost to a terrible evil.  Chrono Trigger sent its star traveling through time itself to rewrite the fate of the world.  And the trend continued into the 3-D age, depicting everything from Gordon Freeman’s struggle for survival in Half-Life to Samus’ archaeological detective work in Metroid Prime.  And yet, despite the differences in genres, these titles all shared one key component in common—their heroes never spoke.


Why don't you talk more, little dude?

But why?  In nearly every other form of storytelling, the main character speaks, has a personality—is otherwise relatable.  Should video games be any different?  Is the narrative somehow enhanced when Link’s supporting characters, whether they be Zelda, Tingle, or a lowly villager, overshadow him in both complexity and charisma?  Are we supposed to take Alyx’s romantic interest in Gordon Freeman seriously when he can’t so much as grunt at her?  Are we supposed to feel bad for Isaac Clarke, Dead Space’s tepid lead, when he finally learns of his girlfriend’s tragic death?

Fortunately, developers seem to be catching on.  Isaac did find his voice, to great success, in Dead Space 2Mass Effect, a game that could have easily skirted by with a blank hero, instead provided a unique voice to both Commander Shepard’s male and female forms.  Even the traditionally stoic and monotone Master Chief has been allowed to reveal his soul, if just a little, in his latest outing.

Which brings us back to Bioshock Infinite.  While the original game (we’ll pretend the second one never happened) used a (mostly) silent protagonist to convey its macabre tale, the new game does something surprising—not only does the lead, Booker Dewitt, speak and share his opinions on the matters at hand, he also drives the narrative forward through his interactions with Elizabeth and dim reflections on his own dubious, haunted past.  In fact, while many fans claim young Elizabeth steals the game’s “show,” Booker’s shady history coupled with the possible chance for his redemption is equally compelling.  Rather than controlling a generic cypher traipsing at Elizabeth’s heels, the player is instead presented with two complex, real characters with which to interpret Infinite’s convoluted world.  Without Booker, the game would lose half its soul.


Oh Booker, I feel like I really know ya!

Not convinced?  Imagine a Zelda game in which Link yearned for his princess’ unrequited love, or, like Ganon, was finding himself succumbing to dark desires.  Or if Bioshock’s “Jack” had demonstrated true moral agony each time he had to choose between sparing a Little Sister’s life or harvesting her for his own unlikely survival.  These are the exquisite gains and nuances an active protagonist with a mind of his/her own provides.

And why the silent protagonist needs to disappear, forever.


Thanks to and for the pics.



True Gamer At Heart

04/23/2013 at 12:55 PM

Agreed, except about bioshock 2! I think gameplay wise, it was better than part 1..But the story belongs to the first one.

I think most game companies, think that a silent protagonist is best of both worlds??

1. They think that like old school movie buffs "The silent films were the best because you had to portray that you were sad, depressed, angry and etc"
Yeah no!!

2. No need to hire a voice actor..They cost money, we do not like to spend money, so let's just use some guy generic grunt!!

It is nice to hear, that maybe this is a trend that I hope starts to pick up, unlike some of the gaming trends at the moment!!


04/23/2013 at 03:01 PM

Bioshock 2 is one of those controversial sequels in which the original creator wasn't involved, so it has both its fans and detractors.  

I see your point about silent films--but if you think about it, the main character in those also spoke, it was simply through those dialogue cards.  We don't even get those in some video games!


04/23/2013 at 03:03 PM

Sorry, that last comment was mine, but I wasn't signed in!


04/23/2013 at 02:48 PM

Though hiring good voice actors must get expensive, I do appreciate it when main protagonists have an actual personality.

As much as I loved Half-Life 2, I never felt a connection to Gordon. While I cared about what happened to Alyx I didn't give a damn about the mute guy I was playing as.

Still, I think Issac was handled a bit better in Dead Space. Though he was mute in the first game, I actually ended up liking the sod and felt really bad for him!


04/23/2013 at 03:09 PM

I love both Dead Space and Half-Life 2, but Gordon is a nonexistent phantom to me and nothing more.  Isaac comes off better in the first Dead Space, I think, because at least you can see him due to the third-person perspective.  Link (from Zelda) is the same way--he seems more "real" simply because of that visual connection you have with him.

As for voice acting, I think it's simply become standard for games these days, outside the indie scene, at least.  And in certain genres, like the FPS, they're practically required for any kind of storytelling.

Cary Woodham

04/23/2013 at 07:19 PM

I'm kind of glad when some game characters can't talk.  Nothing against Charles Martinet, but I'm not really a fan of Mario's high pitched voice, for instance.


04/25/2013 at 06:28 PM

Yeah, you got a point there.  Always preferred Lou Albano's voice, myself.

