August 23rd, 2006

On the topic of character interaction and player immersion, something should be said about that kooky phenomenon we Zelda fans are so familiar with: first-person silence. You know what I mean: Other characters talk to you, but you/your avatar/the protagonist never talks back.

The setup can get almost comical at times. If nothing else, it makes for some amusingly one-sided conversations. But the idea is clear: Don’t make the game speak for the player, make the player speak for herself. Let her input her own words, thoughts, reactions. Welcome her inside.

Of course, the interesting result of first-person silence is that, by allowing room for all possible personalities, we find ourselves with some rather personality-less heros. How well does any of really know Link? Search your feelings.  You know this to be true.

Tags: Blog

17 Responses to “Don’t Speak”

  1. Victor Says:

    Unless actions really do speak louder that words…

    Personally, looking at the voice work Nintendo does for Mario & Luigi in all of their games- I’m *glad* they never assigned a voice for Link. What stereotype is he supposed to embody? Scandinavian?

    Or maybe Link was the first step towards modern avatars- if the player can’t put words in their mouth, make ’em mute!

    Of course, if we’re really curious about his personality, there was always that short-lived cartoon…

  2. Eric Says:

    I think we know Link rather well, after all this time, especially with all of the emotional (some might argue over-emotional) closeups they gave him in Wind Waker.

    He’s pretty much always portrayed as a boy or young man with strong feelings of obligation to his family and friends (going to rescue his uncle in Link to the Past, going after his sister in Wind Waker, Marin in Link’s Awakening) who, in the course of trying to protect those people, gets caught up in grander schemes in which he ends up extending those feelings of obligation towards the protection of Princess Zelda and Hyrule as a whole. An unintentional hero, but never portrayed as a bitter one, and on occasion by the end of the game he has come to accept the role and then carries the hero role with him into a sequel (Majora’s Mask after Ocarina of Time, the upcoming Phantom Hourglass after Wind Waker).

    That’s plenty of material to give us a connection to the IDEA of the character – how many boys (or girls) didn’t at one point pick up a stick, imagine it a sword, and pretend to be on a grand quest of some kind – while still allowing them to put him into different circumstances, different age groups, etc etc between games. By choosing to make him an archetype rather than a solid character like Mario or Sonic, he can be modified to fit whatever type of game they want to put him in without us feeling like he’s really changed at all.

  3. Tim Hettler Says:

    Eric, you make a goood point about Nintendo’s decision to make their protagonists into basic hero “archetypes” rather than characters with personality. However, the games are linear in nature and through the course of a game their personality is determined through the actions that are required to move the story along. The player never really gets a chance to make any lasting influences on the character (through weapon specialization, alignment, or any other many elements present in RPGs). So rather than empowering the player to instill a chosen personality into the character, the character is left with no personality and becomes a nothing more than a tool (I am controlling Link vs. I am Link).

    Personally, I think the really reason Nintendo hasn’t given their characters voices is because they existed long before it was possible in a video game, and thus each player has a different expectation as to what they sound like. Nintendo has never been known for taking chances, so rather than give a character a voice that potentially upsets some of their audience, they choose to keep them silent.

  4. Scott Jon Siegel Says:

    Ironically, Master Chief is the first FPS character I could think of that does speak (during cutscenes), and he’s also one of the driest game characters I know. He has almost no emotion, no inflection to his voice, and rarely plays any role other than “the tough guy.” Come on Bungie – get this guy a soul.

    Tim, I disagree with your theory on Nintendo not voicing characters. They have made attempts to impose personality and speech onto previously mute characters (Mario’s voice actor, and the awful monologues Samus would go into in Metroid Fusion are two examples of this). In some cases, I believe it to be a very deliberate decision to keep characters silent.

    Truth be told, after playing Chrono Trigger, I could never deal with RPG’s where the main character spoke. Cloud, for instance, has this attitude that I can absolutely not relate to, which kept me from digging very deep into Final Fantasy VII (never played more than an hour of it, and not afraid to say so). It seems especially important in a role-playing game for the playable character to be a vehicle through which the player express him/herself. Otherwise, there’s simply distance.

  5. Bonnie Says:

    I'm *glad* they never assigned a voice for Link. What stereotype is he supposed to embody?
    You know, the one time we do hear something from Link, it’s when he grunts. And, amusingly enough, I’ve always felt like he grunts in Japanese–like his grunts did get re-dubbed. Now how one grunts Japanese-ly, I do not know :).

    By choosing to make him an archetype rather than a solid character like Mario or Sonic…
    See, for me, that very archetype status is what ensure he lacks personality. Sure, we know things about him. But we know him as a generally, universally relatable type, not as an individual person.

    Cloud, for instance, has this attitude that I can absolutely not relate to
    What attitude is that, exactly? Personally, I would think you could relate to his prettiness just fine :P.

