“Why I Love Antique Gaming” part IV: No Talking Protagonist Trend



Let’s sprinkle a bit of Phoenix Down on an old series of opinion articles, shall we? Remember when I used to write those “Why I Love [insert synonym for Classic] Gaming” posts? Probably not. They occupied a space and time for The Well-Red Mage blog predating our recent exposure, networking, and readership regularity. That’s ok if you’ve never read them. You didn’t hurt my feelings.

Clearly, they’ve been about what makes classic gaming so special. I explained how “classic” is my term of choice, though of course we bibliophile Mages will accept “Vintage”, “Antiquated”, “Archetypal”, “Traditional”, “Timeless”, even “Old-Fashioned” and in a particular pinch: “Retro”. To be clear, I don’t understand when people apply those terms to gaming as recent as PlayStation or Nintendo 64. I personally place the Classic era as ending with the close of the 4th generation, the SNES and Sega Genesis, and lasting all the way back through the Commodore 64, Atari, and of course the NES.

The difference in judgment on what is truly “Retro” and what isn’t most likely has to do with the age of the person using the term, but there are clearly much more “retro” examples of gaming out there than with consoles like the PS2 or Xbox 360. Nostalgia plays a factor in determining what is and what isn’t retro and it’s possible to feel nostalgic about something as recent as a game released last year, but can we call it classic if it hasn’t yet stood the test of time? I recently read an article where the author called the PlayStation 3 “retro”. Three shots of elephant tranquilizer later, my heart rate and blood pressure returned to normal.

tumblr_n1gw3avtYU1rrftcdo1_500.gif“Dern yungins!”

So, to bring the series back from the dead, here’s yet another reason why I love (truly) Antique gaming.

This most recent reason resounded with me upon the occasion of watching the wonderful 2016 E3 PlayStation Conference. Treated to the audial-aroma of a masterful live orchestra (minus that blonde doing those weird guttural noises into the mic) and several mind-blowing trailers for much anticipated games, the conference was the first and best one I had ever seen. *wink*

How can I, an avowed 8-bit aficionado, possibly dislike the appearance of Hideo Kojima, the long-awaited Last Guardian, the dive into PS VR, the sights, the sounds, etc., etc.? I didn’t and I can’t. But watching two of the live gameplay sessions for the jaw-dropping Horizon Zero Dawn and the energetic Days Gone, I had an epiphany. I became aware of a trend: “Talking Protagonists”.


“I have to aim my arrow at the weak spot and time it just right to kill it.”

The main characters in both gameplay previews cut the jib during the most intense moments, or idly explained what they were doing as they were doing it, even for the most menial task. “I’m not fast enough to get there in time”. “If I can only just…”. “That won’t work, I’ve got to…”. “Whew! That was a close one!”

I noticed something fairly similar, though to a lesser extent, when I played Alien: Isolation and again when playing Arkham Knight. These are both newish games that are amazing, and they’re more modern than I usually expose myself to. I find myself wondering if this is now a trend.

Now lest some internet warrior should say “False. There are plenty of talking protagonists in classic games! They’re just characters that talk. What’s wrong with that?”

My answer is “of course they are” and “nothing is wrong with it”. That’s because in classic games, like older RPGs, there were indeed talking protagonists. There were also several others who didn’t talk at all in other games. Think Crono from Chrono Trigger or Ryu from Breath of Fire II, even Link from the Zelda franchise, whose muteness did nothing to derail or damage their incredible stories. Hilariously, even Mario himself said not a word in Super Mario RPG, as fit the classic RPG cliché even though we know he can talk and say things like “Hey there pie-zannos”.


“Thank you for saving me, Mario! …Mario? Uh… hello?”

The difference is between talking protagonists who act like characters (just like the ones in books and movies) and talking protagonists in the direction some games are taking them that essentially function as protagonistic-tutorials for the player. If I’ve griped about the massive amount of unwarranted tutorialism (that is now a word), then I’ve griped about it a thousand times. But I don’t want a video game to hold my hand. I want a video game to let me experience it and use my wits and cunning and well-red savvy to figure out what’s going on and what to do next, to let my fingers feel and touch the world, to let my voice express what I’m seeing, to look through the eyes of the main character and come to my own conclusions on what is a “close-call” and what isn’t.

Obviously, this is an opinion piece, so you can feel free to disagree with me.

But to me, I feel like playing a game should be a vicarious experience where I fill the shoes of the protagonist. Now this isn’t always the case depending on how the developers want to tell their story, yet haven’t we been saying since the dawn of falling accidentally into 8-bit pits “Oops, I died”? This talking protagonist thing takes me out of the experience, out of that projection of my conscious self into the character when the character indirectly recognizes me sitting there on the couch by telling me “Oh, I need to be careful to get this item or I won’t be able to complete this puzzle”. It’s lazy, irrational, and unrealistic. Nobody talks like that. It distances video games from the art of storytelling and reminds me it’s just a video game. It feels like I’m watching somebody else play the game. And ironically it destroys the richness of the character and the narrative that developers try so hard to achieve by turning the protagonist into a verbal instruction manual.

