With technology advancing at blinding speed, video games are becoming more cinematic with each major release. The visuals are more real. The gameplay is deeper. The sounds have gone from MIDI notes on a keyboard to full-blown orchestras. With these advances, video game characters have been given more personality than ever before. Their hair blows in the slightest breezes. Their eyes twinkle in that special moment. And their voices… Well let’s just say sometimes silence can be golden.
I read a lot of articles on the death of the silent protagonist. These articles talk about how players want their characters to talk. Some reviewers even give a game a lower score if the main character doesn’t have a voice. While I think that Nathan Drake is a phenomenal character (and Nolan North, while he voices almost every character in every game that comes out, is a pretty talented voice actor) he is his own person. The Drakes, Kratoses, Ezios and Solid Snakes of the world are their own characters. There is no room for the player to think for them. No place for the player to actually BE the character.
Some of the most popular characters in video games are the strong, silent type. One of the first, and best, examples that comes to mind is Link from The Legend of Zelda series. When I play these games, especially the latest game Skyward Sword, it really draws me in and gives me that heroic feeling. I make the decisions. And believe me it’s probably better if they kept Link silent. Their attempts at giving him a voice in the 80s cartoon and the CD-i games didn’t pan out all too well. It probably makes Zelda happy too. She gets no argument from him when she wants to go shopping.
Next to Link, there’s Mario. He’s as popular as Mickey Mouse, and barely says a thing. He just goes about his business, rescuing women from giant turtles and monkeys. Mario does say a few things here or there, but for the majority of the time you’re playing you are an Italian plumber from Brooklyn. The few things he says though are in a stereotypical Italian accent. My entire family is Italian and NO ONE sounds like that. But since Jersey Shore has already ruined the image of Italians everywhere, Mario has nothing to worry about.
Then there’s Crono from the RPG Chrono Trigger. He doesn’t say a word for the 100+ hours you can put into that game, but his character stands out among the strongest in video game history. And before someone can cry out that my examples might be a little aged, consider this: the only talking your character in Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim does is a whole lot of shouting. The player decides on the conversations. The character doesn’t drive the story as much.
I believe that keeping the protagonist silent, depending on the storyline of course, can be an asset
to a game. Again, it gives the player a level of immersion that they can’t achieve if their character does all of the talking and makes all of the decision for them. When it comes to iconic characters, such as Link, who have gone 25+ years without a voice, why try and give them one? The results can be a big disaster. Look at Metroid: Other M. The developers took one of the most bad ass characters in video games (and the one this column is based on) and made her talk. What could have been a genius idea turned into a disaster. Instead of making Samus cool, calculating and oozing with ass-kickery, they made her submissive and whiny (check out some videos on YouTube and you’ll see what I mean. The videos are rather lengthy and loaded with inner monologues and nonsense). It seemed to me she set women back a hundred years. I hope that when they decide to make another Metroid game they keep Samus quiet as a mouse and just let her actions speak for her.
One game that does give the main character a voice and the player a feeling of control and immersion, and does it without cutting corners or coming off cheesy, is Mass Effect. The player builds their Commander Shepherd from the ground up. Even though Shepherd does the talking, the player is given the choice on how Shepherd acts in a conversation. So both sides are happy. Those who like to be in control get to and those who want a talking character get that as well. It’s similar to a “choose-your-own-adventure” story. The words are there, the majority of the story is pre-determined, but the reader [read: player] has a fair amount of control over the events and the outcome.
To be clear, I don’t have a problem with the main character having a voice. For story purposes, sometimes it’s necessary. But, it needs to be done right. The voice needs to fit the character. Heck, I bet Nolan North could have done a better job as Samus. The creators need to be careful when it comes to letting their main character speak. When it’s done right Mass Effect) the results can be beautiful. When it is done wrong (Metroid: Other M) it can be a disaster. Of course, there are the rare occasions when the voice acting is so bad it’s good such as the original Resident Evil.
I hope for the sake of video games that the silent protagonist doesn’t die. Not every character needs to have a voice. We as gamers are their voice. We are in control. We call the shots.
Just In Bailey –an homage to the secret code from Metriod, which allowed you to play as Samus Aran without her suit– is an editorial column at Vagary.TV brought to you by Joey Alesia. Each week Joey will challenge you to look at a different perspective of the characters, gameplay, and/or plot in your favorite games. Chat up your thoughts below, or send Joey an e-mail at Joey.Alesia@vagary.tv