Tacit Dissent: Why Great Characters Must Speak

The issue of silence in Half-Life or Fallout 3 has a long discussion history, but one critic doesn't consider it a virtue. Stripping the voice from a main character is "a pathway into madness and schlocky conceits," he says.

Sean Sands, writing for Gamers With Jobs, says the forced silence of a character like Gordon Freeman or Bioshock's Jack Ryan, despite their starring roles in game-of-the-year honourees, "do more damage to my suspension of disbelief than having just avoided the whole problem in the first place." And Sands alleges it comes from a misplaced belief that storytelling in video games requires the imposition of a player's personality on the controlled character.

One thing I find about games in which your character has no voice is how expository the dialogue becomes. This is a common enough problem in video game scripts anyway, but the show-don't-tell ethos really goes out the window when a game character has to hold up both ends of the spoken conversation. Sands points out this problem in Half-Life.

He instead praises BioWare for its commitment to voicing its RPGs. Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 are instant examples; unmentioned but also indicative of BioWare's strong commitment to that production value is how Star Wars: The Old Republic will be a fully voiced MMO. And Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is another fine example of a well-acted, fully voiced game whose protagonist is still memorable and much beloved.

Identification, Please [Gamers With Jobs, Jan. 28]

I consider it audacious and unreasonable to think that video game story telling is so different that suddenly players will be unwilling to empathise with their character unless that character takes on their personality. I appreciate the potential of this new medium, but my experience has been that for now, the more we stick with good old fashioned story telling the better off everyone will be.

When it comes right down to it, I think the problem is that game developers and writers worry far too much about how to make the player identify himself or herself within the character they take on in game. This is a pathway into madness and schlocky conceits that do more damage to my suspension of disbelief than having just avoided the whole problem in the first place.

[...]

These days everyone is plugging complex and sophisticated worlds into even the most basic shooter. That's not a bad thing, but if you do that then it seems to me that you have to accept the reality of your narrative. If everyone else in this world you've created has a personality, it seems like a damn shame that I'm not given one as well. Just telling me that I should assume their own identity as if it were my own and plug it into their avatar is a cop-out at best and a bungling mistake at worst.

As I play through Mass Effect 2, I am grateful at the depths to which BioWare is willing to develop and explored the player's character, even if that comes at the expense of sometimes removing the player from having uninterrupted authority. Obviously we are talking about a very different creature here, because there are complex dialogue trees and it would be impossible to imagine this game without a vocal hero, but I know that I will identify with Commander Shepherd long after I've stopped clicking that little .exe file.

Apples and oranges, I suppose, but as I look back at games like Deus Ex, Dragon Age, Uncharted or Fallout, a fairly diverse cross-section of the past decade, I find that most stories are enhanced by a well developed hero or anti-hero. It is far better to my mind to be shown a professional crafted story than to be wedged into gimmicks designed to trick me into believing I am actually part of the story.

I'm not. Who I am is not modular, and I can not at will divest myself from the limitation of my own experience and plug it into your world. I am a functioning adult, and no matter how deeply immersed I become, I still know that my character on screen is not me.

- Sean Sands

Weekend Reader is Kotaku's look at the critical thinking in, and of video games. It appears on Sundays. Please take the time to read the full article cited before getting involved in the debate here.


Comments

    Don't really agree with him at all. Bioshock and HL2 are two of the greatest games of all time EXACTLY For this reason.

    When the player character isn't rattling off witty quips, or angsty monologues, you can concentrate more on the world, it's inhabitants, and what they have to say. If 'extra expository dialogue' is the payoff for this level of immersion (TBH, i didn't really find this a problem in HL2 and Bioshock, as the worlds themselves did most of the talking), then so be it.

    Games like ME and Dragon Age are great because you can still play your character the way you want to, and say what YOU want to say. It's not really the same as scripted games like Uncharted 2 at all, the character still has your personality.

    Silent protagonists still have their place in the gaming world, if you disagree, there's plenty of voiced macho manly men for you to have fulfil your fantasies in games like Gears of War or Halo

    How about Ghostbusters? Your character doesn't even seem to have a name, let alone talk.

    Legend of Zelda, anyone? You could name any game in the series, but Ocarina of Time is largely considered to be *the* best game of all time, and Link doesn't speak at all.

