I love the characters of Persona 4 because they are so wonderfully human. Yukiko, a young heiress, troubled like any other teenager, burdened by the family business she’ll inherit and her maintenance of a proper, well-studied schoolroom identity. The truth is she’s a geek. Puns and Groucho Marx glasses make her laugh like a hyena. She’s loyal to her friends, but she can be jealous and possessive. Her cooking is awful. She is, like every one else in the game, a convincingly wrought person.
The thing is, I have no real idea what her voice sounds like. The first thing I do when I fire up a new Persona is to check the options to see if I can turn off the voices. Persona doesn’t need voices to be good. Not every game does. Most games would be better off without it, but voices are a ubiquitous tic of modern game-making. It doesn’t need to be this way. Silence can be golden.
Decades ago, voices were a tantalizing impossibility in games because the software relied almost entirely on computer-generated noise for sound effects. A recorded voice was an almost insane data-storage demand on old machines, so it didn’t pop up often, and when it did it was rarely pleasing to the ear. There were exceptions: The old arcade shooter Sinistar is remembered 30 years later because its skull-shaped spaceship bad guy threatened the player. “I AM SINISTAR!” It turned heads in an arcade full of pew-pew pews and wakka-wakka-wakkas.
By the end of the 1980s, when CD-ROMs loosened data restrictions, there were plenty of PC games and “full-motion video” games (interactive cartoons and movies like Sewer Shark) that featured talking characters, but their actors were almost universally terrible. The internet is littered with the bones of those games; the atrocious performances of Resident Evil and Legend Of Zelda: Wand Of Gamelon are legendary. It wasn’t until games like Metal Gear Solid started throwing more respectable (though still not great) dialogue into the flow of the action—rendering scripted scenes with the game’s graphics engine to avoid the inconsistent look of pre-rendered videos—that game characters started to speak with alarming regularity.
It was a welcome change for the most part. Quantic Dream’s two most notable thrillers, Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain, wouldn’t even be possible if their characters couldn’t speak to one another. The games’ director, David Cage, uses voice to give his characters humanity and create drama. The same goes for Mass Effect. If a detailed human figure like Commander Shepard is screaming at his crew, you need to hear that voice. It’s awkward enough when the game lapses into silence while you decide what Shepard will say next.
A voice can also give characters depth they wouldn’t otherwise have. Naughty Dog’s pulpy Uncharted adventures are pretty barebones in the story department, with archetypal characters going through predictable plot twists. Nathan Drake—the handsome lead character voiced by ubiquitous video game voice actor Nolan North—is a personable guy, but he’s not a fully fleshed-out human being. Instead, Drake builds his likability with offhand remarks in tough situations. An out-of-breath “Shit!” while balancing on the edge of a cliff, a hasty “No, no, no!” while trying to stay out of sight of gun-toting guards—these are the moments that make Drake somewhat human, not the direct-to-DVD tomb-raiding cutscenes. Of course he needs to talk.
But Uncharted and the other examples are games that present opportunities for brief verbal asides and regular conversation, where characters won’t have to repeat themselves—unlike, say, New Super Mario Bros. U. Mario was a colorful character even during his silent era, but his chirping, enthusiastic voice made him even more lovable the first time he yelled it out in Super Mario 64. If only he had kept his mouth shut after that.
In more recent games, the obnoxious plumber won’t close his yap for even 30 seconds. He yelps and wa-hoos his way through every level. Does he really need to implore us, “Let’s a-go!” every time we hit “start”? Or remind us once again that it’s a-him, Mario? All that noise has a cost; it detracts from the music and sounds that were so pleasurable in the original Super Mario Bros. Koji Kondo’s theme song is seared into a generation’s mind because there wasn’t bogged down in aural clutter.
Repetition like that can be brutal in a long game. Released last month, Ni No Kuni: Wrath Of The White Witch, has some excellent voice work. Your companion Mr. Drippy, for instance, sounds like a hilarious cross between Scrooge McDuck and a blustering, magical city bureaucrat. Not every exchange in Ni No Kuni is vocalized, though. Aside from pivotal story scenes, most dialogue is expressed the old-fashioned way, with subtitles. And yet Ni No Kuni can’t resist Mario-style catchphrases—like the boy hero, Oliver, exclaiming, “Here goes!” at the start of every fight. If game creators insist on these repetitious vocal flourishes, I would rather have the whole game go unvoiced. It would mean sacrificing the good characterizations, like Mr. Drippy, to maintain a consistent, coherent presentation. And reading subtitled dialogue isn’t the worst thing in the world.
Silent characters can still have a voice. Part of why I love the Persona cast so much is that, since I’m given the option to just read what they have to say, I can imagine what they sound like for myself. After all, this is already a game where I get to project my whims into the main character, deciding how he behaves and who he spends time with. It’s only natural that I also imagine what he sounds like. Persona is an impressionistic game; its characters move in an simple, exaggerated motions, and its town is just a few static bucolic scenes. A realist touch like voice acting only clashes with the atmosphere.
It’s as simple as that: Not every game needs characters who speak. They don’t even need to grunt. If Link and his compatriots aren’t going to talk in The Legend Of Zelda, don’t half-ass it. Let them be quiet. If they have something to say, we can read. Voices are like anything else in a game, just one more tool that can be used to tell the story you need to tell. If it doesn’t need to be there, leave it out. If the characters do speak, then at least guarantee that they only speak when they need to, and if that’s not possible, give people the option to turn those voices off entirely. It’s great that games have learned to speak—now if only they would learn to be quiet.