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What's better: A silent protagonist, or combat style ratings?

Vote now as we continue trying to decide the single best thing in games

Gordon Freeman and Alyx Vance pose in Half-Life 2 artwork.
Image credit: Valve

Last time, you decided that fighting your double is better than optional challenges giving rewards upfront. I am an impartial observer here but oops oh no I have accidentally copy/pasted a remark from commenter Oli Baba, who said "Rewards upfront is one of the coolest mechanics to grace gaming and seems to be losing only because so few people have come across it." Whoops, I really must fix those hotkeys. Next, I ask you to choose between cooly saying nothing, or being told how cool you are. What's better: a silent protagonist, or combat style ratings?

A silent protagonist

A silent protoganist, folk wisdom says, is an empty vessel whom you can fill with whatever personality you want. Without some voice actor piping up and rabbiting on, who they are is what you do. They take the plot exactly as seriously as you do. They are exactly as professional as you are. If you want to believe they're a happy go-lucky idiot or a frigid murderman or The Joker, sure, why not. Their personality will only clash with your expressed personality when mandatory plot events demand it, and you can internally justify their motivations and response however you please—it's not like they can argue against it.

The second-best form of silent protagonist is one who never speaks, even if people seem to be conversing with them, but will grunt when shot or when opening a door. NNGH! NNGH! YARGH! HRNG! NNGH! AH! NNGH!

The best form of silent protagonist is modern Doom's Doomguy, who happily grunts away same as ever but has delightfully expressive body language in first-person animations as he breaks machines he can't be fussed with (and fist-bumps collectable toys).

I also like when games playfully lampshade my guy's silence with jokes and interruptions. Fun, that. Easy to over-do, but fun. Though I am undecided about games needlessly coming up with convoluted plot reasons to justify my silence. It's fine, it's video games, we understand, you don't need to explain, don't tie yourself in silly knots.

A silent protagonist protagonist can be a missed opportunity, mind. I quite like inhabiting a character, a person with personality and opinions and an agenda. I might think they're a bit of a dickhead (take a bow, Bulletstorm, you daft bastard) but as long as they don't make me want to drown them in a flushable urinal (take a bow, Duke Nukem, and remain bowed while I keep mashing my spacebar) but their presence adds something. I can like seeing the world through a character's eyes while they're seeing it too. But we're here to decide a best thing, not a flawless thing.

Combat style ratings

Deadly! Carnage! Brutal! Atomic! Smokin'! Smokin' Style!! Smokin' Sick Style!!! That's how Devil May Cry 4 will rate the escalating coolness of your violence. Keep up a chain of attacks, vary your moves, switch weapons, parry well, and you'll soon go from merely Deadly! through to Brutal! and who knows, maybe even that Smokin' Sick Style!!! Many games rate your violence but games like Devil May Cry are the most explicit about making it cool, prioritising creativity and rating you in real time with a style gauge right there on your HUD. I think the whole thing is, at minimum, Smokin'!

Devil May Cry 5 had an even more outrageous top rating: Smokin' Sexy Style!! Watch on YouTube

Look, there's no shame in admitting that sometimes you can be lazy, a little bit cheesey. It's okay to find a small chain of moves which works and stick with it until it doesn't. But wouldn't you sometimes like to be glorious? Radiant? Brutal? Atomic? What you need is a system to frown when you lose creativity and cheer when you perform dramatic ultraviolence in the face of adversity. Because sometimes, winning isn't enough: you want to be cool too.

Extremely cool murders in an Ultrakill screenshot.
Image credit: New Blood Interactive

It's not only for character action games, mind. The excellent first-person shooter Ultrakill has style ratings (running from Destructive up to SSShitstorm before hitting ULTRAKILL) that reward cool movement, good dodging, great murders, and switching weapons to keep that violence fresh. Lots of games could encourage you to be cool.

Combat style ratings are a clever little way for a singleplayer game to encourage you to learn and show off. You have no other players to compete with or showboat in front of but the game will still be impressed when you do something cool (and reward you with a little extra pocket money to buy new skills and whatnot). A little Guy Fieri sitting in the corner of your screen.

You don't strictly need to have the radikewl declarations, I guess, but can you honestly say you have a loftier goal in life than developing Smokin' Sick Style!!!?

But which is better?

On a conceptual level, I do like a silent protagonist. On a practical level, oh god imagine how insufferable so many more video game protagonists would be. But cool? Cool is cool is cool. Give me those coolmurder ratings, please. But what do you think, reader dear?

Pick your winner, vote in the poll below, and make your case in the comments to convince others. We'll reconvene next week to see which thing stands triumphant—and continue the great contest.

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