I should begin by saying this is not an ode to silent protagonists. If anything, I’d like to argue that for a strong narrative-driven game, a silent protagonist is actually a detriment. How does one hook a story on a main character who has no or limited personality? In this essay, I will… argue that Joker, the silent protagonist in Persona 5/Royal, had no right to be silent.
Spoilers abound for Persona 5 Royal.
Let me back up.
The Function of the Silent Protagonist: Do We Even Need This?
In the back of my mind for some months now, I’ve been mulling over the role of the silent protagonist in modern games. Silent protagonists have long been a staple, and some of them have stayed silent for decades—Link and Mario being notable examples. And depending on the role the silent protagonist plays, this can be fine: Does Mario need to say anything more than “woohoo!” or show his nipples? Does the Hunter in Bloodborne need a personality in a story that is so convoluted you need to watch a YouTube video to explain it? (This is, perhaps, a debatable point, but at least one person has argued they do not in regards to Souls games overall.)
Silent protagonists are, often, a space for the player to insert themselves in games. After all, can a player see themself in someone with a defined personality? Actually, I will argue yes, and even when someone cannot, that does not preclude a game from resonating with a person. Just as a book usually needs a strong center (a person or setting, for example) to tell a story (keeping in mind that all craft is cultural), a narrative-driven game where the player controls a protagonist needs someone to hook its story into. Otherwise, it begs the question of why someone more interesting isn’t the protagonist in the first place.
I’ve thought about some games in the last few years with strong narratives, brought down by the lack of the protagonist’s personality. Dragon Quest XI is one example. In a game where the Hero is fated to save the world from darkness and draws together a party from very different walks of life, I have to wonder why these people are willing to follow someone who doesn’t have enough personality to fill a teaspoon. (There is one notable exception, and it’s my favorite moment in the game. Why couldn’t we get more moments of that??)
Despite my deep love of this admittedly flawed game (MAKE THEM GAY YOU COWARDS), Fire Emblem: Three Houses is another example. I have no problem with Byleth being a total fighting badass and, in many senses, a Mary Sue—if I’m the main character in a game, then I like feeling powerful and important. But when every support conversation between Byleth and another character is about how much Byleth means to the latter, or when the house leaders are driven to actions because Byleth is by their side, then I need something more than a pretty face. At least make the speaking choices different enough to imply a personality, rather than repeat the same thing two different ways! The most we get out of Byleth is the opening decision of being a ghost, demon, or mortal, and the change in music after a certain very sad event pre-timeskip. (Although I won’t be discussing Dragon Age in this essay, much to my devastation, that’s a game not only where every choice you make has consequences, but where every dialogue option comes with an explicit personality. I’m not saying every game needs its dialogue choices to branch, but that is one example of imbuing dialogue with meaningful personality.) The silent protagonist isn’t even a staple in Fire Emblem as a series—plenty of older FE games had defined protagonists (Ike, anyone?), and even Robin, the player character of Awakening, has personality in their support dialogues.
This “protagonist has no personality” problem is not a modern problem for narrative-driven games, either. Crono, in Chrono Trigger, is the least interesting character in what is arguably one of the best JRPGs ever made. The player doesn’t even have to go rescue him from Lavos before finishing the game! Dorkly even made a skit about it!
So what, I ask myself, is the purpose of a silent protagonist in a narrative-driven game? I come to the conclusion that it is a storytelling weakness, and one we can leave behind as a relic no longer serving its purpose.
Mind you, I am not arguing that there cannot be quiet or nonverbal protagonists. There are ways to brim a limited-speaking protagonist with personality. Consider, for example, the few moments in Breath of the Wild where Link suddenly comes alive and is even given a reason to be silent. In just a few lines, Link’s character is remarkably expanded despite BotW not being the type of narrative game I mean in this essay. My larger point, though, is that games are clever about ways to give us new information without the protagonist saying a word, and an in-game journal by the protagonist is a great example of such. (Although their protagonists are not silent, Life is Strange and Night in the Woods are both excellent examples of in-game journals that strengthen our understanding of the main character.) So if you prefer, replace “silent” with “personality-less,” and my point stands.
