Protagonists of Video Games Are Now So Talkative

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The landscape of the game has not always been so noisy. The recent protagonists offered a striking contrast to the strong and silent type that has historically dominated the design of video game characters. Back then, voiceless playable characters like Link or Gordon Freeman sat back and let their companions dictate how to save the day. Friendly NPCs would communicate important information about quests and game mechanics in short, simplistic bursts. The enemies shouted (or “barked”) their locations, tactics and weaknesses. And these protagonists would never say a word.

Supposedly, the silence of the player character was supposed to facilitate immersion. A lack of voice led to a lack of a distinct identity, according to the consideration, which means that the character could become a person-sized hole for the player to fit into the narrative of the game. In 1989, the creator of Dragon Quest, Yuji Horii, explained in an Interview with Shigeru Miyamoto how a talking protagonist can make players “uncomfortable”: “He plays as if the character is an extension of himself, so why is his Avatar suddenly talking about himself?”

“I don’t agree that [silence] is there to dive in,” Jo Berry, one of the writers of the recent Dead Space remake, told me. “In fact, I find that a character who walks around and doesn’t speak, doesn’t answer anything, is less haunting.”According to Berry, most of the games of previous generations were rather voiceless, as the voices would consume a large part of the game’s memory and a large part of the company’s budget.

Whatever the reason, as gaming technology progresses and the game itself is increasingly recognized as an economic force, more and more protagonists seem to find their voice. They chat with companions who, contrary to the brutal urgency of the “Hey! Listen!”in Ocarina of Time, they themselves have become more talkative, injected with personality. However, it’s a completely different matter if players want to hear what these characters have to say.

MORE IS LESS

Maybe this trend exists in part because games have become much bigger-bigger worlds with bigger budgets. I first noticed this chatter in huge open-world games like Horizon Zero Dawn and Ghost of Tsushima, where player characters roam through beautifully rendered landscapes with miles of content. In this current marketing era “you can climb any mountain you see”, where each new version has another record of the size and scope of its world, the games have given the player more free space to cross—and therefore more possibility of silence as the character travels from one quest to another.

And yet, recent AAA games seem increasingly concerned about this silence. To finish it, Rockstar asks his companions to ride next to you (in your car for Grand Theft Auto or next to your horse for Red Dead Redemption) to discuss your current Mission. Insomniacs Spider-Man allows NPCs to call you on the phone or allows you to listen to the Radio. As a rule, this is an easy way to provide important information in a dietary way in a way that seems immersive and grounded.

However, I have found that this immersion tends to be interrupted when the main character chooses not to talk to anyone. As I was traveling as Aloy through the beautiful post-post-apocalyptic America of Horizon Forbidden West, I was bombarded with his constant monologue about where to go and what to see. At worst, Aloy felt like a driver in the backseat, giving me an Illusion of control while ruining any surprise. Or, as Reddit user CellsInterlinked explained in an article on the Horizon Subreddit: “Aloy talks so much […] that I honestly feel deprived of an agency as a player.”

Every time Aloy spoke out loud as I enjoyed climbing through the high-definition ruins of a decaying Vegas, it put credulity to the test: who is she talking to? I wondered. The answer, of course, was that she was talking to me. The link between “player” and “character” had been cut cleanly — we were no longer one and the same person.

HOLD YOUR HAND

This type of hand-holding dialogue is not limited to open-world games. In The Game Maker’s Toolkit video essay, “Why do God of War characters keep messing up puzzles?”Animator Mark Brown diagnoses the reasons why his companions get into the habit of messing up puzzles and identifies a similar habit in games such as Psychonauts 2, The Medium and Horizon Forbidden West.

The reason why this puzzle-solving dialogue exists seems to be the same reason why the protagonists of the open world become your tour guide: these games have to recover their colossal Budgets. If the player feels like he has missed essential content or is stuck on a riddle, this can hurt sales. “If we spend million on this cool dungeon,” explained Jo Berry, “we will make sure that the player does not feel like he is not found something.”

Therefore, this chatter is usually created after extensive game tests. According to Brown, if a game tester takes too long with a Puzzle, the writer will build a dialogue that will reduce the time spent by the player scratching his head. When used correctly, these playtests also give developers an insight into the player’s state of mind when playing the game — which, Berry said, is essential for writing authentic dialogue that “expresses exactly what the player is thinking.”

Therefore, it seems that Frustration only arises when the character utters something before the player himself thinks about it. Having a character explained too much too quickly, Alec Robbins, High On Life’s director of storytelling (and former Polygon employee), told me by e-mail, is an easy path to trouble: “As a player, I think it’s patronizing.”

QUIPLASH

Chatty companions or player characters can be divisive, regardless of their purpose in the game. But the gap between the marketing of a game and the reception of an audience is particularly large when it comes to “jokes”.”

The jokes, and whether they are funny or effective, have become a focal point for so many Fans and critics of the recent games. Despite the frank statements of the developers that they were not worried about the initial reactions to the joke between the protagonist Freya and her sensitive armband, the dialogue attracted so much review — especially for its perceived similarities with the MCU brand of the smart ones-that it made The Avengers writer Joss Whedon trending on Twitter. And while the first trailer for High On Life highlighted the irreverent and rude gags of its talking guns, critics said the game’s banter suffered from a severe matter of “verbal diarrhea”.”

To be fair, the inclusion of these jokes is often not in the hands of the authors. When Robbins of High On Life joined the project, he expressed his initial concerns about talking weapons, but noted that they were “already decided, prototyped and not even for discussion.”This kind of banter is also inherently humorous, and humor can be extremely subjective: “It’s very difficult to write a comedy that lands for everyone,” Robbins said.

Of course, there are many games that developers often cite as examples of well-made humorous jokes. Berry pointed to the Uncharted series, whose dialogue was inspired by the wacky comedies of the 1930s, while Robbins praised the “fun, natural and discreetly educational” chatter of portal games.

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