  6. Eric Says:

    I *think* Shigeru Miyamoto is on record as saying that the main character in the Zelda series was named “Link” to emphasize the link between the player and the character, and as such he has never been given any dialogue.

    That’s a pretty lame excuse, I know, so I’m not saying your wrong about the technical limitations thing, Tim – they might just be making that up after the fact – but I believe that is their justification for it, at any rate.

    Personally, I’ve never had any problem identifying with Link or feeling like I had a personal hand in his adventures – they are without fail the games I look forward to most, perhaps because I know they’ll stick to a formula I love and anticipating the variations between the games always makes me eager to play the next one. Somewhat like Link, ironically, I find myself looking forward to picking up the hero’s mantle and saving Hyrule again. So it may well not work for everyone, but it certainly has always worked for me.

  7. Eric Says:

    That last part, of course – anticipating sequels where I know I like the formula and just don’t know what the variations will be – also applied to game series with more defined characters, of course, so that’s not necessarily a point solely in the archetype character’s favor.

    I was just saying that lack of specific personality in the character doesn’t decrease my enjoyment of the series at all, and the variations tend to be more pronounced in the Zelda series where they can really alter the character to be anything, anywhere so long as he fits the requirements of the archetype.

  8. FerrousBuller Says:

    FPS characters have been speaking since at least Duke Nukem 3D a decade ago, unless you meant specifically in cutscenes, in which case…hmmm, at least as far back as Deus Ex six years ago.

    I’ve never heard it dubbed “first-person silence” before, but this seems to be a common discussion about how much personality to give a pre-designed protagonist like Gordon Freeman and Link (vs the roll-yer-own open-ended protagonists of a lot of RPGs): as the designer, do you keep the character mute so that the player can define the protagonist’s personality for themselves; or do you let the character speak? I think it’s a question of whether you want the player to become that character or you want the player to empathize with that character.

    Personally, when playing a game with a pre-defined protagonist, I prefer that character to have a pre-defined personality too. Since Link, Gordon Freeman, and all the rest don’t look anything like me (or what I would want to look like), I can’t role-play them – I can’t “become” them in the game – so instead I want the game to make me empathize with them. Freeman’s a cipher and I can’t empathize with a cipher: I just don’t give a rat’s ass what happens to him; so I never really got into the Half-life games.

  9. Scott Jon Siegel Says:

    Search your feelings. You know this to be true.

    Okay, you have been watching waay to much Star Wars, dear.

  10. BrainFromArous Says:

    The real reason so few of ’em talk, and have so little to say when they do, is that it would require writing human dialogue* and developing the character’s personality. You may have noticed that there are very few people in the games biz who can do this well – or who are even aware that such things can or should be done at all.

    *That is, beyond cut-scene mission briefings and NPCs shouting orders at you a la Call of Duty.

  11. Coherent Says:

    The reason for the silent characters is the uncertainty of being able to get similar-sounding voice actors for future releases and such. NPC characters are usually one-off for the game, but the player character will probably be back for the sequels. If you have a reliable character actor, such as with the Master Chief, then you’re golden. I think the Master Chief has a really kick-ass presence because of his voice. Kind of like R. Lee Ermey brings to his characters. He has that drill-instructor snap that compels you when he speaks.

    It brings a lot to the character! You need more than just a silent over-the-shoulder view to identify with someone.

  12. Eric Says:

    >It brings a lot to the character! You need more than
    > just a silent over-the-shoulder view to identify
    > with someone.

    Well, imagination helps. ;-)

    Seriously, I don’t see what the issue is, especially when we’re using Link as an example and have to take into account what they did with non-verbal personality indicators in Wind Waker. The kid Link may not talk (beyond the attack yelps and such), but nobody can argue he didn’t have personality. When he was excited, angry, scared, disappointed, confused, whatever emotion they wanted to give him, you knew. His facial expressions and body language conveyed much more than badly written, then-badly-translated dialogue would have.

    As for Gordon Freeman, I would say the silent character thing worked much better in Half Life 2 than it did in Half Life 1, because they did such a good job with the way other characters reacted to him (/you, whatever). You didn’t get a very strong sense of who *Gordon* is, but you did form relationships with the other characters *through* Gordon, which I think is far more immersive than listening to Duke Nukem spout one-liners about bubble gum.

    When you give a title character a strong personality, you risk not only the consequences of poor writing or voice acting, but also simply turning people off because they don’t like that type of character. I was utterly charmed by the Prince in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, and so I really enjoyed playing through the game. I was equally repulsed by the character they gave him in Warrior Within, and may never finish that game because of it.

    I’ve almost never had a problem, though, “giving” a personality to (or reading one into) silent characters, and it really doesn’t bother me much. If it’s a good game with compelling things to do, I can handle the “who and why” side of things if they don’t give it to me. Maybe I spent too much time tying beach towels around my neck to make cloaks as a kid, who knows. :-p

  13. Bonnie Says:

    I've never heard it dubbed "first-person silence" before.
    Just seemed to fit ;).

