When games first started out, practically none of the lead characters talked. Then again, no one really talked back to them. These are not the kind of silent protagonists I am going to discuss. There are some games that have large diverse worlds with thousands of lines of dialogue, and still the lead characters you control are mute. At first glance this seems like it would be completely useless and draw the player away from the game. Imagine watching an action movie where the hero was completely silent while everyone and everything around him/her was talking and making noise. It would be a jarring experience to say the least. It does not work that way in video games, in fact a silent protagonist can do a lot that a voiced hero cannot.
Are they truely silent?
The answer is both yes and no. "Yes" there is no audio coming out of the speakers from the voice of your character. But "no" this doesn't mean they aren't speaking. When someone in the game world approaches our player and talks to them even though our character isn't responding we are. In essence the protagonists voice is our inner dialogue. When we play video games we are constantly thinking; where should I shoot, how can I get out of this battle safely, where is the key for this locked door, where do I go next, what magic should I use and the list goes on forever. In a way that inner dialogue we have is also our silent protagonists dialogue. Since the character has no voice of his/her own its easier for us to pretend our inner dialogue is their voice, whether we do it subconciously or not. For example if we know the character we are playing has a high pitched cartoony voice chances are we are not going to think like that same voice while playing the game. When I play Super Mario I am not saying to myself, "Mama Mia, I have-a to jump now. Okey dokey." I know that when I am thinking that's my voice and when Mario is speaking, in his stereotypical Italian accent, that is him. But when playing a game with a silent protagonist there is no clear distinction between your voice and theirs. Having a silent protagonist is one of the best ways to ensure the player has a more personal connection to the protagonist. When another character in a game talks to the silent protagonist our emotional reaction becomes the hero's reaction. We are no longer forced to accept the characters emotional responses if they are different than the way we would behave.
Designing a Silent Protagonist
A silent protagonist does not have to have a specific look. But, many of them do. Calling it a "specific" look is somewhat of a misdomeaner since a silent protagonist should have an atypical look from other characters. Let's look at the threee most famous silent protagonists.
Gordon Freeman (Half Life Series)
One of the first things you may notice about Gordon is his anti-action hero look. Sure he has that tough looking armor on but he looks like a "nerd." I hate to say it,but a large portion of the video gaming public do consider themselves nerds in one way or the other. In a lot of ways we look a lot more like Gordon freeman then we look like most bulky muscle bound heroes. Gordon Freeman is just a scientest caught in a bad series of events and it is played out in a way to make it believable that it could happen to anybody. He looks like an average male with glasses, and he doesn't speak. Its fairly easy for most of us to picture ourselves as him. It's also important to mention that Half Life is a first person shooter, so we are looking through Gordon's eyes the entire game. Not only are we his voice but also his eyes.
Link (Legend of Zelda Series)
This one is a little different since he doesn't really look like any of us. Link isn't even human, but he does have mostly human features and is not a muscle bound hero. In the games, Link is either a child or in his mid teen years. This age range mimicks the typical age of video game players at the time Link was created (now gamers are much older). As child who grew up with the Zelda franchise it was easy for me to put myself in his shoes. More important to Link's silence than his appearence is the overall game design. The Legend of Zelda is a large scale adventure series that requires a lot of puzzle solving. Naturally in a puzzle game we have to think a lot harder and are constantly guessing what to do next. Our internal dialogue is extremely important when playing the Legend of Zelda. Therefore, it makes sense to further link us to the game by giving us a silent protagonist. It also is not a coincidence that his default name is Link either, Shigaru Miyamoto gave him that name because he felt like we should have a link with the character. Furthermore, technically speaking, his name can be changed into any name as we are given the option to do that when we start the game. Having the name Link, which symbolically links us, or giving him our own name, which directly links us, are enhanced by him being a silent protagonist.
Crono (Chrono Trigger)
Now it was a very strange move to make the lead in a RPG silent. RPGs are typically the most story driven games and have the most dialogue. The lead character in an RPG usually has a very distinct personality and the designers want to sell the character as a specific personality type. However, in Chrono Trigger this is all thrown out the window. The designers made Crono silent basically making him a stand in for ourselves. His silence also helps prop up the supporting cast. It lets Crono fade into the background a bit and forces us to pay more attention to the other characters around us. Chrono Trigger has a cast of very colouful characters and they stand out even more beside the silent Crono.