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 honorees, "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 empathize 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

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