Silent Protagonists

Everyone knows what a silent protagonist is; one that doesn’t speak. Except, that’s not really true, and many don’t really seem to get that.

There are a lot of games that try to make a silent protagonist by making the character mute. Jak&Daxter is a good example of this. The player character, Jak, never says a word.

Jak’s a great guy, but horribly ineffective as a silent protagonist

While I do love that game, the developers didn’t seem to understand what a silent protagonist is.
Many people seem to think that making the playable character not speak somehow makes the player more connected to the character. But that’s a gross simplification of a silent protagonist. It’s not simply the act of speaking that distances the player from the character, it’s every action the character does that isn’t in line with what the player would do. So making him mute is pointless if you instead make him react non-verbally. Which is what Jak does all time.
(like All . The . Time)

Another thing you often see in games, is that other characters comment on the fact that the player character doesn’t speak.

While it’s meant as a joke, it’s still harmful. It’s like a bad 4th wall break.

The reason why this is wrong, is because a silent protagonist isn’t actually mute, we just don’t see/hear him respond/react! He does react, namely whatever the player’s reaction is. It’s just not shown to the player, as that’s not practical (seeing as every player could have a different reaction), and there’s also no need to, as the player knows what his own reaction is.

But of course, making the player character stand still with a blank expression isn’t right either. Because not reacting is also a reaction, and most likely not the same reaction as the player has.
So the only proper way of doing a silent protagonist, is by not showing his reaction (or lack of) in a way that doesn’t feel contrived. 

This is why silent protagonists are more common in older games and first-person games.
In first-person games this is ofcourse because we can’t see the player character anyway. In old games it was because they were way more visually abstract than most games nowadays (by which I mean, lower graphics). For example, the old Zelda game boy games; all the characters barely animate, at most they have an idle animation and a walking animation. So when the player character doesn’t show any reaction to anything, that’s fine, as it’s in line with how everything else behaves in the game.
(And again, it’s not that they don’t have a reaction, it just isn’t shown to us.)

Many people complain about the silent protagonist concept nowadays, but the problem lies in it’s misuse, not the concept itself. Silent protagonists get used incorrectly and thrown in games they don’t fit in. And I feel people rightfully complain about that.

The point of a silent protagonist is for the character be an extension of ourselves, rather than him being his own person with his own personality. A silent protagonist is the player.
So if you’re making a game, and you want the player character to have a certain personality (which is most often the case in games with a strong focus on the story), whatever his personality may be,  you should probably not have him be a silent protagonist.
If instead the story of the game is what the player makes of it, it might be a good idea to have him be a silent protagonist.