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Off TopicJul 30, 2019 4:00 pm CT

The voiced protagonist and how it changed role playing games

It was a huge shock the first time I played a role playing game with a fully voiced protagonist.

I’d played a ton of RPGs before that, from the JRPG Xenogears to the classic Bioware and Black Isle games like Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale, and I was swept away by games like Planescape: Torment and the original Fallout games. I must have played Fallout 2 a hundred times, and I’m talking complete playthroughs here. I still recall games like Arcanum with the mix of steampunk and magic with a great deal of fondness, and I’ve played games like Dragon Age Origins and Skyrim which continue the ‘voiceless protagonist’ tradition. And I’ve loved a lot of them. Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, some of my favorite games are ones where the protagonist is literally speechless.

How a voice creates a world

But there’s a world of characterization that comes with an actual voice acted performance from the protagonist in a role playing game. When done well — like in Dragon Age 2 or the Mass Effect series — it elevates and personalizes the gameplay.

I think Mass Effect is really the game series that made me a believer in this — both of the voice actors who bring Commander Shepard to life infuse the character with both gravitas and levity at times, and do a masterful job of showing how your choices in playing Shepard are reflected in the larger world.

I’m thinking about this a lot as I play the games I play. Diablo 3, for example, has complete voice acting for every single playable class and both available gender choices, and while there’s not a ton of player choice in the game, it does add to the feeling of inhabiting a role when your giant Barbarian lady has a distinctive voice that sets her apart from your Crusader or Demon Hunter. It is one of the things that makes a new playthrough worthwhile for me. World of Warcraft does have quite a lot of voice acting, and you can make the case that every character you create does have a unique voice — even though they never actually speak out loud except to inform you when an attack can’t be made. I primarily know my Night Elf’s voice from all the times I hit a button before I have the rage to do so.

What you say and what it says about you

It’s not very revealing of their character, and WoW certainly isn’t trying to do that — my character is much more akin to the older style exemplified by the Zelda series, where Link is a cipher and as a result has no voice. Skyrim is an example of this style of gameplay as well, where literally everyone else in the whole world has something to say but you never do. The only time the Dragonborn speaks is when he’s shouting dragon words and blowing people off of mountains with them.

Comparing this to Geralt in the Witcher games, there’s obviously a huge difference. Part of that is the fact that Geralt is the only character, whereas in games like Dragon Age Inquisition you have a character who can be an Elf, a Dwarf, a Human or a Qunari and can be male or female, and as a result Inquisition has four voice actors voicing the Inquisitor.

Similarly, the Mass Effect series has two voice actors — Jennifer Hale and Mark Meer — and if you think I’m stepping into the ‘which one is better’ trap you’re out of your mind. But both have to essentially play the same character and yet make each performance distinct. You have to believe that each version of Commander Shepard could do the things the player chooses to have them do. They have to have the range to handle different playstyles — a fully Paragon Shepard, and a fully Renegade one, and all the variety in-between — and also they have to be decent matches for each other. It’s a ton of work.

The difficulty of being all things in one performance

In terms of recent games with this split — where more than one actor plays the main character — I think Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is the clear standout, and it’s one I would point to as superior to Mass Effect in this regard. Because of the nature of the story (which I will not spoil) the main characters of Alexios and Kassandra are perhaps the most realized, unique and individually distinct in any game of its type.

Michael Antonakos and Melissanthi Mahut are called upon to play these characters in a wide variety of emotional states and moral decisions, and I’ve played both Alexios and Kassandra enough by now to realize just how much work went into this process. And despite having the exact same dialogue options and variety of choices, each character feels distinct from the other. Kassandra is sharper, more sarcastic, a bit more world-weary and patient yet her temper roils below the surface and her heart is capable of deep affection and love which she tries to mask, whereas Alexios is driven, determined, but also more vulnerable in his way than Kassandra is — when he lets his mask drop you can see that he is a man who is deeply wounded by the past. They do the amazing feat of feeling like actual siblings, and even as the narrative places them in the exact same roles they never play them as copies of one another.

Sometimes it’s better to remain silent

This is not something Skyrim could do. You’ll never feel like you know your World of Warcraft character this way. In a way it’s limiting, because you can no longer imagine the character any way you want — Dragon Age Inquisition tried to keep as much of the open-ended nature of character creation as Origins had, but the limitation of fully voiced dialogue means that by necessity the Inquisitor feels more like a role you’re watching than making. Kassandra of Sparta feels more like someone you’re watching than someone you’re inhabiting, although the performance is so good that often that is almost forgotten. The pro of fully voiced dialogue is that immediate burst of inhabited story, the con is that it becomes harder to make the game all about what you want from it.

When it really works, though, it’s magnificent. Hawke is one of my favorite characters in an RPG because the actors really sold their characters — Diplomatic vs Sarcastic vs Aggressive Hawke all feel like believable riffs on the same basic character. I’ve played Fallout 4 several times, sometimes because I love playing Robot Armor Dress Up, but sometimes just to listen to Nate or Nora as they experience the world they’re thrust into.

I don’t think all games should be voiced — I definitely think some games work much better without voiced dialogue — but when it has worked, it’s created some of my absolute favorite games.

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