Which brings me to my main argument: Joker, in Persona 5/Royal, should not have been silent.
“Actually, Joker Is Super Fleshed—” Let Me Stop You There
I am going to assume, from here on out, that readers have at least some familiarity with Persona games, particularly Persona 5. Still, let me briefly give a gameplay summary: play is primarily broken into two modes, “normal life” and “Phantom Thief life.” In the protagonist’s everyday life, players go to school, go to work, and hang out with various Confidants (which levels up that Confidant bond and grants various abilities). In the Phantom Thief life, players infiltrate a parallel dimension called the Metaverse, fighting Shadows and recruiting them via dialogue negotiations to become part of Joker’s fighting team of Personas (which is unique to Joker, as a Wildcard).
(Please note from the outset that I’m not talking about Strikers here, where I think Atlus did work on bringing Joker’s personality to life in many dialogue choices, but they done fucked up when they forgot about the BIGGEST ANTAGONISTIC FORCE IN VANILLA P5 AND NO I’M NOT TALKING ABOUT SHIDO—ahem. Anyway.)
Before 5/Royal fans, of which I am one (Royal my favorite game!), come barging down my door, I want to be clear: despite the little we see of his true colors, or perhaps because of the ways fans expand on his personality, I relate most to Joker out of any character. And dressing as him, channeling him—that’s peak gender euphoria for me. So this is not me yelling at Atlus for this protagonist, or for Yu from P4, or for Minato from P3. But I do think that much of the personalities ascribed to these characters come from 1) projections by others (meaning us, the players), both within the game and outside it; 2) other sources, e.g. manga/anime; 3) fandom. All of these are, for me, valid ways to understand and interact with the protagonist. My argument here is that the game’s narrative itself can and should give these characters—or in this case, Joker—more canonical traits and/or more opportunities to expand on the canonical personality we do have, because that can only enrich our interactions with the game and understanding of the characters.
If you only look at vanilla/original Persona 5, the canonical aspects of Joker’s personality are limited. In the Persona games, when the protagonist is given room to speak, he’s usually given three options; in P5, with a couple notable exceptions in Royal, these options do not lead to different outcomes. They also, for the most part, don’t have meaningful differences; in other words, they’re the same thing repeated three different ways. (Some of the similarities among dialogue options are likely due to translation limitations—Japanese has different forms of “I” that have different connotations of formality.) I do briefly want to mention that I’m not talking here about his dialogue in recruiting Shadows—those do vary and affect whether or not you succeed. Interestingly, some of these choices are extremely different, and although you’re choosing what the Shadow wants to hear, they often have very different tones.
There are, of course, a few times where Atlus forgets that Joker is meant to be a blank slate and gives him memorable lines. Who can forget “I’m a dad” as an option to the first Becky scene, which they kept in the anime? Or “time to button mash?” But having a handful of dialogue options across a game that is literally 130 hours long is not, in my opinion, good enough, when there are so many other missed opportunities. How do we only get one throwaway line, which not a single Thief responds to, about Joker’s time literally being tortured by police and the trauma that entails? How do we never hear his take on being arrested the first time (not just the story, but how he actually felt, not stated by Ryuji or Morgana), or get some sense that if we’re skipping over it, we’ve done so due to trauma and not to save time? The lack of interiority on what often can change or shape someone’s personality or personhood falls flat for me. One could argue this is room for the player to project onto Joker, but I find that problematic for reasons I’ll discuss shortly, and more importantly, the lack makes Joker feel incomplete—a character who feels like a person would have thoughts on these devastating, important events!
Where do we see Joker’s personality come through? In limited moments. When he awakens Arsene, his smirk, his rage, fills the screen. When he sits with Ann as she cries in Big Bang Burger after the gym teacher Kamoshida tries to pressure her into coming over (presumably to have sex) lest her best friend Shiho get cut from the volleyball team, Joker clenches his fingers on his knees. (Honestly, though, wouldn’t this piss most people off?) His consistent lukewarm options when hanging out with Mishima tells us that Joker is as annoyed with Mishima as the rest of us (sorry, Mishima fans). More often than not, Joker remains fairly emotionless in response to goings-on, particularly in big moments, which makes me wonder why other characters are drawn to him in the beginning of the game.