Cary Woodham

04/25/2013 at 07:16 PM

As far as I'm concerned, the Capt. will always be the true voice of Mario.


04/25/2013 at 07:24 PM

I really love Zelda, Half Life 2, Portal, and other games with silent protagonists, but over time I'm becoming much more willing to demand those characters start speaking. Bioshock Infinite was fantastic, one of my favorite experiences of the generation and it showed me that you can make these characters talk and not break something. Booker talks just enough, he doesn't overwhelm me or become a distraction, but nevertheless a ton of emotion and character comes across from his dialogue and voice actor. It's very well done. Infinite is one of my favorite shooters and action games of this whole generation, and yet it manages to let you experience a really compelling and layered yarn full of emotion, spectacle, and action.

I'm studying design and at the moment I'm most interested in level building and systems designing whether it be for stealth, battle, strategy, economic simulations, etc. Half Life 2 is one of my favorite games and it's the main game that sparked me to take this career path seriously and start falling in love with building. I use to defend Freeman's silence, but over time I grew out of it. Julian Titus from here at Pixlbit is one of the people years ago that started to get me thinking about why Gordon Freeman doesn't work well as a mute. Gordon's not really a character, there's not much to like or dislike, he's just a shell with nothing to chew on or ponder. Portal works perfectly with a mute character because there's no decisions to be made in that world, there's not nearly as many layers, you're not fighting a war and there isn't a host of side characters or a love interest like in Half Life. In Portal you just need to progress through the puzzles and there's very few NPCs but they are highly developed.

The Half Life world is full of science and experimentation, to simply survive and deal with problems like the super-portal they require the most brilliant human scientists to hatch a scheme to launch a missile that shuts the portal. Out of all the people who should have something to say, a theoretical physicist like Freeman should have things to say. Instead, he becomes a space marine without the space aspect, manages to learn how to use over a dozen weapons like a Krogan Warlord, and spends all his time fighting a war on the frontlines like a grunt. I'd appreciate Freeman to start talking. The overall Half Life story arc and character developments can't do it without Gordon being developed into something believable, expressive, and emotional. No matter how great Alyx Vance is and how amazing the writing, VO, and animation is during real time conversations between NPCs, this whole series will fundamentally be set up for disappointment if Gordon can't be turned into a relateable and expressive character.

Right now Freeman is stuck back in the 90s with the Doom Guy in terms of depth and believability. However unlike id with Doom, Valve is trying to tell a great story with the Half Life series so they need to bring the protagonist into the modern age and humanize him. Bioshock Infinite showed me that you don't have to fall back on the silent protagonist school of thought. You can voice a character, do it well, and still make the player feel like they're right at the heart of the action and experiencing/interacting with the narrative.


04/26/2013 at 05:14 PM

Wow, thanks for the awesome comment.  I also love Half-Life 2--probably my favorite FPS before Infinite, in fact--but the game hasn't aged as well as expected due to what you're describing.  Gordon doesn't speak.  He's just a drone controlled by the player, and this robs the narrative of some much needed pathos and drama.

I also agree with your Portal assessment.  The first game was really more about GLaDOS and the mystery behind the entire facility, so providing Chell with a personality wasn't necessary.  It may have even been a hindrance.  In the more story-driven second game, however, I do believe providing her with a voice would have enhanced the proceedings further.

Anyway, good luck with your career in game design.  With your deep perspective on narrative-driven gameplay, I expect to see some great stuff from you someday!


04/26/2013 at 07:32 PM

Thank you for the encouragement!

I agree with you on Portal 2. The thing that's nice about the Portal lore is that they said Chell chose to be a mute and didn't want to speak to Glados, so at any time they can start making her speak and it would be understandable and easy to explain.

One of the craziest revalations I've seen during this whole generation of gaming was that Portal 2 confirmed to everybody that the Portal and Half Life universes are one in the same. I don't ever see people talking about that or wondering what's going to happen next but I personally think that the revelation that those two game worlds occur in the same place opens up both series for wild new ideas. At the end of Portal 2 Chell comes out of the facility to see the beautiful fields and it only makes you wonder where she is and when she is. Obviously there's still vegetation and blue skies so the world Chell is in isn't irradiated and destroyed. Tons of time passed when Chell was in stasis, so what was happening topside in the Half Life world? Is Gordon long dead by the end of Portal 2? Is the whole Half Life story arc concluded by the time Chell comes to the surface? Or is she coming up to the "real" world right in the thick of it when shits hitting the fan? Is Chell going to travel back in time to help the Half Life crew after she explores the world and finds out something horrible happened? Are the mechanics and gameplay from Half Life and Portal going to be seperate or are they going to get mixed up?

There's so many things they can do with the Half Life and Portal stories from here on out. They can really evolve both series in some interesting ways if they want to.

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