Game Case Study: The Voiceless Hero
The typical game hero is mute. Have you noticed?
Especially in first-person shooters, your typical game hero is a stoic son of a mesh. He has an inhuman pain tolerance, miraculous healing powers, and can tote as much military hardware as a Sherman tank. But he can’t communicate. He’ll say a few words in the cutscenes, but he’s useless otherwise.
If you’ve served in the military, you know that the average soldier is a lot happier talking about combat than getting shot at. With good reason.
If you were big on symbolism you could delve into this for all sorts of pointless conversation about the status of the modern soldier, the devolution of the archetypal hero, the social skills of today’s kids, etc. etc.
And can you imagine what a Leno or Larry King interview with Master Chief or Samus would be like?
But seriously, what does this mean to gamers and the game experience?
The Game Hero Immersion Theory
The game hero vocalization quandry was bandied about a lot by the other game designers and me on two games in particular, the PS2 launch title Army Men: Green Rogue (blink and you missed it) and the PC space-sim Freelancer (top ten). Some game designers liked the strong silent hero because he was more intimidating that way. But the winning reason in both cases was that a talking game hero breaks the fourth wall and disturbs the illusion of verite.
(Insert jibe here about game developers who believe that “realism” is a quality to be preserved when your hero is melting animated plastic soldiers.)
The “broken illusion” argument is persuasive, although I don’t buy it. I hate to play Hollywood and dogmatically rely on previous games to support all my theories*, but I do have to point to Duke Nukem 3D, once a true rival to DOOM and a lighthearted triumph that featured a bombastic muscle-bound hero who’d spout endless and funny catchphrases like Arnold on steroids. I mean, more steroids.
Duke’s taunts and jokes were a big part of the game’s charm. He was a game hero whose verbosity added to the character and fun.
The Game Hero Clarity Issue
On Freelancer, the key question was twofold: how would the player know that the game hero was talking, and what would it add to gameplay?
During gameplay, the player was either conducting transactions baseside or flying/fighting in space. I was hoping our game hero, Trent, could talk while at the controls to break the monotony of long-haul travel and help us deal with some narrative deficits. (We had some sizeable plot holes that had to be stitched together.)
I said that Trent’s face could appear during “comms” just like the faces of other characters did when they spoke during flight. Additionally, our game hero could have sonically different comms that sounded like they were cleaner, louder, and even physically closer.
Trent was another hero who never got his gameplay voice. It’s not a huge regret for me – ask any Freelancer team member, and they’ll willingly admit that we’re all just thankful that we finished that game and got the sales we did – but I do wonder why game developers continue to pass on opportunities to enrich gameplay with the voice of the most important character in their games.
Ok, enough for one day. In my next post: The Rude Game Hero and The Situational Chatterbox Game Hero.
* One hit game does not prove a theory; it only carves a creative rut for imitators to wallow into in search of the almighty “oops I bought the wrong game for Junior!” dollar.