    Half Life 2 makes a good case as well.

    It's nice to have a protagonist who has a siginature personality. If that's the way the developer wants to tell the story then so be it. Crysis, for example..Nomad is your typical war hero with a tough, meaty, deep voice. Quite suitable and he helps tell the story.

    It's also nice to have a silent protagonist. Sands makes the point of being self aware that you are not in the game but I like to forget about that and become 'the lone wanderer' so to say. If he were to be given a voice it would take that personal experience away.

    In other words, I'm on the fence. I guess it depends what type of game your playing. It's much easier to pull off having a silent character in a FPS than a 3rd person.

    A non-voiced main character is usually a bad thing in my experience. HL2 is a perfect example, I actually didn't give a shit about freeman simply because he seemed irrelevant. That then spilled over onto the rest of the world, if he didn't care enough to speak to people then it hardly seemed like the world was important. Add that to a tedious generic shooter and the only reason I finished it was that boredom was a slightly less preferable alternative

    Dead Space is the worst offender in recent memory though. The game was excellent, the story was well delivered and the surprises actually managed to surprise the first time. The downside is that without a voice, Isaac felt like a machine. He was told to go somwhere and do something so he did it without question. He found his crewmate who he thought was probably dead and accepted it without a word. He was in the middle of a flood of necromorphs without so much as an "oh bugger".

    He even remained silent during the big revelations in the last act even though the character model had some wonderfully emotive body language. I can understand them not wanting to go down the Darth Vader/Calculon "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO" path and IF he'd had a voice up until then, the silence during such a revelation would have been a brilliantly shocking move (like the near-silent vaccuum sections) but going from silence to silence doesn't do much.

    In something like Fallout 3 it doesn't matter since you're selecting your own dialogue so you still drive the story, the only downside is the lack of appeal to the n00b gamer who hasn't grown up playing real RPGs where getting the first line voiced was a luxury

    i wish he'd written about metroid. would he be happy with no one speaking ala prime 1&2? yet people still formed a connection with Samus through either her silence, her being a woman or maybe her eyes. or should she have spoken to herself.
    link is getting really expressive since wind waker, he does at least make dialogue choices in spirit tracks, but not enough. or maybe his silence is the same as for Samus.

    I don't disagree with the argument that a silent character does not involve the player more. Freeman and Links silence did not remove the separation between me and the character.

    If that's the goal then I agree it's a fail. But I still like these silent characters. I think it gives them an air of mystery. They seem come across as victim of circumstances because they haven't narrated there choices. They are accidental heroes.

    I think KillZone 2 is an example of a game were talking would be appropriate since he's clearly not an accidental hero, nor mysterious. I would have enjoyed hearing his voice as though I was inside his head.

    Half Life, Fallout and Bioshock were all played in the first person for the most part, if not the entirety. They should be compared to other first person titles, not Uncharted 2 or Bioware games.

    Yes, no one will argue that a character can't be memorable while having a voice but clearly these games are working of a different mechanism that doesn't really apply to the titles that are being compared to due to the third person perspective already detaching the player from the game character in many ways.

    In the end of the day both can work, it just needs a solid script that is executed well and a way to ensure that the story gets received by the players. That may be by locking the players movement as many RPG's do during conversation or using lighting, visuals and confined spaces in an FPS...ultimately both styles can still tell a story and do so well (or poorly).

    i seriously prefer a silent protagonist 100%. Dragon age would have sucked if it had voice for the main character, and i love me some chrono trigger and half life

    It depends on the game for me. I loved Half Life even with a voiceless Gordon, because I felt that they scripted it cleverly enough that it didn't feel like he needed to talk. They also weren't pretending that he spoke either, making direct reference to his silent nature, which made it feel more like a character trait for him. I recently read the short stories in Half Life: Raising the Bar, and found that the thoughts they gave him matched the impression they'd already given me of the character perfectly, despite his silence.

    However, I found it very jarring in Dragon Age that my character was voiceless - I think this is because I had to choose a response to a character's spoken question, and then they immediately reacted as though I'd said that, and it was strange. I have started to say out loud my responses in DA for my character, in order to make it feel more natural.

    I love having a fully voiced Commander Shepard in ME, as it makes the character feel real, not just an avatar choosing their way through an artificial conversation.

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