Question for you.
If from this point onwards, Wii games never used voice acting up until the machine became obsolete, would you care?
For better or worse, would you miss the aural strains of people voicing your characters?
It's not going to happen any time soon, don’t worry. Videogame production has reached a point where it's proud to be able to scream down your ear and get away with it. If you've been gaming for only a few years, chances are you won't even remember a time when you'd be amazed if your favourite game peeped out a scratchy, barely intelligible voice sample as reward for your purchase. We've come a long way since "Awise fwm yor gwave", "Let's go Mister driver", and even "Ghhhssstbbsssters…. mwhahahahhaaaa!"
(No, you don’t get any points for recognising them; they're easy.)
But if there's something I've noticed the past few months, it's that some reviewers have started to lambaste certain titles for the lack of voice acting, most particularly in Wii games. Generally speaking, developers have been making a stylistic choice on this given that there's plenty of space on Wii's optical media discs for speech, badly sampled (although there's no excuse for that) or not.
Take The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, for example.
There's very little in the way of 'proper' speech in the game because, well, it doesn’t really suit it as of yet. The Zelda franchise has obviously been around far longer than the medium's ability to utilise human voices in-game, and so as tradition and design took steps into the 21st century, designer Shigeru Miyamoto has persisted that Link remain without a tongue as to make the gamer 'speak' for him, personalising the experience and making us feel more like the hero.
Does that work for you?
It's an individual thing, sure. And I can totally subscribe to that ethic. But there's plenty of people out there that simply hate reading. Despise it. I mean, hell, if you're reading this now, you're probably not one of those people anyway, so you're not going to be offended (not that there's much to take offence over). Others may be just skim-reading and picking up odd bits. To them, I could be typing any old thing between the paragraphs and names that catch their attention. In fact, this is for the skim-readers passing by right now:
Zelda, Mario, Grand Theft Auto, Resident Evil, Shenmue, Final Fantasy, ding dong the witch is dead, hakuna matata, Purple Monkey Dishwasher.
Fun and games, indeed.
Not wanting to read in games isn’t a crime. It's a visual medium, after all, and we're living in a visually driven world where High Definition blasts us from every marketing angle, print is dying a slow and miserable death, and VIDEOgaming is one of the fastest growing entertainment mediums going.
But have we really reached the point where we can't even stand to spend a few minutes at a time reading text in a game? We're dangerously close, I imagine. How many of you still read the instruction manuals these days?
My problem with the push away from having words on a screen to ONLY a group of voice actors reciting their lines is that we lose a valuable part of the medium's diversity. It lessens its -oh, the irony!- voice. Among other issues.
I want you to try a quick experiment. Once you've read this, try to imagine these words, trying to change your own internal voice as described in the paragraph:
"I hated listening to Zelda's voice… it switched and changed with each sentence, making it difficult to focus on the importance of her words. Sometimes it screeched like fingernails scraping across a blackboard, other times it scraped and scratched like jagged rocks viciously crumbling with emphasis.
"It was only when she randomly started singing did I realise the truth:
"Zelda 's voice was breaking.
"Zelda was becoming a man."
Now, from that, a couple things have probably emerged (aside from the outrage of the lovely princess being outed as a frustrated male). The first is that every single one of you reading will have experienced something different. The voice in your head could have a subtle or massive slant away from another person. For each of you, that experiment created a separate result because you attribute your own voice to it.
The second thing is that because of the above, the experience becomes interactive and hands-on. Speech runs in passive 'real time', while reading runs a-s… s-l-o-w… o-r… asfastasyou want it to be, on top of the unique little voice you give it. It's all controlled by you, and like in videogames, it's your input that counts towards helping make the experience what it is.
Wii games, Nintendo's first-party games especially, are victim to this great advantage and disadvantage, arguably more so than other formats and developers because Nintendo is fairly adamant and coy with voice acting in its games. In fact, if you're lucky enough to have a copy of Super Paper Mario, you'll know just how brilliant and entertaining a game's script can be without it being voiced. Intelligent Systems has done a sterling job on making its witty text stand out, bounce, leap, flicker, change colours and all sorts of whacky stuff to stop it from just being
It plays with things, a little. Certain words are given emphasis and highlighted in inexplicable ways that only the gamer will personalise. And so it flips the script in more ways than one.
For me, games like Super Paper Mario should be applauded for avoiding the dull text trap that many games within and around its genre often fall into. Because frankly, even I get bored with reading, sometimes. And I'm a bloody writer.
I'm not saying that games should reject voice acting, because much of it these days is fantastically well done. And with some titles it helps convey a movie-like atmosphere, which is totally intentional. But surely the whole point of gaming is to be interactive. And reading, like it or not, is far more interactive than voice-overs and something that should really never be used at the exclusion of in-game text, which is utterly invaluable at times… especially to gamers who may be deaf or hard of hearing.
In fact, I'm hoping developers like Intelligent Systems actually start experimenting a little. Because while Wii is expanding design sensibilities to make us think a little more out the box, Nintendo's dogged insistence to keep text in games could well lead to some additional invention.
How about in the next Wii Zelda title we get Non-Player Characters in full voice (Link, alas, must forever stay silent, if just for our sanity – I remember Captain N and the Zelda cartoons and as much as I loved them… well…) - but as they sometimes speak, we hear them say one thing but they have on-screen thought bubbles thinking something else entirely, creating two different narratives of what's going on. Or in the world of a voiced cast, we come across a character that is mute and can only speak using text, which isn't always visibly clear. The player then has to decipher what s/he is saying (made quick and easy with the Wii remote, naturally) which then spurs that character down a certain story path, as well as being happy/furious with you depending on how well you decode their ramblings. If they're more amiable towards you, their stats and performance increases. If you've annoyed them, then they're a bit more sluggish and reluctant. And so on. A mixture of speech and text could open a number of gameplay related possibilities.
Wii games shouldn’t be punished for a having a lack of voice acting, regardless of the decisions behind it (even if a developer is just being cheap) – because to be frank, the more people we have willing to read these little letters pushed together, the more options we have in diversifying gaming's presentation on a whole. And given that Nintendo's format is already heavily scrutinised on a visual plane as it is, it would probably be wise for someone to start looking at more neglected ways to impress us on a presentational level.
After all, isn’t invention and interaction truly what Wii is all about?