Gee’s Tri-partite Identity: Where do silent protagonists fit in?

After reading Gee’s book, What videogames have to teach us about learning and literacy, I was genuinely interested in his account of the tri-partite identity in video games. He explains that this identity consists of:

  1. The player that controls the character
  2. The character that is controlled by the player
  3. How the player actually plays the game as the character

Reflecting on this explanation, I found myself curious as to how the silent protagonist, a recurring type of hero in games, fits into this identity. A silent protagonist is basically a main character who is never seen or heard speaking by the player (even though other characters’ actions may hint that the protagonist can speak – see www.giantbomb.com for a more detailed definition). Some examples of silent protagonists from my experience playing games are Crono from Chrono Trigger and Gordon Freeman from the Half-Life series.

The protagonist’s being silent doesn’t affect the first part of the tri-partite identity listed above – the player’s characteristics are his or her own, independent from the game he or she is playing. But clearly, it directly affects the character being controlled, since the character’s personality and motives are not explicitly provided. We can get some sense of the protagonist’s persona by the way other characters act toward him or her, but we are left without any explicit idea of what he or she is thinking. This seems to leave the protagonist’s thoughts and motives to the player’s imagination. I think sometimes we even start to see the second and third parts of the tri-partite identity blend together. How the player chooses to control the protagonist sculpts the character.

However, I don’t necessarily think this is true in all cases. In fact, www.joystickdivision.com tries to explain how Jack from Bioshock, Link from the Zelda series, and Gordon Freeman each seem to fit differently into the mold of the silent protagonist.

I’m curious to know others’ opinions on how these characters fit into Gee’s explanation of the tri-partite identity. Does the silent protagonist really start to blend the second and third parts of the identity? Or do we simply need to understand the character’s personality from subtle hints in the game? Or do games with silent protagonists just need to be thought of on a case-by-case basis?

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