say something, pinocchio, please

the usefulness of a silent protagonist is, I think, fairly clear. it’s a direct line to player-avatar connection. Link never says anything you wouldn’t say; Crono never insults a character you like; Mario in Super Mario RPG never says something that ends up problematic a few decades down the line so you’re uncomfortable cheering as he jumps on a turtle until it dies. these protagonists are simplified to the point of literal avatar; any characterization derives from player expression. it’s the simpler alternative having enormous dialogue trees, but it’s also limited by the means by which the game allows for individual expression through play.

put another way: silent protagonists are ciphers and struggle to shape the plot of otherwise dialogue-heavy games. non-player characters in such games often have to be self-motivated enough to move the plot on their own, which runs counter to how narratives work in “traditional” non-interactive media. it can and does work; it’s just a little odd.

in fromsoft games, a silent protagonist often matches well with the abstract, dissociative narrative design. these worlds are long-dead and moldering. your allies are often only so out of desperation, ulterior motive, or necessity. human connection doesn’t really exist, which is part of the existential trauma and tragedy. your character in demon’s souls does not have a “relationship” with the Maiden in Black; she is a character, with strange and half-spoken motivations and feelings of her own, but she’s in no way informed by her relationship to you except how she provides you, a vessel for power, the means to be filled.

lies of p, the latest soulslike I’ve encountered and thus far easily my favorite not developed by from, has you play as public-domain Badass Twink Pinocchio, who as you may have guessed is silent.

now, lies of p does something that’s not uncommon among games with silent protagonists, which is to have moments where pinocchio clearly communicates to fellow characters even though it’s not spoken or animated. how else to explain how Hot Dad Geppetto always knows what’s happened in your latest boss encounter? someone’s told him his favorite church has gone a little rotten, and the only other candidates seem to want to keep a wide berth from the old sadsack.

the implication seems to be that pinocchio is not actually a mute—the game is suggesting that his silence is a mechanical choice for player-avatar synchronicity and not a choice of characterization. Link’s charades-style communication in tears of the kingdom, similarly, is so complex and clear to everyone he meets that you really have to be taking it as a given that he’s talking, and you just don’t get to hear it — all the better for you to insert your own voice in the margins.

but lies of p does have protagonist dialogue, too, sort of! lying is a mechanic in the game (of course it is). the moments where you’re asked to lie are almost always given an emotional valence; the lies are rarely “claim to be someone you’re not to access to a locked door.” instead you lie to protect others from shame or guilt, to offer them grace instead of forcing them up against an awful truth. sometimes it’s clear they know you’ve lied to them, but they appreciate it all the same, because the lie means you care about their feelings.

it works well enough in those moments, I think (so far, at least; I’m only about halfway through the game), but these half-steps create some weird dissonance. principally, the reason I thought to write this: there’s at least one moment where you’re made to fight a character I did not want to fight, whose reason for wanting pinocchio dead is misguided in more than one way. the character in question traps you in an arena where, given your silence and the lack of dialogue choices, killing is your only option.

it’s not that I wanted to be able to talk my way out of the fight—this isn’t a fallout game and I don’t want it to be—but the scene lacks characterization for both pinocchio and his opponent. the character talks plenty during your fight; pinocchio says nothing. am I meant to intuit that he’s trying to respond? is his opponent so far gone that attempts to console or bargain are futile?

there’s also the fact that pinocchio’s whole deal, in terms of character arc, is traditionally his quest to be a “real boy.” the lying (and listening to music, a cute way to show off the game’s great musical direction) feel like steps on the path towards a “good ending” where this, or something like it, happens. but in practice, pinocchio’s such a cipher that the journey means nothing beyond any gameplay benefits it may offer.

soulsborne games with silent player-characters use them to emphasize how their worlds refuse connection and trap individuals into cycles of despair and violence. lies of p, though it cribs heavily from those games in play and aesthetic, is ostensibly telling a story about trying to connect to the world, broken but not lost, and to discover what it means to be human. the narrative’s not a failure, but it’s hamstrung by this opposition.


addendum: I said at the top that lies of p is probably my favorite game in this milieu that wasn’t developed by from, and it probably outpaces a few of their games, too. that comes down, ultimately, to polish. mortal shell had some interesting ideas but was a clunky mess to actually play, with wildly unbalanced difficulty and janky animation. lies of p by contrast is tweaked to near-perfection. it can be maddeningly difficult, and I think some enemies have too much health, but my mistakes always feel like my own failures to read animation cycles (my own or my enemy’s), which is the kind of tough-but-fair balance you need to make it feel satisfying to get your ass kicked a dozen-plus times by one boss only to finally triumph.

it’s a cool game, it’s on game pass, it’s worth a look