Silence, as they say, is golden. It's a rule that holds more true in video games than in most media. Quiet isn't necessarily a good thing during the heat of play – you want to hear your enemies approach, some killer tunes, Yoshi's squeal as he devours some witless sentient mushroom. A game is best served by silence in its protagonist, the lead character and, very often, the hero you get to control when you pick up the controller.
All of gaming's leads lacked a voice back in the day, due to technological limitations more than anything else, but there was also text available to put words into their mouth. There is, however, a storied history of completely mute leads, characters whose opinions and vocal attitude are left entirely to our imaginations. And our own personality. That's the real strength of a silent protagonist after all, how well they lend themselves to player immersion. I'm not talking about the formless, create-your-own-hero of Western RPGs either. I'm talking about a character who is defined just enough to make you feel like you're inhabiting a different person, but you're still you under the skin.
"Call of Duty"'s Soap McTavish was one of the greats in the pantheon of silent protagonists, a perfect vessel for you to experience the horror and tension of armed combat. Now, with this week's "Modern Warfare 2", Soap's finally found is voice. That gives us the perfect opportunity to look back on gaming's other silent greats and to hope that they're as cool as Soap if they ever decide to speak up.
Gordon Freeman – "Half-Life"
The Free Man is the perfect vessel for a player in "Half-Life"'s universe. His role as scientist gives you purpose and authority inside the halls of Black Mesa in "Half-Life". That history, coupled with his quiet stoicism, gives your messianic role in "Half-Life 2" even more potency. What makes Gordon especially great is that you aren't free to project yourself into him totally. The characters that surround him still make reference to his facial expressions, his reactions to developments in the story. You are guided just enough by the game to more fully inhabit Freeman.
Abe – "Oddworld"
In fairness, Abe is only really silent because his mouth is literally sewn shut. His silence is less memorable for how it lets you inhabit your role during play than how it informs the play itself. A central mechanic in "Oddworld: Abe's Odyssey" and "Oddworld: Abe's Exoddus" is GameSpeak, a series of guttural sounds and gestures you use as Abe to convince other enslaved Mudokans to join you in escaping bondage. To this day, there isn't much else like GameSpeak in video games. The bizarre emoting of "Fable"'s create-a-hero and the rambling of Simmish come close, but neither feel like a true alien language like GameSpeak. Abe's inability to speak doesn't make you feel like you're him. It makes you feel like you aren't even human.
Crono – "Chrono Trigger"
Long before Cloud Strife, Tidus, and the rest of the "Final Fantasy" crew got too chatty for their own good, Japanese RPGs were not known for particularly vocal protagonists. The granddaddy of the genre, "Dragon Warrior", starred a mute and he was the standard for years to come. By the time "Chrono Trigger" came out in 1995, most JRPG heroes were talking up a storm, telling you all about how you were going to defeat evil and save the princess in their shoes. Crono, meanwhile, had nothing to say throughout his time-traveling adventure, though he was still incredibly expressive. "Trigger"'s lead is another ideal example of a character having just enough personality to let you feel like you are them as well as yourself while playing. Crono's buoyant laughter, satisfied victory pose, and bitchin' dance moves are yours as well as his.
Jack – "Bioshock"
*SPOILER WARNING* "Bioshock"'s would be hero is arguably a leading hero created as a direct response to Gordon Freeman. Where Gordon has a face, Jack's only limbs we get to see are his hands as they are progressively warped by plasmid abuse. Where we are given just enough cues about Gordon's emotions to feel like we're another person, Jack is conspicuously devoid of feeling after crashing into the ocean at the game's start. All of this helps to accentuate "Bioshock"'s ultimate reveal of your/Jack's role as an unwitting slave. His silence makes his subservience more horrifying, and his ultimate rebellion even more rousing.
Link – "The Legend of Zelda"
When Nintendo announced that some characters in "Twilight Princess" would speak but Link would stay as quiet as he always has, the internet cried foul. Get with the times, Nintendo! It's stupid that Link doesn't talk! Au contraire. While Nintendo has never placed a rigid continuity on the arching "Zelda" time line, it has managed to imbue each and every game in the series with a profound sense of history. Link's place in that history is as a constant, a golden rule (pardon the pun) alongside the titular princess and ever-present threat of Ganon. That he doesn't speak, that his very existence is always a response to Hyrule's need and not an active seeker of danger, enriches the timeless feeling of the "Zelda" games. And, no, the Link from the "Zelda" cartoon does not count.