Why, for instance, do the OG Phantom Thieves decide Joker should be their leader instead of Morgana? “He woke his persona first” doesn’t seem like a strong enough reason. “He’s the best option, all things considered” feels like a reaction from fans—because at this point, Morgana is still the one with the most information about the Metaverse, and wouldn’t it make sense for the talking cat Metaverse creature to guide them through the cognitive world? Ryuji calls Joker fearless/charismatic, which, at this early point, isn’t something that feels accurate, especially since Ryuji and Ann are also capable of fighting in the Metaverse. Joker’s Wildcard abilities are still fairly unexplored, and Morgana is still doing most of the guiding at this point.
One fandom theory that would have been fascinating to expand upon is that Joker changes depending on who he’s with, based on what that confidant needs. Small shifts in dialogue choices could have given us an understanding of how he morphs depending on who he’s with—and then we might have had the opportunity to get a why, too. For me, this theory—that Joker shifts depending on who he’s speaking to—would be a vital personality choice that changes how the player interacts with Joker. It also is one reason why I believe not having interiority for Joker, and thereby allowing the player to project onto him, is problematic. If Joker moves through the world where others project onto him—which is canon; one especially poignant example is with Maruki, who turns from therapist to researcher to trauma-dumper-extraordinaire—then the one place where he can completely be himself should be when he’s alone, with the player.
And I don’t mean that we need to get any of this information verbally. To return to my earlier point that the protagonists can be nonverbal or quiet: Joker could have been a great non-speaking protagonist if we’d been given even a fraction more inner thought, which could help tie together the little bits of him we do get throughout the game. There are places where we do hear him thinking—mostly, when Morgana isn’t around to tell him to go to bed. But he also has a canonical journal that Sojiro, his guardian, gives him at the beginning of the game! The journal, mechanically, is how the player saves (“I’ll just add this”), but it could have been an awesome vehicle to give this quiet, thoughtful protagonist some more personality before the events of Royal’s Third Semester. How does he deal with the injustices he sees around him, internally? What does he think when his supposed therapist trauma dumps on him instead? Or about how his friends, who do love him, who consistently center themselves and never once check in with his emotional state? Who never once think about the pressures they put on him as their leader? What does Joker think about that? Alternatively, why couldn’t the Thieves’ Den be a space for Joker’s inner thoughts to color what we see of him in the game, since it’s literally his Palace?
How Joker Could Have Worked: He Loves Goro Akechi, Your Honor
Where I believe Atlus realized their mistake, and did a modicum of damage control, was in Royal, particularly the Third Semester. This is when Maruki’s alternate reality takes place; Joker wakes up on New Years and dead parents are now alive, traumas have been removed, and Morgana is a human teen with an unfortunate voice. The Phantom Thieves, once inseparable, are now living their happy lives where their biggest dreams have been granted: Ryuji is still a track star; Shiho was never assaulted or moved away; Makoto’s sister is emotionally and actually available to be a big sister. Suddenly, Joker finds himself without the friends who have been by his side for the last several months, all of them too busy being happy now that everything in their lives have been fixed.
And in the midst of trying to figure out what is going on, on that first day, Goro Akechi walks into Leblanc and takes Joker to the laundromat (( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)). And it is then, finally, that we get an honest-to-goodness actual dialogue choice with Joker’s reaction. You can choose to tell Akechi—and, in later moments, the other Thieves—that Joker doesn’t trust him, or you can agree to go along with his plan. You can express surprise and relief that Joker’s rival is out of jail and realizes everything in this new world is strange. (In the original P5, prosecutor Sae Nijima asks Joker to turn himself into the police after defeating Yaldaboath. When this happens in Royal, Akechi steps in and agrees to turn himself in instead. Here, too, Joker can express his surprise and relief that Akechi is alive, and back, and willing to do this.)
