To speak for the “…”
Have you ever noticed how we criticize The Silent Protagonist? We compare them to ourselves.
“They’re not like me. I wouldn’t wear that. I wouldn’t do that. Why can’t I speak for myself?”
Despite popular consensus, The Silent Protagonist is someone. They’re just not us. The language we use when discussing their role in videogames all but confirms this. Who are they, then?
Boring characters, usually. Dull, mute, no personality. The quiet folk at the back of a classroom, the petrified figure standing up for an oral presentation, the people who are simply unable to do what they want because of crushing social anxiety.
The Silent Protagonist is someone but most want them to be more of someone. As if more dialogue will impart more personality, as if choosing to remain silent is not a choice at all, as if helping someone else doesn’t define you in some small way.
I don’t like the rhetoric and I don’t like the idea that people need to speak in order to be someone. That people need to shout and scream and call attention to themselves to be defined. There are so many ways to communicate.
And if you’ve ever thought, well, how do the quiet achievers live? What’s life like for the introvert in an extrovert world? Fuck you, why didn’t you ask them before saying they have no personality? Also, you should play Dragon Quest V. You’ll see a world that rewards the exuberant and punishes the meek.
At the beginning of the game, The Hero is just a little boy. Pants (for that is what they are always named) is tied to his father’s side while they journey across the countryside in search of… something. You’re never sure what’s going on because Pants doesn’t need to know. Pankraz looks after him and ensures his safety. Pants can fight but barely gets the chance to, nor can he lead the party. This is Pankraz’s life. To stop and complain is to be the literal equivalent of a child crying in a super market aisle because they didn’t get what they wanted.
There is space for him to explore outside of his father’s shadow, though. When the two rest at a local village called Whealbrook, Pants stumbles upon The Fairy World and explores a vast frozen continent seemingly disconnected from the real world. Whenever Pants stays at the local fairy village inn, he finds himself back in Whealbrook with his father hunched over his desk, working incessantly, as if everything is as normal.
In The Fairy World, Pants and his kitten befriend a fairy named Honey and the three travel across the land to find the magical flute and defeat the Winter Queen. Of the two friends, though, only the kitten comes back with Pants to the “real world” and is unable to speak. Is The Fairy World simply a figment of Pants’ imagination? An answer to the lack of independence in his own life? With no one around to confirm the existence of such a place, Pants’ brief moments of independence are private and contained. His experiences are dismissed.
Pants’ life of observation comes to a sudden close and the boy, whether he wants to or not, is forced to grow up. Pankraz dies and Pants is kidnapped and enslaved for 10 long years. In the second act, he finds out what his father was looking for but it doesn’t lead to any sort of happiness. As it turns out, Pants is not The Legendary Hero destined to save the world from an unspeakable evil.
Pants hasn’t been denied anything, of course. He is as he was moments before. What has changed is our perception of video game protagonists. We’ve been placed in the same position of introspection as Pants was underneath Pankraz, controlling a sideliner destined to only help save the world, to help realize someone else’s dreams. Pants must confront his utter uselessness in the grand scheme of things. So this is what it feels like.
Admittedly, things do pick up for Pants around the half-way point. As part of his journey through the circle of life, Pants must choose to marry one of three partners. Most will default to Bianca, smitten by the efforts to couple the pair at the beginning, but Nera and Deborah are not without their charm. The decision has little bearing on the narrative, and barely affects the statistics of your children, but you feel hesitant all the same.
You hesitate for Pants, not yourself. This is his happiness on the line, after all. Both Nera and Deborah are strangers and one of them’s clearly not interested in the man. The original SNES version of Dragon Quest V second-guessed the player’s inclination to support their avatar’s mental state by gating Nera’s level cap at 10 and making her ignore your commands in battle unless something attacked her, punishing you for selecting her over Bianca. Whatever the reason for the change, the SNES version twists the player’s arm to default to the most likely choice The Hero would go for, thereby supporting Pants as an individual separate from you, and the DS version makes the choice painfully outside of his control.
A year later and tragedy befalls Pants and his family, again. His wife bears two children but is kidnapped soon after by the same legion of monsters that killed his father. Pants leaps to the rescue but falls prey to a distressingly similar trap as his father. Instead of being killed, the monsters turn both Pants and his wife into stone and pass their statues off as fine art to unknowing auctioneers. The two live apart for eight years while their children grow up outside of their care and time goes by.
And all Pants, and you, can do is wait. Two immutable heroes. Unable to do anything but watch as the world goes on and opportunities are erased. Pants must even brave the elements, placed outside in the garden as little more than an elaborate garden decoration. Seasons change from spring, summer, autumn, and winter. A little boy plays outside during the days and grows up in front of your eyes. The little boy is kidnapped and history seemingly repeats.
Does Dragon Quest V confirm the struggle introverts face in our world? Pants runs into nothing but trouble for his entire life but, even if he did speak his mind, nothing would change. Maybe he’s wise to recognize a stronger force of will and remain silent, maybe he recognizes the things that can’t change. Whining and self-loathing aren’t tolerated in society. You can only talk about your own experiences for so long before people get angry at you.
What Dragon Quest V achieves is an understanding of The Silent Protagonist through exaggerated circumstances and tiny, everyday details. While the string of monumental bad luck endears you to Pants like any survivor, it’s his quiet acceptance of horrid events that ultimately wins you over. No one should live like this. You spend hours looking after this submissive, shy figure in the world and hopefully, at the end of it all, come to understand. And if you don’t understand, you’ll start to recognise these people wherever you go. You should say hello. I guarantee they’ll be the warmest people you’ll meet.
It’ll just take time. Don’t be a jerk and silence those with such nervous glances.
Illustration by Jake Lawrence.