It takes two entire games for GLaDOS to acknowledge Chell’s vocal reticence. Two entire games’ worth of taunts and insults, games in which this protagonist drags her body and soul through Aperture’s deadly funhouse, forced to test – haha, test! Get it? – the limits of her physical and mental capabilities at every turn. But even at the worst of it, even when she’s lost and scared and forced to fling herself from terrifying heights, Chell doesn’t say a word. She doesn’t cry out or retaliate – doesn’t so much as grunt in pain.
By the end of their adventures in Portal 2, it’s clear the steely silence is getting to GLaDOS. The rogue AI pins her adversary with her cold, one-eye stare, and makes the observation as they part company for the final time: “You dangerous, mute lunatic.”
She’s right, though, isn’t she? And I don’t just mean the mute part.
Chell, in my mind at least, is a bona fide badass, a woman so preternaturally calm and self-contained that she can take every single word GLaDOS says and channel it into fearless, breathless determination. There’s strength in Chell’s resolute peace, a streak of courageous stubbornness that ensures she will never utter a sound in front of her homicidal opponent. I don’t think it’s because she can’t talk; I think she just won’t give GLaDOS the satisfaction of responding.
Dead Space’s Isaac Clarke is made of similar stuff. He hasn’t signed up for what he’s going through; a lowly engineer, he’s no soldier or special forces combatant and has no training to prepare him for the horrors of the Ishimura. An everyman in almost every respect, his resolute reticence comes from a need to see things through. I always got the sense that if Clarke stopped to think about what was going on – if he’d paused to catch his breath or talk it over with someone else – he would never have made it. He’d lose his mind, broken by grief and terror. But his determination to get through and find Nicole trumped all else. And while he wasn’t quite as stoic – unlike Portal’s protagonist, Clarke would grunt and moan in pain – he rarely complained. He just got on with it.
Whether by accident or design, in both those cases Chell and Clarke’s silence told me more about them than any well-sculpted monologue ever could. I coded their reserve as strength and bravery, and I loved and respected them just that little bit more because of it.
The silent suffering of video game protagonists hasn’t always been a narrative device, of course. Sometimes it’s done to save money; sometimes it’s done to help the player fully immerse themselves in this fictional world. In some cases – and I’m again thinking very much of the masterful voice work of Someday You’ll Return as I write this – private exclamations and mumbled monologues serve only to remind you of just how different you are from the frustrating protagonist.
Destiny, Far Cry 5, Fallout 4, The Sims – they all, some more successfully than others, permit you to craft the character you want to be. These games offer character creation options so you can choose how you want to appear in that world. Sometimes these speak; sometimes they don’t. But I think it’s an exceptionally brave choice indeed to take a fully-realised, physical form – a character that exists without any intervention from you – and make it mute.
It’s not always successful, though. In Far Cry 5, for example, we inhabit the personality vacuum of “Dep”, a pick-your-own-adventurer that is also mute but somehow lacks any of the grit and determination of Chell or Clarke. While we can physically craft them to be virtual versions of ourselves, their refusal to talk doesn’t feel like a conscious choice, but more an unintended side effect of an empty, emotionless husk. It’s impossible to connect or empathise with them when they don’t connect or empathise with anyone else, either. And while I admired the Portal and Dead Space protags for their silence, here it inexplicably – even unjustly, probably – got on my nerves. Even now, I can’t quite put my finger on why.
Interestingly, Isaac Clarke grew the ability to speak by the time Dead Space 2 came around, but it did nothing to round out the character for me. While silent, it was left to me to paint his majestic backstory and add flesh to the bones of his obstinate taciturnity. When he finally spoke, though, all that mystery fell away. The developers talked at length about how Clarke’s immutable silence put off some players and curated his voice to make him more authentic and engaging. Not for me, though.
The same thing happened to Dishonored’s Corvo Attano. Again, here is a man driven to unspeakable lengths to clear his name and avenge the death of his beloved, and he does so with a silent, ruthless determination. In Dishonored’s sequel, however, he finds his voice. Admittedly, the change is carefully managed here – Corvo remains a quiet, thoughtful man even when he can speak – and developer Arkane was keen for us to know that his dialogue was an effective storytelling tool. But while everyone else seemingly felt more connected to him, I felt a distance grow between us.
For what it’s worth, I know I’m in the minority here. I know for most players, dialogue is critical to developing rapport with a protagonist, and those comments and sounds are what tethers you to the characters you inhabit. But as inimitable Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka once said, “silence is sometimes the best sound of all”. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the leads of some of my favourite games – Portal’s Chell, Dishonored’s Corvo, BioShock’s Jack, Zelda’s Link – let the story do the talking.