Yet, what we do not see is Joker’s true reactions to each of the Thieves’ brainwashing. It is Akechi’s idea to talk to each Thief and get them to realize the falseness of the world, but it’s on Joker to do so. In each of his conversations, he encourages them to remember, and then walks away. He believes they will return in later dialogue choices—a glimpse at a hopefulness in this character—but Atlus lost an opportunity to explore the true betrayal of these moments, even though logically, it wasn’t the Thieves’ faults. But none of their ideal realities has Joker as a meaningful part; that has to hurt. That has to make Joker feel something. After breaking Maruki’s hold on them, each of the Thieves feels devastatingly guilty about what happened; the awakening of their third Personas are each linked to their apology to Joker and affirmation that they have his back. And Joker has nothing meaningful to say to this?
But consider, in contrast, Joker’s reactions on the fateful day of February 2, 20XX, when Maruki reveals his reality is the only thing keeping Goro Akechi alive—the Goro Akechi who gets Joker to have meaningful, personality-ladened dialogue choices, who is the catalyst for the events of the entire Third Semester. Until now, Joker did not hesitate to fight Maruki and deny his friends false happiness; it is the threat on Akechi’s life that makes him hesitate. Even if he no longer says “this isn’t small potatoes“—which, truthfully, is goddamn hilarious—he does say “your life isn’t trivial!” Has Joker ever spoken in exclamations before? No, I don’t think so. This is not an essay in which I examine all the ways thesis and antithesis play off each other, the cat-and-mouse game that defines the relationship between these two that Atlus literally calls “two side one coin.” Nor is it here where I argue that a relationship with Goro Akechi literally changes the outcome of the game, which is why we get the Third Semester to begin with. But I will say that when we do get a modicum of canonical personality from Joker, it’s almost always in relation to his rival. I mean, “Honey, I’m home,” is one of the most iconic lines in the game. The two moments where the player’s choice matters—after the engine room, when Joker is lying in bed, and on February 2 regarding Maruki’s deal—both are in regards to Crow. Is it any wonder that Goro Akechi is Joker’s canonical love interest the one person that brings out an actual personality in our protagonist?
So I’m not arguing here that Joker has absolutely no canonical personality whatsoever—anyone who opens a game by jumping through a window head-first clearly has something to share—but rather, that we don’t get enough of the limited options that allow us to give him a personality for much of the game. Anyone with a spirit of rebellion and an outfit that fabulous has to have a personality. So why don’t we see more of it?
I’ve thought about the arguments that Joker does have a rich personality, and while I hear the examples given, I disagree that they add up into someone who feels like a fully realized character. To me, the reasons Joker cares so much about justice do matter (the video dismisses this without arguing the point). Whether those reasons are moral or personal or circumstantial are of the utmost importance, because they flesh out this vigilante leader. The particulars of his lines do matter. I’d also be okay with there being options here—a Joker who is out for vengeance versus trying to cope with trauma versus wanting fame and fortune are three very different Jokers! Maybe I’m in the minority, but I’d rather have the particulars and truly understand the ins and outs of this protagonist than leave them up to the people who are willing to discount, say, his queer lines and demand his straightness in a friend group that really does not feel straight to anyone who is queer (as heterosexual players are wont to do).
The argument that Joker being fully fledged makes him unrelatable is, in my mind, flawed. Relatable to whom and for what purpose? Must every player character be “relatable” in every game or story? This term is so often weaponized against people of color and queer people, and I’m tired of having to find cishet white men in stories “relatable”—since that’s usually who this term refers to. No one is 100 percent relatable to someone else; someone who relates to Bruce Wayne probably will not relate to Azula! Besides, is it more relatable to have no personality at all, or to find the bits and pieces of a fully realized character that connect to you? Relatability is contextual and deeply political, and frankly, I’d rather have a strong character I can’t see myself in at all than a blank slate I can project onto that doesn’t give me any strong reason to care.
If I’m going into a narrative-driven game, then I want a strong narrative, and a strong protagonist to stand up to that narrative. Joker has that potential, and is almost there, but he falls short in favor of an old trope that no longer serves its purpose.
Sidequest’s former managing editor Naseem Jamnia used to do sciencey things, but they now slam their keyboard and call it art. By night, they play a lot of video games. And regardless of the time, they spend way too much of it on Twitter, @jamsternazzy. Also, their debut novella, THE BRUISING OF QILWA, comes out in August 2022!