When Keeping Your Mouth Shut is the Best Way to Play

By Chris McMullen on at

Sometimes it’s better to keep your mouth shut. That may or may not be sound life advice but, when it comes to dialogue-driven games, giving non-player characters the silent treatment can a thoroughly worthwhile and entertaining pastime.

You could agree with Karth. P. Chunderguts that head-butting a dragon is a sound plan, or tell him to boil his head, but it’s more fun to keep quiet and watch him try to process your refusal to answer. I’ve always loved the idea of derailing a game’s story by simply refusing to play along and, while staying silent doesn’t always accomplish that, it certainly throws up narrative speed bumps.

It’s like getting the lead part in a play then, on the first night’s performance, standing wordlessly in the middle of the stage. What do the other actors do? Wait for you to speak? Shout prompts? Try and keep the play going without you? In the same way, video game NPCs seem unsure how to handle your silence, stuck between all the options, and it’s a beautiful thing. There's no understudy to the player character after all: their existence revolves around you.

You can almost smell the panic as you continue to choose “say nothing” in The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan or, in the case of Telltale’s The Walking Dead and Oxenfree, let the dialogue options time out.

“She's uncomfortable. It was a stupid question anyway,” Oxenfree’s Ren nervously mumbles, in a desperate attempt to keep the conversation flowing.

I remain silent.

“Silence counts as a lie!” chips in Clarissa, as the speech balloons fade away once again. The further you get into Oxenfree, the funnier it is to ignore your fellow characters. As if the game’s reality-warping calamity isn’t enough, Ren, Clarissa and Jonas grow gradually more unsettled by your silence. If you’re still Alex, why aren't you talking? Or has she been replaced by some malevolent force, stalking them with the intent of revelling in their torment? Being able to walk off as they’re trying to talk adds an additional hint of menace.

Staying quiet doesn’t generally result in more agency. There are occasions when staying silent will influence a game’s plot but mostly things continue as they would anyway: Karth will still stick with you until, two chapters later, he has his brain yanked out through his left nostril. But it still feels like some grand act of rebellion; the game determined to keep you on a single narrative path as you mutely resist every step of the way.

Firewatch is another title where silence is an option. Ignoring Delilah (your fellow firewatcher and boss) is fun at first and leaves you sniggering like a schoolchild who’s just looked up “bum” in the dictionary. Then it sinks in that you’re gaslighting a woman who has precious little human contact as-is and moved here to escape her past. It’s one of the few games where I felt guilty about giving someone the silent treatment. Not guilty enough to say anything, mind.

But while Oxenfree and Firewatch will let you remain mostly silent, Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Season 1 takes a leaf out of eXistenz’s book. In this David Cronenberg movie the central character, as well as poking a writhing, oversized testicle, notes that:

“There are things that have to be said to advance the plot and establish the characters, and those things get said, whether you want to say them or not.”

To this end, The Walking Dead: Series 1 makes you feel like you’re in the wrong for daring to remain quiet, even though the game insists “silence is a valid option”. Keep refusing to speak and you’ll be accused of sitting on the fence or get trapped in a dialogue loop. Failing that, the game will slap the controller out of your hands and have protagonist Lee say whatever needs to be said to advance the game’s plot.

It’s understandable, since the first season’s storyline hinges on Lee’s attachment to Clementine, the girl he takes under his wing. She’s so adorable that it’s hard to even consider ignoring her, but if The Walking Dead let you get away with giving her the silent treatment it would tear out the game’s heart. Faced with letting Lee ignore her (removing his motivation for wading into hell) or forcing him to engage with her, it’s not surprising Telltale went for the latter option.

But what’s the worst that could happen if you refuse to speak? Nothing, really... unless you’re playing The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan. Like The Walking Dead, Man of Medan ensures that certain lines of dialogue are spoken, but still gives you the freedom to stonewall people. When Alex solemnly asked Julia to marry him, there was really only one choice; to gawp at him, not uttering a word.

I laughed myself silly when he continued to press her, only to be met by the same indifferent expression. And again. I kept hammering “say nothing” throughout the game and was laughing right up until Brad got shot in the head. It turns out when a twitchy, gun-wielding pirate demands an answer, zipping your lip isn’t the best course of action. Who’d have thought it?

It’s not that games have to let you keep your mouth shut. Mass Effect’s characters are happy to twiddle their respective appendages while you decide whether you’re going to save their lives or punch them in the mouth. So why bother making silence an option? Firstly, it makes speech feel more natural; silence is perfectly acceptable in everyday conversation. Secondly, it’s possible for games to exploit the negative perception of silence.

Silence is normal, but we still use expressions like “awkward silence” and often feel the need to say something when there’s a lull in conversation. Even if what you’re saying has little value, it’s often viewed as preferable to saying nothing. In a similar manner, threatening the player with silence if they don’t choose a dialogue option is a means of generating tension, forcing them to think quickly.

Don’t be fooled. Silence has its place in games, just as it does in everyday life. And while greeting every single question with a quiet stare might raise a few eyebrows at work, in the virtual world it’s a positive boon. Seeing how a game handles silence can speak volumes; whether it really lets you keep quiet, or resorts to doing the talking for you. I'll never get bored of watching NPCs get flustered because my avatar zones out of the conversation.

It's one of the great pleasures of video games that, while they're all designed to play out in some pre-destined manner (and especially narrative games), the nature of interactivity is that you can, while perhaps not escaping the Matrix, choose to disobey. There is a pleasure, of course there is, in getting all your lines right, delivering zingers, providing closure and moving happily on to the next narrative beat. But you can find just as much joy tuning in, checking out, and watching a world try desperately to accommodate its unusual new fulcrum. Sometimes, silence really is golden.

Header Image: Kristina Flour on Unsplash.