Atomic Heart Will Leave You Dreaming of Silent Protagonists
Atomic Heart's constantly talking lead will leave you wondering whatever happened to the golden age of the silent protagonist.
Atomic Heart is a new action-adventure FPS title from developer Mundfish. It’s set in an alternate version of our own history in which the USSR developed a new substance in the 1930s that resulted in incredible technological innovations. Most notably, that new substance allowed Soviet scientists to create advanced robots that became the backbone of a kind of utopia.
Following a catastrophic end to WWII that resulted in the death of millions of civilians, many across the world began ordering those robots to help replace the workers that were lost. Unfortunately, a problem with recent developments in that technology seemingly caused some of the bots to go rogue. As a soldier named Major Sergey Alekseyevich Nechaev, you are tasked with trying to end the chaos and hopefully figure out what went wrong along the way.
It’s obviously a fantastical premise, though there is certainly something compelling about alternate histories and other “What If?” scenarios. In fact, by the end of Atomic Heart, you’ll probably find yourself wishing you lived in an alternate utopic version of 2023 in which the silent video game protagonist never fell so far out of favor.
I recently talked about some of Forspoken’s dialog and protagonist problems and the debate those problems led to. Remarkably, Atomic Heart has nearly all of the same problems. Much like Frey Holland in Forspoken, Major Sergey Nechaev loves to talk. To be more specific, both Holland and Nechaev love to constantly quip about their situation in ways that often point out how ridiculous they find the whole thing to be. Both even have talking companions that they wear (Cuff for Holland, Charless for Nechaev) that they’re almost always bantering with. It really is amazing how similar the two games are in terms of the writing of their protagonists, the style of dialog those protagonists often deliver, and the ways in which they deliver that dialog.
Like Forspoken, there’s obviously a degree to which your enjoyment of those constantly quipping characters will depend on how much you like Atomic Heart’s dialog. I found that dialog to often be awkward, blunt, not particularly funny, and strangely overflowing with profanity (another Forspoken similarity), but it’s already clear that some players love much of the game’s dialog. That writing style obviously became incredibly popular in recent years, and the reason it’s so divisive is that there are those who will defend it as adamantly as others criticize it.
In Atomic Heart, though, the big problem with that style is often the quantity of dialog as much as the quality of it. Your character is rarely quiet for prolonged periods of time, and too much of their dialog consists of them saying how ridiculous it is that they have to open another lock, fetch another item, or generally continue to participate in the campaign. Their constant chatter leads to not only an unusual amount of exposition but repeated exposition. He’s also a fan of saying the unexplained catchphrase “crispy critters” over and over again which…ok, that one grew on me over time.
Still, that almost constant flow of dialog got me thinking about some of the games that Atomic Heart was clearly inspired by (to say the least). I’m talking about games like BioShock, Prey, Fallout, and Doom. You can see aspects of all of those games in Atomic Heart, but the biggest thing they all had that Atomic Heart does not are silent (or laconic) protagonists.
Those games used protagonists that never (or rarely) talked because those games were designed to offer immersive experiences. BioShock and Prey even belong to the “Immersive Sim” genre that Atomic Heart is clearly modeled after. Games in that genre are meant to emphasize atmosphere in ways that will compel you to lose yourself in their worlds and narratives.
In the case of Atomic Heart, it’s kind of hard to lose yourself in that world and that narrative when your character is not only constantly talking but is often saying things designed to break or mock aspects of that world and that narrative. It’s almost like the developers were ashamed or unsure of the world and game they were creating so they decided to be self-deprecating as a defense mechanism. However, I think they actually created a pretty compelling world, which makes it that much stranger that they chose to go that route.
That’s the thing about silent protagonists. Silent (or mostly quiet) protagonists are not inherently superior to more talkative protagonists. I could go on and on about Link, Doom guy, and the other stellar examples of quiet heroes, but that would stray too far from the point. Both styles have their places.
That’s why it’s kind of sad that the silent protagonist has fallen so far out of favor in popular games in recent years. As voice acting became more accessible to more developers, more people subscribed to the idea that the lack of voice acting was a sign of cheap production values. Ok, that makes sense as a trend for a time, but we’re getting to a point where more and more creators across many different mediums seem to think that not having a protagonist that is constantly making comments is the surest way to lose what they seem to suspect are tragically short attention spans.
Forspoken includes a kind of “banter slider” that affords you a measure of control over how much your protagonist talks. Some have said that it’s better to play Atomic Heart in Russian in order to make it more authentic, increase your immersion, and smooth some of the rougher lines that perhaps don’t translate that well to other languages. Those are certainly interesting short-term solutions, but they’re solutions that highlight the fact there might be a problem in the first place.
The real solution to this increasingly popular trend may be for more developers (and some fans) to realize that the silent protagonist should no longer be the remanent of some bygone era or simply the choice you make when you don’t have the budget to pursue other options. The ability to create a memorable (even iconic) protagonist who never says a word and is bolstered by both their environment and the player’s actions is one of the rare gifts that the incredibly complicated medium of gaming has been given. Let’s hope more developers realize that there are times when it’s better to open that gift than it is to burden themselves with the presumed necessity of a character that won’t stop opening their mouth.