Silence is a virtue. At least, that appears to be the case for the protagonists of numerous video games. While undoubtedly more common in First Person Shooters, the ‘Heroic Mime’ trope is one that spans all genres. Occasionally, and somewhat counter-intuitively, the player will have dialogue boxes where a choice is required – implying that the character does speak, or communicates somehow, but the actual expression of such thoughts is not simply not audible. It is in these instances that the gimmick is most grating, for many gamers. We can buy that Gordon Freeman, to name the most famous example, is either extremely reticent/shy/uncommunicative or literally cannot speak, perhaps due to a side effect of a scientific experiment or medical condition. However, to indicate that a character, such as Corvo Attano, can and does communicate, but without any aural indication of doing so, is distracting for the player, and arguably takes us out of the experience.
The circumstances of the character are extremely important in understanding and utilising the silent protagonist to best effect. Individuals like Freeman and Chell are intended to act as player avatars; we know pretty much fuck-all about the character prior to taking control of him. He/She has no past, no characteristics (bar silence) and no emotional baggage. It has been argued, by the obviously-unbiased writer of Dishonored, for one, that this ‘blank slate’ is more “creepy” than connecting, more insane than involving – the lack of any reaction to the world around the character is, they claim, psychopathic. It distances the player from the character. Of course, such a claim downplays – or even outright ignores – the player’s input. Freeman and Chell are loved precisely because they have no individuality; there is nothing to alienate a player, and the person controlling the protagonist can place whatever emotions, interior monologue and reactions they want onto the character. Moreover, the player is free to invent whatever explanation they desire as to why the character is unable to speak. With a blank slate, it is the gamer’s creativity – rather than the writer’s – that is unleashed. It is the protagonist-as-avatar in its purest and best form.
Hell, in the case of Freeman, there are fan theories out there that he stays silent precisely because he is not a scientist – he is just a misfortunate janitor, whose Black Mesa job application got mixed up with that of the actual Gordon Freeman. He then decides to follow Lincoln’s dictum, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” There is also the brilliant Freeman’s Mind, which parodies the hero’s silence by giving us a window into his innermost thoughts – or, at least, a fair guess of what they could be! In any case, the names of Freeman and Chell pretty much explicitly state the intention; a free man, giving you the freedom to make him any man you want him to be in your mind, and a shell, an empty vessel you can fill with whatever personality and history you wish. We are all Freeman.
Now, consider silent protagonists like Corvo. The character has a back story, is well-known in the game’s universe, and communicates with those around him. In this instance, the only valid explanation for a character’s silence – that he or she is an blank canvas onto which the player can paint anything they like – is totally removed. The explanation offered by the writers of Dishonored is that Corvo makes a conscious choice to maintain silence – as an indication of his bad-assery, I suppose – fails to convince. Certainly, lead writer Austin Grossman’s claim that Corvo lets his actions speak for him is incredibly creepy. Mind you, mere words do not convey what multiple stabbings, rat-summonings and shootings do. Namely, that you are a complete and utter psychopath.
SPOILER ALERT: The defining moment occurs very early on in Dishonored. Corvo has returned from a diplomatic mission to neighbouring lands (how the fuck did he communicate then, huh?) and reports the results to the Empress – only to witness her assassination and be subsequently framed for it. It is at this juncture, when the guards essentially assume that you are killer, that Corvo’s silence is most ridiculous. Why does he not loudly protest his innocence? What possible reason is there for him to hold his tongue? Is there any explanation for his inability to convey anything about what just fucking happened?
Actually, I believe I have the answer. It works for basically any silent protagonist who a) seems to somehow communicate with those around him/her, and b) never speaks. It certainly is applicable to Dishonored. It is this:
Corvo is mute. There is a short bit of fan fiction which explains this in one way, but in my opinion it does not really fit the biography of Corvo or Dunwall and as such is not canon. Nonetheles, the central idea, that Corvo is physically unable to speak and so communicates with gestures or sign language, is the best possible explanation for the Lord Protector’s reticence. Brilliantly, it provides an explanation for sending the Empress’ bodyguard on a diplomatic mission; as he is forced to remain silent, he cannot make kneejerk reactions, instead considering his responses while writing them out. In addition, the time it takes for him to respond to foreign diplomats’ words ensures that they too are given time to consider their responses – it is difficult to envisage any heated exchanges leading to a diplomatic incident, isn’t it? I love mute Corvo.
Actually, I think I will be using this explanation for all silent protagonists from now on.
Apologies for the rambling post. Normal service will resume presently. By normal service, I mean, appropriately enough, total silence.
Solidarity, brothers & sisters… ▼