Silent protagonists have been a fixture of gaming almost from the very beginning, with characters like Link, Gordon Freeman, and Crono winning millions of fans without saying a word. Ostensibly to give the player a chance to project themselves onto the character, over the years there have been numerous attempts at playing with the standard silent protagonist formula. These include having characters who have legitimate reasons to be silent (Drakengard, Transistor), characters whose silence helps to hide plot details from the player (The Final Station), and characters whose silence illustrates an aspect of their character (Digital Devil Saga). However, it’s rare for the other characters to actually acknowledge the player’s silence, and when they do, it’s usually in the form of sly in-jokes (“Man of few words, aren’t you?”). It’s even rarer for games to take a closer look at what it means to be a silent protagonist; a hypercompetent faceless enigma that wipes away all opposition and vanishes into the annals of history. If someone like that existed in the real world, what kind of person would they be, and how would they be remembered?
“10 years ago, there was a war that engulfed the world. The Belkan War. In that war, there was a pilot who trailed across the sky and disappeared from history. He was a lone mercenary who inspired both fear and admiration. He is the man I seek” – Brett Thompson
Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War takes place during the titular Belkan War, where the fascist nation of Belka aggressively expands into surrounding territories. The player assumes the role of Cipher, a mercenary who is hired by the nation of Ustio to supplement their own forces in fighting off the Belkan aggressors. Over the course of the war, Cipher assumes the callsign Galm 1 and eventually becomes known as ‘The Demon Lord of the Round Table’ due to his legendary piloting ability. However, in a novel twist on the standard military simulator, the game’s story takes the form of a documentary being made about the war a decade after it ends. While early on, the documentary acts as a general record of the war’s events, the journalist making the documentary gradually becomes more and more interested in this mysterious figure who played a key role in the war, and works to find out more about just what kind of person he was, and what his motivations were.
Throughout the game’s missions, players are able to assume a variety of ‘Ace Styles’, which essentially form a loose morality system, based on their actions. There are three styles, Knight (which involves shooting down only mission-critical targets, leaving crippled opponents and non-combatants unscathed), Soldier (which will accept some collateral damage if it aids in completing the mission), and Mercenary (which will shoot down any and all targets, including non-combatants, in favour of a bigger payout). What’s interesting about this morality system when compared to others is that it leaves a lot up to interpretation when it comes to Cipher’s actual motives. For instance, if Cipher plays as a Knight, is it because he’s genuinely altruistic, or because he’s prideful, and sees fighting the helpless as beneath him? If he plays as a Mercenary, is it because he’s a bloodsoaked maniac who lives to fight, or does he just need the money? As is so often the case with silent protagonists, Cipher’s mindset is up to the player, but what sets Ace Combat Zero apart is its examination of how the other characters interpret Cipher’s actions.
In the interviews which are recorded as part of the documentary, a number of the enemy aces who Cipher fought against are interviewed to see how their battles against him influenced their lives today. The interpretations that they give of Cipher differ from person to person. If Cipher plays as a Knight, he is described as hesitant, emotionless, overwhelming, and proud in the first set of interviews alone. But a common theme throughout all of the interviews, regardless of Cipher’s ace style, is how Cipher defied his enemies’ expectations every time. Anthony Palmer describes his piloting skills as being like magic, and Detlef Fleischer seems fixated on how a lone mercenary could bring his proud career to an end. And yet, whether the interviewees hold Cipher in reverence or scorn, none of them are able to accurately describe why Cipher did what he did; for all their insights, he is as much of an enigma to them as he would be to anyone else.
As Cipher becomes more and more involved in the Belkan War, the mystique surrounding him similarly increases. At the beginning, he is seen as subordinate to his wingman Pixy, but as he participates in the liberation of Ustio’s capital, and then the destruction of the Excalibur laser weapon system, he eventually becomes comparable to Pixy in fame. This culminates in the game’s tenth mission, where Cipher shoots down a multitude of enemy aces almost singlehandedly, becoming known as the Demon Lord for the first time.
“Before long, everyone had taken notice of him. More and more would show to watch him go off on sortie. Mercenaries or maintenance crew, it didn’t matter. People wanted to burn his image into their memories. Hell, they weren’t the only ones…” –Pixy
However, this growing fame works against Cipher once the game is over. Because Cipher never spoke, all people have to remember him by are his achievements, and they seem increasingly hard to believe as time goes on; people saw him as a symbol, rather than a fighter pilot. This, coupled with Cipher’s activities being heavily classified, means that he fades in obscurity after the conflict, remembered only by those who directly fought alongside or against him, with most of the public doubting that he ever existed at all.
Often, in our modern culture, when someone does something remarkable, we’re just as fixated on the person behind the deed as the deed itself. Every detail of the lives of celebrities, politicians, and others in the public eye is poured over in intricate detail, even more so if a scandal is involved. If, however, the person was left as one gigantic question mark, whose name, nationality, origin and motivation was left purely up to speculation, who’s to say what people might think of them? In a way, Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War is a deconstruction of the standard silent protagonist; if you were a silent, tough-as-nails badass who regularly performed the impossible, how would people think of you? How would people interpret your actions? And how would people remember you after the fact, if they even believed you existed at all?
“The Demon Lord of the Round Table. A warrior who soared through the Belkan War, inspiring both fear and admiration. His presence filled the skies for but a few short months before he disappeared. Apart from that, nothing is known about him. I was never able to find out what kind of a person he really was. But whenever they talked about him, they always had a slight smile on their faces. That, perhaps, may be my answer” – Brett Thompson
1 – Screenshot taken by me from this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rU1qRjwqbns
2 – Screenshot taken by me from this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dDUdnvLiAnY
3 – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:RAF_Pilot_Walking_Away_from_Hawk_Aircraft_in_Silhouette_MOD_45154156.jpg