Great stories don't need celebrity voice actors or high production values to capture our imaginations. Heck, some of the most noteworthy narratives date back to the era of floppy disks and command prompts. Who doesn't like a good text adventure?
Many people feel that voice acting gives their virtual avatars more personality. While this might be true, good voice work is not necessary to create a fully fleshed out, emotive character. Some characters don’t need to speak to participate in a great story. Early games had silent protagonists out of necessity. Those experiences were limited back then. Now, developers don’t have such restrictions, but the silent protagonist hasn’t lost his or her place in the realm of video games. These characters allow for players to insert themselves into the hero’s role more easily.
Adding voices to established silent protagonists only serves to alienate some gamers. We’ve all created our own voices for these characters. Could you imagine how the public would react if a potential Half-Life 3 featured a Gordon Freeman who spoke like Woody Allen? That might be an extreme example, but the point remains that any voice would be jarring to a segment of the audience. Alternative methods of character development and storytelling would prevent this disconnect from happening.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker does a good job of fleshing out a silent protagonist through its cel-shaded art style, which allows the characters to have exaggerated facial expressions. You can really feel Link’s determination in Wind Waker, even more so than in the Zelda entries that came after it. This manages to make Wind Waker’s Link the most human version of the character, despite his cartoonish look. He has the same sort of expressions a kid would have, but over the course of the adventure, you can actually see him grow as his reactions gradually become more heroic.
Shovel Knight is a great new release. It has a simple story and quirky dialogue, and it’s possibly the best example of using gameplay to make people feel a character’s struggle. The simplicity of the retro-style platformer makes it absolutely genius. Each night after a long day of being heroic, Shovel Knight takes a well-earned rest. These moments are when you might see the troubled dreams of the hero. They feel really frantic as you engage enemies in a race against the clock.
Above: Action from Dark Souls II.
Image Credit: Namco Bandai
From Software’s Souls franchise — which includes Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, and Dark Souls II — shows the studio’s mastery of telling a story through means other than dialogue. Some game designers almost seem afraid of people missing parts of a story they worked on so hard, so they forgo subtlety altogether. From Software is nothing like that. You want story? You better dig for it. In the Souls games, players have to construct the majority of storylines from their own observations. The locations of enemies and treasures uncover more of the narrative than the dialogue does. For example, in Dark Souls, one of the ruling deity’s close friends has a hidden room which houses occult weaponry. The item descriptions themselves house some of the largest plot points in the entire series. I won’t give away any spoilers, but if you play Demon’s Souls and manage to obtain a Talisman of Beasts, read the item description and get ready to have your mind blown. Even the games’ difficulty enhances the storylines. The undead curse of Dark Souls means that the afflicted will continuously die until they lose purpose or hope, at which point they will become hollow. Players themselves, not just their characters, fall victim to this fate. The difficulty will wear some of them down, and they will eventually lose hope and simply give up. They become hollows like the many undead before them.
Feel free to leave a comment about a method of character development or storytelling you’ve encountered in gaming that goes beyond simple dialogue and lengthy exposition. I’m looking forward to seeing it.
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