There’s a bit of a stigma attached to the word simple, when considering narrative. Simple implies a lack of depth, a text that lacks subtext. It suggests that the events contained within the media are to be taken at face value and face value only. This obviously isn’t the case, and in this week’s A Narrative Lens, we’re going to take a look at how a simple narrative affects games, with a particular focus on a common feature of such narratives; silent protagonists.
When describing a narrative as simple, it normally refers to how complex a narrative is. So, at one pole, we have games like Super Mario. Italian plumber rescues princess and defeats lizard. Simple. For a more recent example, a single character’s campaign in one Tekken game is a simple narrative. Lili enters the King of Iron Fist to eliminate the Mishima Zaibatsu. Bob enters to prove that his body is undefeatable.
At the other pole, there are games like Valkyria Chronicles, Catherine, the Assassin’s Creed series etc. Basically anything with more than a couple of major plot twists is considered to be more complex than simple.
Before we get stuck in, however, I’d like to make a distinction between what I believe to be the two types of silent protagonist. The first type I’m going to call semi-silent protagonists. These are your Dragonborns and SEES leaders; protagonists who don’t speak in any meaningful way, but can still respond to situations or questions. In the former case, the Dragonborn can ask and answer questions, and can make decisions regarding how they respond to most dialogue that they enter. Plus, they shout and scream and grunt and make all kinds of noises when fighting. The same holds true for the latter case; the protagonist of the Persona games – Persona 3 and 4, at least – can respond to key dialogue choices in a manner that the player sees fit.
The second type of silent protagonist I’m just going to call silent, because true-silent sounds like a D&D morality type. These characters are silent in every sense of the word. They don’t answer questions, they don’t enter dialogue. They may still make noises – Link, for example, and his characteristic “SEIYA!” – but they’re not going to win any singing contests in the near-distant future.
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to be talking about the second type – silent protagonists. I’ll get to semi-silent protagonists in another article. Employing a silent protagonist is a fairly common tool used in simple narratives, for the simple reason of giving the player room to breathe life into their character.
Take Pokémon, for example. Any Pokémon will do, but I’m on SoulSilver at the moment so that’s my reference point. The player character is very clearly a silent protagonist, with the only exceptions to that being when they call out their Pokémon or responding to interviews – a feature which my silly side greatly enjoyed back in Ruby. For all major interactions, the protagonist makes no attempt at verbal communication.
This is a very important tool for the Pokémon series, as the use of a silent protagonist allows for the player to live through their character. They give them a name, decide their team, and then live through the protagonist as they journey through Kanto, or Johto, or Hoenn or wherever else. This type of silent protagonist is an excellent enhancer for simple narratives, as the basic events of the game don’t demand much from the player in terms of choosing how to speak to people, By taking that choice out of their hands, Game Freak drives the focus into the key narrative elements of the game – travelling the world and raising a team of Pokémon.
The silent protagonist also acts as an empty vessel for the player, giving them enough room to fill the events they experience with their own narrative. I was once told – and I have told many people – that a reader will always make themselves feel an emotion more than a writer can make them feel it. It’s primarily used with scaring a reader, but it’s true of any emotion, and it carries through to games as well, taking the form of a corollary to the ‘do, don’t show’ adage I’ve mentioned before. How the player reacts to a given situation is just as important as how the character responds to it, and in a simple narrative with a silent protagonist, how the player reacts is the only thing that matters. I’ve found myself verbally rooting for my team on a number of close occasions.
Not only does a simple narrative provide room for the player to breathe, it also allows otherwise inconsequential characters to contribute. Moving back to Pokémon SoulSilver, the use of the Pokégear allows for brief contact with trainers, your childhood friend, mother, and the two Pokémon professors. Whilst three of these serve mechanical purposes, the rest are almost strictly there to provide short relief from the constant travelling and battling. These ancillary characters reveal aspects of their character that serve to colour the protagonist’s journey and the player-driven narrative. From Lass Krise’s complaints about bringing a mini-skirt, to Picnicker Erin’s occasional wrong number, these calls draw attention to the organic world around the player. In Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire, Game Freak attempted to mimic this with the Pokénav, allowing players to see which trainers wanted a rematch. Whilst this method did detail some aspects of the trainer’s personality, the omission of the call removed some of the narrative of the feature. After all, as in life, a text or alert doesn’t usually carry the flavour of a personal call.
A simple narrative can be an excellent way to give room to one’s characters, but it’s important to consider the benefits of a complex story. With all of these elements, they are tools that writers and developers have available to them in the creation of an effective narrative. Some combinations work better than others. After all, without complex narratives, we wouldn’t have the likes of Assassin’s Creed or Final Fantasy, or any other title with a complex and compelling narrative you can think of.
‘Till next time,