10 February 2011

The blessing and curse of silence: on voiceless protagonists - by Eric Schwarz

      Posted 02/08/11 05:01:00 pm   One of the most remarkable and interesting things about the just-released Dead Space 2, a game which has received accolades both for its storytelling and artistry in horror and tension, isn’t the fact that the game has received a visual facelift, or that the monsters are more terrifying than ever, or that the play is better balanced.  What struck me, rather, in examining some of the pre-release information on the game, but especially after coming into contact with the game itself, is just how different Dead Space has become now that its protagonist is fully-voiced.  The world of gaming has a fairly long-standing tradition of silent protagonists, including veritable lineages of heroes who speak with their actions, not words, and rather than continue in that direction, Dead Space has left those ranks, presumably in the interest of moving its narrative forward.
Isaac Clarke’s decision to open his mouth isn’t one that has implications for fans’ conceptions of the character, however.  Rather, the decision to move away from a silent protagonist has greater, farther-reaching consequences than that.  Dead Space draws heavy inspiration from two games in particular, Half-Life and System Shock 2, which are also well-known for having voiceless heroes.  In this article, I will examine those two games in order to understand the effect a silent protagonist has on a game’s design and narrative, and ultimately, how Dead Space, and games in general, are changed much more significantly by the decision.
The original Half-Life is one of the most influential games of the last twenty years, notable for being among the first shooters to set its gameplay not within nondescript castles and spaceships, but to create a believable, lived-in world that was itself used as a way to further the game’s story. In Half-Life, players take on the role of Gordon Freeman, a scientist working at the top-secret Black Mesa Research Facility; disaster strikes when a teleportation experiment results in the facility being overrun with hostile aliens.  As Gordon, players have one real goal: to escape the facility using both firepower and brain power to overcome the aliens, the facility’s increasing stages of degradation, as well as the government troops which are called in to “erase” the mistakes made by the science team.
Throughout, Gordon never says a word, and yet Freeman is one of the most fondly-remembered characters in all of gaming, a curious phenomenon considering that Gordon himself only really appears on the game’s box artwork and in the main menu screen – the game never breaks its first-person perspective, right from the beginning.  How can a character who effectively has no personality and nothing to say to others even be considered a character at all?  And how can players’ relationships towards him be so deep and affecting?

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