The lights are on
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Gaming worlds introduce us to all kinds of faces, all with their stories to tell. Some of them can't help but be a talkative bunch while others remain stubbornly silent. In an age where voice-acting is becoming an industry of its own, is the artistic divide between gaming's talking heads and it's not so talking ones still a valid argument? Why is silence still golden?
It'd seem like an easy question to answer when you look at the way voice-acting has changed the gaming industry. As it's constantly said and proven, games are now slowly but surely evolving into story-telling mediums. More of its characters, whether tastefully or not sometimes, are made with personalities to show off and opinions to hear. Real people behind the people we play brings an obvious amount of realism to our experiences and it's all for the better that we expand that advancement. Usually I'd completely agree with that assessment. I immensely enjoy hearing my characters open up to me about who they are, but there's a great reluctance I have at looking at the debate through one lens. Is sound the only way we can tell our stories, or is it even a detriment to the way we play sometimes?
(When is it Time to play the "Quiet Game?". . .)
The most immediate example one can give against the case for in-game voices is when they're terrible. Bad voice-acting most assuredly leads to terrible characters and that's made sadly apparent in too many games. I may have my memories of Sonic's good old age in gens past, but the moments in which its characters opened their mouth were not one of them. Aside from Eggman's vocal chops, the long-line of Tails and Sonics have never been much more than cringe-worthy goofy and that plucky rabbit/chao duo?. . . I just won't talk about it, let alone that stupid purple cat. I liked Heavy Rain even in spite of Ethan Mars's grating Jason shout-outs and I will love Ron Perlman for everything except playing Batman in that mediocre Justice League game. Yet poor quality could only be a marginal issue compared to the use of voice-acting in games.
A more objective point to be made is that voice-acting can very much be used too incessantly. Apart from being badly done, the second worst thing it can be is so constant that it interferes with your immersion. Games are still about you playing them and voices in your head constantly telling you where to go, what to do, don't touch that, this is what we're doing, "Hey, you wanna know my whole dang life story?" can be, in short, disruptive. Video-game tutorials with a dumb talking head only makes me want to start fiddling with buttons on my own and I will say that as much as I love Metal Gear Solid to death, I have often watched my mind drift in response to 45 min. techno chatter. Voice-acting into moderation is just as much of a practical problem. If you're like me, a 50+ hr. JRPG is only made longer by often painfully long monologuing. Button-mashing to wade through walls of text to an outright interesting portion is far more preferable than listening to live-actors spelling it out for you, and made even more difficult if you either can't skip that scene or can by skipping the entire thing and missing the story. It's an imbalance that's at times a hassle and even unnecessary at others.
(So Bad-ass You Won't Hear Him Com'in)
Further, there's something to be said of the type of experience that silent protagonists can give. Half-Life and Portal both dump you in the shoes of two individuals who neither speak or are filled with a particularly deep personal history. You only see their true appearances from the game cover or occasional reflection and they hardly give a grunt or an "oomph." Despite being such seemingly empty shells, maybe pointlessly so, for the player, it's that fact that speaks to their brilliant use. Their silence invites you to fill them in with your own thoughts into them. Through them you feel like more of a bad-ass by being there in their games yourself. It's that same feeling of seamless immersion into my character that enthralled me with my few hours with Journey's red-robed hipster. I felt like I was experiencing this game without anyone else in my head to think the game for me.
Maybe it's these reasons that wisely keep Nintendo from bringing a voice to Link. As his name may elude to, he beautifully serves as the player's "link" to the world around them without a definitive person to contradict their own thoughts. With that said, customizing Link's appearance or even hearing some spoken conversation from those around him would do justice to the game, but I'll be forever reluctant for the minute Link opens his mouth to do more than gasp or grunt. Whether he'd end up sounding by any other deadbeat video-game punk is just as vital as my own connection with Zelda being severed.
(Sometimes a Picture Alone Is Worth a Thousand Words)
All the while, the soft-spoken narratives can allow for another equally important aspect: a more abstract kind of emotion. For those of us hearing folks, hearing a persons's words tend to take precedence over looking as closely as we do at a face. For those that are hard-of hearing or deaf, the world exists more entirely of sights than sound. I've taken several American Sign-Language courses over my college career to cover foreign language requirements and seeing just a snapshot of what that world can be like got me thinking about how silence speaks to us. Pixar's Wall-E never spoke a word save for his adorable attempts at "Eeeva." Yet he captured an unspoken bond with movie-goers with his quirky whistles and childlike playfulness. Similar characters of Nintendo's stable don't have to incur Shakespearean dialogue to enchant us with their soulful emotion. Their awkward postures and comical tomfoolery, from Mario to Donkey Kong to Luigi's mansion romp this March spoke volume in their abilities to just connect with their facial expressions and movements. Any who have seen the first half-hour of Pixar's Up will know very well through boxes of tissue how wordless montages can bring tears to a viewer's eyes in the subtle nuances that silence brings.
(The Last of Us, but certainly not the least of us)
With all the pros I have given to our softspoken heroes, it's just as easy to recognize the place that live voice-acting has in our games. One only need to look at Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us to realize that. Yet the a good deal of the same elements that go into making amazing games of few words can be translated to those of great dialogue. Are you speaking at the audience or to them? The greatest leap a character can ever make in becoming a virtual person is in the method by which they deliver themselves in the game. They are those who have a stake in the world they live in and they want to matter to yours. Characters like Joel and Ellie, Elizabeth and Booker, Drake and Elena, or Snake and the Boss, they all likewise talk in the vein of our conversations about life and meaning. Either in making us laugh at the plane wing that's careening towards us or telling us it wasn't all for nothing, the time that characters talk to us needn't way the quantity of their speech over quality. The most important things they can do is make us realize the energy of their performances no matter if dark or light.
Enough about video-game voices, though: I want to hear yours. What's some of the best-voice acting that you can think of? What's good voice-acting to you? Questions, comments, blogging suggestions, they're all welcome on the Inquisitive Blogger. Rest assured, there'll be more where this came from. Remember, speak softly and carry a big stick. Why? I don't know, but it'll carry you a long way as the saying goes.
Next on the Inquisitive Blogger: Is It Really "Use it or Lose it" for Used Games?. . .