    The real reason so few of "~em talk, and have so little to say when they do, is that it would require writing human dialogue* and developing the character's personality. You may have noticed that there are very few people in the games biz who can do this well – or who are even aware that such things can or should be done.
    OMFG (and I don’t use that abbreviation lightly), I could not agree more. But you SO do not want to get me started on ignoring the importance of trained writers in the video game industry. It makes me so angry I could punch a wall.

    I don't see what the issue is, especially when we're using Link as an example and have to take into account what they did with non-verbal personality indicators in Wind Waker
    And just think about how well that expressive, kiddy Link went over with the Zelda fanbase at large. I loved (most of) Wind Waker, but there were plenty of gamers ready to personally beat Miyamoto to death with their copy.

  14. Eric Says:

    And just think about how well that expressive, kiddy Link went over with the Zelda fanbase at large. I loved (most of) Wind Waker, but there were plenty of gamers ready to personally beat Miyamoto to death with their copy.

    Yes, that’s true, but I don’t think it serves your original point… in your original post you say:

    by allowing room for all possible personalities, we find ourselves with some rather personality-less heros. How well does any of really know Link? Search your feelings. You know this to be true.

    Obviously, the many gamers who rebelled against the “kiddieness” of Wind Waker felt that they did know Link very well, and that Miyamoto “got him wrong” with Wind Waker, even though he still remained a silent character.

    Those same gamers, in general, seem to be rejoicing over the “darker” look to Link in Twilight Princess, because they think that’s the “right” way to do the character. To me (even though I don’t agree with those particular folks and think both approaches are totally valid), that implies that even when a developer goes out of their way NOT to tie a character down to a certain look/voice/etc, that doesn’t stop most gamers with identifying with the characters, sometimes very strongly.

  15. Bonnie Says:

    Obviously, the many gamers who rebelled against the "kiddieness" of Wind Waker felt that they did know Link very well, and that Miyamoto "got him wrong" with Wind Waker, even though he still remained a silent character.
    Ah, see, I disagree with you there. Personally–given the ferocity with which a certain type of gamer rebelled against the Wink Waker Link–I really feel what players were upset about wasn’t that Miyamoto misportrayed someone they knew so well, but that he forced onto them, as the people behind the controllers who had always been able to so strongly identify with Link, certain characteristics that they refused to take on: childishness, color, expressive emotion–things not in tune with traditional gamer masculinity.

  16. Eric Says:

    Hmm. That’s a good point (rebellion being due to the gamers’ unwillingness to deal with the “immaturity” of playing a Disney-fied cartoon). However, I would be silly NOT to point out:

    he forced onto them, as the people behind the controllers who had always been able to so strongly identify with Link

    Can you take a character who so many gamers have “always been able to so strongly identify with” and also label that character “personality-less”? ;-)

    Even if that personality is not defined through dialogue, I think it’s hard to argue that a character HAS no personality, if people are “strongly identify[ing] with” him.

    We could probably come to an agreement that there are different ways of giving a character a personality (or even that the gamer population at large may assign a character a personality, failing a motion by the developer to define one for them), but I find your argument that “first-person silent” characters have no personality somewhat lacking in consistency. ;-)

  17. MD² Says:

    Remember my (old) point on type I, II, III avatars ?

    Well the “silent-hero” would happen to be more of a purer type II avatar, one of its purposes being to facilitate the identification (crap, not the exact word I’m looking for… maybe projection would do ?) of the player.

    I have the feeling it was/is mostly a japanese tool and, to be fair, I think it’s not so much a problem of poor writing skills in the devellopment teams as an inate problem with the japanese language which made it mandatory (at least for type II): anyone who’s studied japanese can tell you that it’s next to impossible to write for more than a few sentences without giving away social markers (rank, sex, place in society, assumed archetypal behavior…). Just the choice of a pronoun can give away the sex of the character, and complete neutrality itself feels strange (in both senses of the word: strangers in japan, not being part of the social system, are being limited to the use of neutral pronouns, any attemtps to use a specialised marker is generally met with punishing laughter) and un-natural.

    I really feel what players were upset about wasn't that Miyamoto misportrayed someone they knew so well, but that he forced onto them, as the people behind the controllers who had always been able to so strongly identify with Link, certain characteristics that they refused to take on: childishness, color, expressive emotion"”things not in tune with traditional gamer masculinity.

    I’m not sure. The conscensus with players around me seems more that they resented the team making the game for still enforcing those traits and not trying to make Link a full adult again at last (we all loved both Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, and consider them jewel of game and level design, but let’s face it, the Zelda franchise’s been using mostly the same narrative tropes since its begining. We were hoping for something that would put the narrative level on par with the game and level design excellence, or at least something wildly different. Majora had been so close).

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