Friday, September 11, 2009

Oh, you're so silent Chrono

As always, there are spoilers to be found. If you are concerned about that then I would advise you to play the games brought up first.

In the silent film era, actors relied on their ability to visually express emotions in exagerated gestures to ensure audience understanding. Movement and facial expressions constituted communication, breaking only in case an actual line was needed, resorting to a shot of a text box. Given the limitations of the medium at the time, the silent protagonist was a necessity.

Likewise, in early console gaming, a silent protagonist was a necessity. In the early days of the NES, developers were still graduating from the previous generation of consoles while recovering from the video game market crash of 1983. Adventure games were a possibility, even ports of well known PC games but for new intellectual property in an unstable market on a brand new console? The cartridges themelves had what would now be considered a pitiable lack of rom space. With most of that devoted to the game engine, sprites and pointer tables for constructing important rom elements such as the background, what little remained for the literary interpretation of the character was left for the instruction manual. Mario is a silent hero whom, with recent voice acting efforts, would have arguably benefitted from staying that way however he is not the most important early contribution to this device. Instead, Miyamoto-san's other golden child, Link, is the premiere example.

Cannonical Link, that is to say any Legend Of Zelda title made for a Nintendo system and definitely excluding the Phillips CD-i games, does not speak save for grunts, shouts and with relatively recent advancements the occasional "Come on!". In an interview with IGN during publicity for Gamecube title The Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Aonuma-san (not Miyamoto-san but just as important) stated "If we were to put a voice in there that might not match up with someone else's image, then there would be a backlash to that. So we've tried to avoid that." Link stays silent because of the tradition of his character. What remains then is whether his character serves a greater, complex narrative or if the games, while classic, enjoyable and downright spectacular, are grand if-then exercises in causality.

If you're unsure about that, read this sentence: Use this key to obtain the hookshot that you can use to defeat this enemy which will get you a silver bow and arrow set so you can stab Ganondorf in the face while he's frozen. The character of link is entirely decided by his own actions but his options are so restricted that the worst thing the player can choose to do during the game is bother a chicken. Any emotional nuance in the character is projected from the non playing characters and the players themselves. While this is great from an immersive standpoint, it leaves Link as a consistantly blank slate. Link acts as a link quite literally between the player and the game. All achievements are the player's but so are all of the reactions making Link an avatar as opposed to a literary character. The rest of the world tells the story.

But, as a silent protagonist, is Link the further link to later silent protagonists? Does he represent a lack of integration with a story inherent in the use of a silent protagonist?

Not necessarily. Link, meet Chrono. Chrono? Link.

Chrono sits on the other end of the burning magnesium era of 16 bit games when the Super Nintendo Entertainment System's limits were ready to be stretched to their limits before retiring the system from the market. Therefore, Chrono Trigger was not bound by the same limitations facing the original Zelda game, its sequel Zelda II: The Adventure Of Link or even the SNES installment The Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past, also featuring a silent protagonist Link as an avatar while the story happens around him. Thanks to the expanded room in the cartridge, while Chrono is a silent protagonist, there is enough room for sprites to determine reactions of the character similar to silent era movie stars. Chrono can express shock such as when he is taken to be executed, laughter at the Millenial Fair and tenderness with Marle upon his return to life. In fact it is Chrono's death removing him as a central character briefly that proves he is essential to the story as a participant, not merely a catalyst. Chrono's revival, if pursued instead of directly taking on Lavos, is a major plot point, his absense revealing more about the other characters than his presence.

Of course, Squaresoft knew that it was using a well known gaming device for Chrono Trigger. When the sequel Chrono Cross came out for the original Sony Playstation, the main character Serge was referred to in the status menu as a "Silent Protagonist". While Serge certainly lives up to this role, his actions have an effect on both the events of the game and the possible party members one can collect. While unlike Chrono, Serge does not die, Serge as a physical character is once again noted by his absence when the characters of Serge and Lynx trade bodies. The immersion then is sacrificed for the story.

Still, the use of a silent protagonist can evolve with in series. A prime example of this is Earthbound along with its sequel Mother 3. Now, if you have not played Mother 3, it was a Japan only GBA release. There is an excellent fan translation patch available for download, it's up to you to find the ROM though. Not to go into specifics, but the silent protagonist of Earthbound, Ness, was a cypherish character closer to Link. Despite having a family and travelling the world to stop his next door neighbour, he is more of a vessel and is only as interesting as the person playing as him. Mother 3, to not give too much away, has a much more interesting silent protagonist in Lucas, not the least of which because there are multiple characters that the player controls during the first few chapters of the game, all of whom are silent during their time as a playable character. Much like Chrono's death, this interrupts the basic character enough to allow the character to become less an extention of the player and an actual part of the story beyond a catalyst for the action.

If anything, a silent protagonist is typically used as an immersion tactic in gaming. At least, that was how it started in the medium. However, simply because the main trait of the character is that they never say anything, that does not mean that the presence of the character cannot affect the story itself beyond the player's actions.

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