For Our Consideration

Persona 4

Silence Is Golden

Just because games can talk doesn’t mean they should.

By Anthony John Agnello • February 12, 2013

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.

Persona 4

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.

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21 Responses to “Silence Is Golden”

  1. I wish games would just get rid of plots and characters if they don’t need them. RAGE is a fun shooter. it doesn’t need a crafting system, fully voiced NPCs, John Goodman, and boring hubs.

    • beema says:

      I take great umbrage with this. Everything needs John Goodman.

    • djsubversive says:

      Hold on a minute. John Goodman can only improve a game.

      Damn, now I want a Barton Fink game, except that it would probably end up as “(Press X to show Barton the life of the mind).”

      And now I’ve disappointed myself.

      • valondar says:

        John Goodman bursting out of the ground and yelling a la Raising Arizona could only improve Minecraft.

  2. Kahoutek says:

    As much as I loved Skyrim, I got really tired of my partner complaining every time I gave her stuff to carry for me.  Goddamnit Lydia, stop giving rolling your eyes at me with your “I am sworn to carry your burdens”.  By the time I stopped playing, she must have given me that same guff thousands of times.

    • djsubversive says:

      New Vegas had this issue, too.

      “Ugh. You’re making me carry the heavy stuff, aren’t you?” 

  3. “But just, TAKE-A-LOOK-AT-THIS!  It’s Forest! Ohh, my GAHD! I’m going na find out what caused Forest-s death.”  Difficult to transcribe what makes bad voice acting so lovely, but it ain’t gonna stop me from trying.

    You know what series I thought less of when it introduced voice acting?  The Monkey Island games.  Don’t get me wrong, Curse Of Monkey Island had some brilliant moments that were strictly due to some terrific line readings, like the half-past-dead sno-cone vendor at the end, the lemon-headed cannibal chirping “Thaaanks!” in his best game-show host voice, anything Murray says, and that pirate’s “One word for ya: hummus!” line. 

    But, dagnabbit, I got a picture of a much more sarcastic, smartassy Guybrush by reading the text on the screen in the first few games.  Dominic Armato, bless his heart, gave this milquetoasty interpretation that I just could never fully buy.  And when I tried playing the “remakes” of the first two games, with full voice acting, I found that the voices did absolutely nothing to add to the humor of the series–if anything, a particularly zealous read detracted from the whimsical juxtapositions that were the series’ stock-in-trade.  The jokes were already THERE; you didn’t have to add nutso character voices to them to MAKE them funny.  By the time voices were expected for Escape and Tales, I feel it somehow dialed the overall level of humor down to just medium funny.  “We don’t actually have super-clever material any more, so let’s leave it to the actors to sell it.”

    Maybe that’s more a complaint about the writing.  Maybe it’s also an extremely subjective, minority opinion about a cute lil’ interactive cartoon about pirates that always should have had cartoon voices to go along with it, and everybody else is right and those are the best damn voices they could hope for.  But I thought that was a case where bigger wasn’t necessarily better in gaming; they worked fine as silent cartoons. 

    I suspect I’m coming from the angle here of “they made a movie of my favorite book and it’s not the same as the movie in my head so it obviously suxxx”, only with computer games.  But it’s weird to me how just adding one element–voice acting–makes the post-LeChuck’s Revenge titles feel like adaptations rather than continuations.  To me, anyway.

    I know, I know.  How appropriate, I write like a cow.

    • Kilzor says:

      I agree with all of this.  And I don’t know if I was the only one, but I was surprised how Walter Mitty-esque they made Guybrush starting with “Curse of Monkey Island.”  Based on his character model from the original two games, I just wasn’t Guybrush to suddenly be so…inept.  He was actually pretty swashbuckling in the first two games!  SIGH.

  4. Morning_Wodehouse says:

    One thing I love doing in Mass Effect is having Shepard ask the exact same question again right after an NPC gets done delivering an epic speech or explanation. It makes him seem like such an asshole and it always makes me laugh.

  5. Ooh, also, when I saw that picture of Mario on the main page?  For this article?  I thought it was some kind of caption contest.  I was going to offer, “Raise your hand if you’re Sure™!”, or something else that speculated on Mario and Luigi’s preferred brand of deodorant, since they’re striking that pose all the time.

    But now I’m not.

  6. valondar says:

    I know that for the second Age of Empires they went with fragments of real languages to serve as the observations by your units as you moved them around, but there was something charming about the original game’s collection of random vowel sounds (which so far as I am aware aren’t based on real languages). I for one will never forget the chanting of priests in the process of converting enemy units:

  7. George_Liquor says:

    Protip: Shut ME3’s Kinect voice recognition shit off if you’re like me and you have a habit of incredulously reading Shepard’s bad dialog choices out loud.

  8. caspiancomic says:

     I blame this lack of clarity for Zaeed dying on me in Mass Effect 3. He was the only squad member whose loyalty I didn’t secure, because I opted to ignore his revenge quest in order to save the innocent people he put in danger. At the end of the mission, when the mark has escaped and Zaeed is trapped under burning rubble, I could have used a Charm persuade option to secure his loyalty anyway. But the phrasing of the dialogue option- “You brought this on yourself”- made me think Shepard was going to leave Zaeed to die. It wasn’t until after the mission that I realized Shepard was probably going to tell him that he wouldn’t be lying under a pile of debris if he wasn’t so obsessed with vengeance, and that Zaeed would have responded by reluctantly pledging his loyalty. A disloyal Zaeed in ME2 = a dead Zaeed in ME3. Oh well, that guy was a dick anyway.

    (Oh man, this comment seems grossly disrespectful in the light of Robin Sachs’ recent death, but you guys know what I mean)

  9. Colonel says:

    I agree with that Mega Man X video but him constantly punching that girl was fucking uncomfortable.

  10. djsubversive says:

    Alpha Protocol did conversations well, I think. But then again, writing and “choices and consequences” are sort of what Obsidian does best, so it’s not surprising.

    It’s just unfortunate that there was such a mediocre game attached to those conversations.

  11. His_Space_Holiness says:

    My mom’s family is Norwegian, so I called her over to listen to some Nords talk in Skyrim because I knew it would crack her up. It worked!

  12. Effigy_Power says:

    I don’t think you’ll find anyone who would claim that Monkey Island 3 wasn’t a complete foot in the toilet.

  13. djsubversive says:

    Chet as the pop-up tutorial guy who explains how the game works would be awesome. He could rise up through the floor whenever you encounter a new game mechanic.

  14. Effigy_Power says:

    They tried to roast Shep on his/her birthday, but then there was this thing with the Cain and… well… Shep’s no longer welcome.

  15. AHyperkineticLagomorph says:

    I think I remember Yahtzee talking about this in his review of L.A. Noire. You sometimes want to use “doubt” as a sort of small raised eyebrow. “Oh really, you were at work last nice? Can you verify that?” Instead you get “Oh, I believe you were at work, murdering orphans you sick bastard!”

  16. stuartsaysstop says:

    This is probably my biggest problem with voice acting. I can read the lines SO MUCH faster, but when there’s VA I feel like I owe it to the game to listen to EVERY line.