Preface: Just to provide a bit of context – I wrote this a month or two back around about the release of Dragon Age 2. I've held off on putting it up as I was a little uncertain about its quality and I am a bit of a grumpypants in it. But I'm feeling a tad adventurous today – so what the hell?
“I prefer Mass Effect. Because it features, you know? An actual character? Who talks and stuff? And doesn’t just stand around?” A few months back a statement to this effect emerged from my twitter feed like a particularly silly hound. All loud and attention grabbing. Prudently, I decided to ignore it. After all – it was just an offhand comment, made in the context of a polite tiff between two gamers on my feed. Surely it was a slip of the tongue. I mean no one really thought that the mere presence of a feature like voice-acting made a character intrinsically better. I wouldn’t see this stupid argument again. No sir. Not at all.
Only I did.
I saw it a lot.
More and more often, until back in December I heard it dribbling out of the mouth of Mike Laidlaw, lead designer of Dragon Age II –
“People generally hated the silent protagonist,” he says, but that wasn't the only reason to adopt a main character who could speak for themselves; Having the hero stand stoically while drama erupted all around them “seemed to be doing a disservice to the storytelling.”
That extract is from a gushing preview / interview published by The Escapist back in the December of 2010. It’s a statement I found very odd. Perhaps I’m mistaken or going mad, but I had always assumed that the Warden talked quite a bit during those dramatic scenes. I have very little evidence for this. Other than the reams and reams of dialog options presented to you constantly throughout the game. I mean I had always reckoned you were supposed to read those and then imagine your character saying them. You know? Use your imagination to fill in the gaps? But clearly I was wrong. Apparently The Warden, The Baal Spawn and that laser-sword person you played in Knights of The Old Republic never once communicated a single word or notion or feeling or thought or idea. Maybe these old Western RPG protagonists lived in worlds were everyone was so amazingly adept at interpreting body language that they just never bothered learning how to talk? Or maybe they were all telepathic?
Yes. I’m being a bit obnoxious.
But I feel I need to be a bit crass and facetious here – to highlight the ridiculousness of this notion that seems to fast be becoming the consensus.
Because what seems to be being said here is that there is a sizable majority of Gamers and Game Designers out there who think that if a characters dialog is not represented literally through voice-acting and cut-scenes then that character is, in fact, ‘silent’. That any conversation that is represented in a more abstract way, like through a dialog tree, or in a nifty little blue text box ala Ye’-Old-JRPG, somehow doesn’t count or isn’t real enough? How do these people survive day to day life with such a crippling lack of imagination or suspension of disbelief? I’d love to see what were to happen should they to encounter a silent film. Or a book for that matter. Would their sweaty brows furrow with pain and worry as they struggled translate the magical wordy-symbol-things into images and sounds? “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife . . . God damnit! How the hell am I supposed to imagine a ‘wife’? Where are the pictures!?”
Once again I’m being a sarcastic meany-face.
Sorry about that.
I know that no one literally thinks like that.
In reality all this inflated importance of voice acting, its supposed necessity, is a conceit. A euphemism that we are hiding behind because we don’t want to discuss the unflattering truth. Be honest. The reason we want all our characters voiced is because reading things is ‘boring’. Because having the imagination to look beyond abstract mechanics and see the drama that’s being represented by them is ‘hard’. Essentially, we like voice-acting for the same reason we like high-polygon counts and nifty tunes. Because it sounds nice. Because it looks nice. Because it makes things easier for us.
Not because it inherently enriches the story.
Not because it makes for a deeper experience.
If more people admitted that – it’d be ok. Then we could examine voice-acting for what it really is. A pleasant feature. A nice bonus. A shiny thing.
But not essential.
Not something that every game needs.
And it seems to me that this is the exact view point that is emerging as of late. The idea that, at least in Western RPG’s, full voice-acting is a requirement for good storytelling and emotional engagement. No developer seems to propagate this notion more as of late than Bioware who have taken on the herculean task of making The Old Republic the first fully voiced MMORPG. “We both saw Mass Effect and were like, 'Okay. There is no choice here'.” Lead Designer and Writer Daniel Erickson is quoted saying in The Escapist.
Those are some worrying words.
Surely there’s always a choice. You could take the millions of dollars you were going to spend on voice-actors and recording studios and use them to hire more designers or artists or writers. Create more interesting features and content. Like space combat. Or extra classes. Or more quests. Or vehicles. Or a unique combat system. Or entire new worlds to explore.
And that’s the crux my problem.
Recording voice-acting for each and every character in your game is a nifty and all, but it’s incredibly expensive. And it makes little impact on the actual ‘game’ part of the game and, contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t really add that much to the story. It’s a nice presentational feature. I mean sure. Who doesn’t like a game that looks and sounds great? I’m not suggesting that games shouldn’t have some voice-acting here and there. I just think that its importance, particularly in reference to the Western RPG genre, is starting to become inflated.
We need to take a step back and put things into perspective.
Because all these various aspects of the game are drawing from the same pool of money.
If you direct a whole lot of your resources into voice-acting – something’s got to give elsewhere. It is no coincidence that Dragon Age 2 offers less dialogue and character options than its predecessor. Just as it was no coincidence that while Knights of The Old Republic was prettier and more cinematic looking, its predecessor Baldurs Gate 2 was a lot longer and offered more choice and exploration.
There’s always a trade off with these things and the more we harp on about the supposed importance of one feature the more developers will be willing to sacrifice other things in order to deliver that one feature.
And really, isn’t all this fuss being made, just a little silly.
Back when I was a teenager I thought that RPG’s in the future were going to be bigger. Deeper. More imaginative. That they were going to transport us to compelling alien dimensions and take us on unique and interesting odysseys. Ten years on and the big, absolutely essential feature that designers and gamers are swooning over . . . is a voice acted main character.
I think we’ve lost the plot.