Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Whose Silence is This?

Devon Carter's 'This Silence is Not Mine' stands as one of my favourite pieces of critical writing. It resonates with me because it points towards the novelistic understanding of narrative that I prefer over the dominant conception of video game narrative built around agency and expression[1]. Normally I can tolerate the silent protagonist only in worlds that are silent.

But then there's Tales of Xillia 2's Ludger Kresnik, a character without significant dialogue of his own yet probably the character I've engaged most deeply with this year. Ludger is no blank slate – he emotes both vividly and subtly, and indeed occasionally even utters the kind of not-quite-verbal speech that silent protagonists are sometimes allowed. But in all scenes where there is explicit communication among characters, Ludger is silent[2].

Part of what brings Xillia 2 so powerfully to life is the richness of the characters around Ludger, but more is the incomplete and very human structure of submission it imposes on him. However dire the circumstances, Ludger cannot speak. Whatever his anger or frustration, explicit goals and plans must come from other characters. Ludger exists only in tension with the will of others.

This is something I seek in games, in quasi-circumscribed virtual worlds, because lifelong anxieties make it difficult for me in the 'real' world. Games are safe spaces to allow external forces free rein; their dominance and their costs are confined to a small box which can be switched off if it becomes too much[3]. In-game events cannot affect one to quite the same extent that rent, bills and hunger can, to say nothing of more complex relationships.

This is why I love Vaan in Final Fantasy XII, the perfect viewpoint character for a game about the unmanageability of history. It's why I feel such empathy for Final Fantasy X’s Tidus, who can only ever be a hanger-on to Yuna's journey. And it's why more competent, driven protagonists like Tales of Vesperia's Yuri and Tales of Graces' Asbel leave me cold (see also: protagonists on whom the broader story centres, like Cloud and Squall).

There is a second twist to this, though, because Xillia 2 has dialogue choices. Quite a lot of them, even. It's almost retro, a throwback to the idea that a plot is more interactive if you chuck a menu up on screen occasionally.

At the very moments when silence and submission would be most comfortable, would exonerate me of the party's toughest decisions, I'm forced, with Ludger, to take responsibility. I found it paralysing. Often choosing would take me far longer than the pace of real dialogue would have afforded Ludger. At least once, on a choice for which there was a time limit, I deliberately elected to let the timer run out, as if I could force the game to take responsibility back.

It's never clear what effect the choices have on the game's core narrative (for some choices, the game will tell you which other characters you've impressed, but only after you make the decision). More than once, I found myself doggedly opposing choices that led to plot events that were probably inescapable. Even when it comes to affecting which ending you get, few choices before the game's climactic chapter matter.

The choices exist to reward engagement in the characters with the agony of choice. It's an interactivity far more palpable than pushing buttons. More importantly, because of the way choices are framed, because of the game's narrative structure taken as a whole, Ludger's voice is restored in them, and harmonised with my own.

I played Ludger as a reluctant, stumbling non-hero, unwilling to make tough choices and struggling to communicate with his allies. Partly this was because I struggled to intuit which potential nuance of any given phrase the game would pick up on, so I often made choices which the characters put a different spin on to the one I was expecting[4]. But by accident (or maybe design, though not mine), there was a coherence to my errors.

Ludger's silence, and the awkwardness I bequeathed him, fitted. My Ludger made bad decisions and hurtful remarks because neither of us could handle loving the people around him as much as we did in such cruel circumstances. His silence was not mine, but it was so like mine – a silence I often find myself in – that the difference seldom mattered.

All of which was only enough to earn me the sorta-OK ending, out of the game's four choices. For the true ending, not only would Ludger have to be braver, nobler, and more confident, but so would I. It may be a while before I can face trying again.

[1] Herein lies the (perhaps over-strong) line I draw between games I play for narrative and games I would prefer display as little narrative as possible. Silent protagonists – truly silent protagonists, the Gordon Freemans who are silent because they are protagonists in a video game, not because their silence is part of the plot – feel to me like holes, like an absolute barrier to my engagement rather than a necessary precondition for it.

[2] It was pointed out to me after I drafted this that in Xillia 2’s new game plus mode, Ludger’s speech is restored for his dialogue choices. I imagine this changes a few things about how the story feels, but I can’t comment on it directly as I haven’t experienced it myself.

[3] So the orthodoxy goes, anyway. Perhaps I would be a healthier being if I had not spent so much of my life believing it.

[4] A familiar experience. I'm not great at verbal communication.

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