It's no secret that video games have become distinctly more cinematic over the years. As the technological limits and artistic visions of games continue to evolve and expand, the medium as a whole has shifted into a space where more "traditional" games like those of years past are accompanied by action epics and crime dramas that wouldn't seem too out of place if they were playing at your local movie theater. Walk into any game store, for instance, and chances are you won't be surprised to see New Super Mario Bros. 2 on sale just a few feet away from Max Payne 3. This is the world we live in.
Naturally, there's always going to be some hint of tension between, in broad terms, this "old school" and "new school" of gaming design. How much focus should a given game have on cutscenes? Can an excellent story ever excuse subpar gameplay? Just how much demand is there for "retro" style experiences? And isn't it time to do away with things like, say, silent protagonists, now that we have the tech to do so?
There's a veritable truckload of questions like these to ask, but today I'd like to focus on that last one up there in particular. With those aforementioned technological advances in the medium, video game voice acting has become much, much more prevalent, so much so that Hollywood stars appearing in certain AAA titles is practically commonplace nowadays.
The question that arises, then, is not if voice acting should be the standard amongst modern games—we'd probably all agree that it should as long as it's well done. Rather, it's whether or not there should room at all for silent characters, and more accurately, silent protagonists, in today's gaming landscape.
The common argument against silent protagonists would probably say that having a main character that doesn't talk is at once unrealistic and nonsensical. Considering that, in most cases, the entire game world revolves around the protagonist and its actions, it would take quite the stretch of the imagination to believe that so much important, epic, dramatic stuff could result from someone who refuses to say a word. We have the wonderful tech and the wonderful voice actors to bring these games to life, so to speak, so we should utilize them to do so. If someone like Link or Chell had a voice, they might say, we could relate to them further, and thus have more a personal connection to them. This would only be a good thing, right?
Well, for a good amount of the time, yes, it would be. But to look at voice acting in this way is to miss the function of the silent protagonist in the first place. When we look at some of the more successful games without voiced leads (The Legend of Zelda series, the Half-Life series, Portal, Journey, etc.), we find that giving said characters tangible speech actually does more to break a player's immersion with a game than barring them from it.
In actuality, this kind of decision—to speak or to stay silent—is dependent on what the goal of the game makers in question may be. If a game's intent is to have its players bear witness to its setting, characters, and happenings, then a fully voiced lead character may be the better route to take. But if its intent is more akin to "transporting" the player into the game itself, then it may be better off keeping its leads quiet.
Let's look at Uncharted's Nathan Drake for an example of this. Superbly acted by Nolan North, Drake has become nothing short of a modern gaming icon, a daring young treasure hunter with sharp wits and an even sharper tongue. For the most part, there isn't much to complain about with regards to his character.