Mechanics as Storytelling: Doom’s Silent Protagonist

Is there any trope more specific to video games than that of the silent protagonist? The device has become so ubiquitous in the medium that it’s something of a running gag as games will often poke fun at their steadfastly mute heroes and heroines. The trope exists for a reason, though, as famous examples such as Link from The Legend of Zelda or Chell from the Portal games prove. Silence, it is generally accepted, allows the player to better immerse themselves in a game’s world as the character’s reactions are their reactions. We get to decide how Link interprets the world around him based on how we interpret it, and when we’re frustrated with a tricky level or triumphant at having finally beaten a boss, we imagine that’s what he’s feeling, too.

A silent protagonist can be more than just a vehicle for player reactions, and in some cases can even contribute to a game’s story. For proof, look no further than Doom (2016), where the main character’s tight-lipped attitude gives greater weight to the significance of the events that transpire. True, his silence is perhaps more due to tradition than anything else (the classic games featured a voiceless hero as well), but it’s still a part of this world and therefore is still a part of the story being told.

Talkative NPCs

The first thing to take into account is that Doom isn’t set in a world in which all the characters are mute. Take games in the Zelda series, for example – people in these titles rarely have actual voices, and those who do often just get a few lines of dialogue during a cutscene. Speaking is represented by text boxes that appear on screen alongside some gibberish sounds to give them a bit of personality. Link shares the same system (minus the gibberish) as his dialogue is simulated by dialogue text options that can be selected. He’s as silent as the rest of the world, with only the implication of a voice.

Doom takes a different approach. Every character in the game has a voice, no matter how major or minor their role. The only real exception is the Doom Slayer, who ostensibly never talks to anyone, not even the artificial intelligence VEGA that chimes in with the express purpose of helping him defeat the demons. There’s not even so much as a dialogue box to represent the Slayer speaking – for all intents and purposes, he spends the game truly and completely silent. As mentioned before, there are some obvious reasons for this bit of design, as tradition holds that the Doom Guy doesn’t speak and immersion is easy to achieve when the player character is silent. The question, then, is how the silent protagonist impacts the game’s story.

The Road to Hell

The plot of Doom is pretty straightforward – the UAC, in their attempts to leech energy off of Hell and weaponize the creatures found there, inadvertently caused a full scale demonic invasion of their facilities. Now the Doom Slayer has to come fix things – violently. Exploring the levels fully and watching the cutscenes reveals some additional details regarding Olivia Pierce getting corrupted by the demonic energy and how the UAC treated its employees, but the most significant plot point is the demonic invasion. It’s a simple tale of mankind’s hubris – after all, who in the world could have had the arrogance and audacity to think that drawing energy from Hell itself was a good idea?

Enter Dr. Samuel Hayden, chairman of the UAC and architect of the project to extract power from Hell. At various points throughout the story, Hayden tries to influence the Doom Slayer to work with him in order to curb the invasion while leaving the infrastructure of harvesting Hell energy in place. He proves useful at times, giving you vital information on how to proceed, but he also betrays you at the end of the game and exiles you to Hell so he can salvage his operation. From his actions and dialogue in the game, we can safely conclude that Hayden’s fatal flaw is an inability to admit failure. True, he wants to stop the demonic invasion, but his priority is getting the system back online. He constantly focuses on the fact that he was trying to do something good and that if he could just give it another go, he’d definitely be able to do it right.

Paved with Good Intentions

It’s important to note that this is the person who the Doom Slayer interacts with most during the course of the game. His silence is therefore directed mostly at Hayden, insofar as silence can be directed. The distinct lack of engagement with Hayden’s arguments and reasoning tells us exactly what the Doom Slayer thinks of the points he makes – and of Hayden himself. As we see time and time again throughout the story, Hayden is not going to change his mind. No one and nothing is going to convince him to accept his failure, and so our energies are better spent elsewhere. Sure, the Doom Slayer will accept his help when it’s provided and he’ll listen when he can glean some valuable information, but he’s not here undo Hayden’s failings or assuage his ego – he’s here to kill demons.

This is the reasoning behind the Doom Slayer’s silence. He doesn’t speak because even if he did, no one would really be listening. Anything he said would be worse than useless, as it would draw energy away from the more important task of killing the demons. The Doom Slayer is above all a pragmatic character – if something cannot help him, it is discarded or ignored. And in Doom, events have moved far, far beyond the point where words could help anything.

Further Reading

Inside the Doom Score: Mick Gordon Interview | Bethesda.net

Doom: The Definitive Interview | VentureBeat

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