How can I see things from a character’s point of view if they’re constantly breaking the fourth wall to spell out their point of view?

This one little thing doesn’t ruin modern games for me, and I expect to enjoy something like Horizon Zero DawnI’m no purist and of course they can make games however they like but a trend like this is the sort of thing that reminds me that the far-superior golden age of gaming has been over for a long, long time…

Whew! That was a great article. Now I just have to make sure to put my red signature at the bottom of it with my icon so people know that I wrote it. And then I just have to hit ‘Update’…”

*sheaths pen*
-The Well-Red Mage


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17 replies »

  1. Hey! *Places hand on heart & leans back slightly, mildly offended look on face* Lord C read (& loved!) those articles!!!
    *Reads last bit* Oh no!!! The 4th wall… I’m suddenly aware that Well-Red is a real person with thoughts, opinions, farting, etc, etc… *Giggles*
    But seriously, 2 words: Gordon. Freeman.
    What more needs said?
    & I think we both remember from past articles & comments *Grins* how we both idolize ‘Journey’ so very very much!!!! (Perhaps overly so! *Grins Wider*)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I totally agree! I don’t mind if the main character talks when it is natural for him/her to speak, but to voice out their thoughts in the middle of a battle or something is kind of like when characters in anime start yelling out what they’re going to do before they attack lol. (Not that there isn’t a time for that either haha) But the more realistic the game, the more I think the main character should also fit in.

    I really like the references to Super Mario RPG and other classics. Makes me want to get an emulator to play them again hahaha.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I hear what you’re saying! I think the Half-Life series may be the best example of the “empty vessel” approach to design – as you say, you want to experience the game world vicariously, and if the protagonist is talking and interacting with other characters all the time then it breaks the illusion for you. Great read!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow, you’re completely right. I don’t play a lot of those games with talking protagonists, but I saw a lot of it during E3 trailers. And protagonists talk a lot in modern games. I wouldn’t mind if it were doing cutscenes, but they’re just talking as they walk, as if the player would get bored if they were to ever shut up. I haven’t played enough games like that to know if I liked it or not, but I’m guessing I’d be a little annoyed. The protagonist of Scalebound (from the Microsoft E3 conference) was especially irritating after a while.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s crazy right? It’s like once you see it, you can’t unsee it. There’s a lot of talking… during toilet breaks, coffee breaks, battles, open doors… Nobody talks to themselves that much. It’s irritating and distracting. I didn’t catch Scalebound. What was that like with the protagonist?

      Liked by 1 person

      • The protagonist and some other characters are fighting the whole boss. He gives a bunch of cheesy anime one-liners the entire time, without stopping. It really made me groan. And yes, I agree with the fact that nobody talks to themselves that much. Sheesh. Give me my silent main characters back!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m usually okay with talking protagonist, but even Horizon’s talking annoyed me. When they showed last year’s demo, they said it was just for demo purposes. I hope it’s the same case in this year’s and that they’ll be tuning it down a little.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It just really stood out with those E3 demos and then playing Arkham Knight today made me aware of how many times Batman tutorializes me with stuff I already know how to do. Knight is a great game but it’s a little off putting, but Horizon was too much! Why would they feel the need to ramp up that sort of thing for a demo? Couldn’t people watching just come to conclusions about what was going on? Super annoying. Makes me miss Mario’s simple “wahoo!”

      Liked by 1 person

      • I guess they might be marketing it to people who are not used to this type of games? I don’t know. I think it’s still better than the narration thing they do sometimes. “Okay, now we’re going to show you this… he’s going to do that…”
        Agree on the whole tutorialized thing. Uncharted had this too. Still wished developers would stick to the optional tutorial thing.
        “You know, I should probably do this…”

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I find it kind of scary that Cranky Kong makes a lot of sense to me today. Young gamers don’t know how easy they got it these days. *shakes cane*

    When I used to play World of Warcraft, my characters hounded me constantly with “I cannot attack that target.” “Not enough mana.” etc., as I mashed the buttons on my keyboard. Your cover photo also triggered annoying memories of Navi forcefully explaining to me how to open a door, on my 10th trip into the corrupted shell of the great Deku tree.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Haha it’s gotten out of hand. I know how to climb a ladder! I know how to open a door! If I don’t, I can figure it out. There’s only a handful of buttons on the controller! But taking tutorialism into the realm of protagonist narration is too far. Poor Cranky Kong…

      Liked by 2 people

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