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My favorite part of the first two hours of Epic Mickey was the part I didn't play.
It was the second half of the opening cut-scene, the part that comes after sorcerer Yen Sid's narration. I won't spoil the action for you if you haven't seen it. And anyway, the action is not what impressed me.
What I loved about the scene was the range of emotion and storytelling it conveyed without saying a word. Sure, Mickey made a couple squeaks here and there, but for the most part the direction, tone, and facial animations told you everything you needed to know.
It was so effective that I was actually disappointed when I had to start playing.
That's not to say I haven't enjoyed the gameplay so far. Splashing paint and thinner around is great fun, especially when you watch enemies become friendly or dissolve. But once Mickey and his Gremlin guides started spouting boxes of text, they definitely lost some of their charm. And it made me wonder how many other games could benefit from a vow of silence.
I mean, I know Epic Mickey is supposed to be kid-friendly and has to include some sort of instructions. But there's a difference between tutorial text and endless nattering about things the game has already made obvious. Narratively, it serves little purpose. And when you're deliberately trying to hearken back to a time before cartoons had dialogue, it seems like a misstep.
Don't get me wrong — I'm definitely not calling for more silent protagonists. As Bitmob community member Joel Gifford wrote earlier this week, that's a narrative cop out. I don't want games where the player's character says nothing while all the NPCs chatter away mindlessly. I'd rather have everyone speak — or no one at all.
Maybe it's the writing and voice acting in games that just hasn't progressed far enough. Realistic facial animations are also behind the curve (at least, in comparison to cartoon-like animation — it's a lot easier to make a cartoon emote than a realistically-rendered face). But some titles, like the Uncharted series, show that those aspects can deliver at a high level. They might be the exception rather than the rule, but they prove that it is possible.
I think I'd rather just have more games show the confidence in their art and direction, though. In film, and especially in animated film, the most moving moments are often those where nothing is said. For example, the first few minutes of WALL-E are completely without dialogue (unless you count "Hello Dolly"). But that only made me feel more strongly for the little robot and his cockroach buddy. I sensed his personality, his loneliness, and his dogged optimism far better than any words could have told.
Games actually have a leg up on film in this regard, because they can (and should) use interactivity to convey what movies have to merely show. But it's too easy to treat the written or spoken word as a crutch to support emotions the gameplay should have communicated already.
Some developers have learned how to harness this power. Take indie titles like Limbo or Flower. Neither has any text at all, spoken or written. In fact, text would be a hindrance. It would interfere with the affecting and meaningful narrative each game tells. No words could fully indicate what it feels like to creep through Limbo's black forests or skim across the surreal beauty of Flower's fields. Nor should they try.
On the other hand, Shadow of the Colossus shows how to use sparse dialogue in concert with gameplay, rather than superseding it. Except for a brief, terse conversation to open the game, the protagonist remains silent throughout — not because he can't speak, or for any other artificial reason, but because it serves no purpose to his character. The game communicates its story through music, sound effects, graphical detail, and the actions of the player. It could have no dialogue at all and be just as effective.
That's the unique power of this medium — narrative through interaction. And I wish more games would pipe down long enough to take advantage of it.