voice-acting-zelda

Not Immersive Enough: Why Zelda Should Embrace Voice Acting

I’m usually not one to ask for successful franchises from olden times to move on from their classic roots. More often than not, the very things that made those games classics in the first place would still make them stand out today, regardless of whether those features are part of “modern game design.” That’s not to say that it’s not nice every once in awhile to see a game made to newer standards – 3D entries in Mario, Zelda, and Metroid, for example – but at the end of the day the true identity of these franchises lies in their original design philosophies.

But when I look at a franchise like Zelda, I see a game that is about being immersed in a world – and specifically a fantasy world. One of the running fantasy tropes that the series picks up is the idea that many of the people the hero meets will have clues to offer that will aid in his quest to save the kingdom. It also introduces a number of smaller quests which give the hero a chance to help people with their own personal troubles. In video game terms, this translates to lots and lots of interactions with NPCs.

I do believe that Zelda should embrace voice acting, but it’s not because I think the series needs to get with the times. It has more to do with the possibilities for added immersion that fully voiced dialogue has to offer.

I’m not even really against a written script versus a spoken one. Video games were a key factor in keeping me interested in reading when I was growing up, and there’s an extent to which I think people need to be exposed to writing in their popular culture in order to become well-rounded human beings. My main beef is that written dialogue often fails to fall in line with a cohesive, immersive game atmosphere.

When people say “immersion,” they’re referring to the extent to which something engages them on a sensory level. Movies incorporated surround sound long ago and have been the most successful medium for 3D technology because people see movies in theaters to escape into the world of film. Sports fans try to bust out the biggest and best TV sets around the Super Bowl because it better emulates the experience of actually being present at the game. For video games, immersion usually has to do with integrating the “game” elements with the things being shown on-screen – the characters, environments, player actions, and so on.

Sound design is very important in video games – by that I mean the way sound is presented, mind you, not whether or not the design is logically sound. A lot of effort is put into the noises objects make when characters interact with them – everything from your run-of-the-mill footsteps to striding through tall grass to cutting down signs. Nailing these sounds is one of the keys to establishing a cohesive and believable world.

The way characters sound also falls into this category. If a character is making strange and seemingly nonsensical noises, it can often break the sense of immersion in the game world. For example, when Twilight Princess‘s Midna was presented as speaking some in-universe language, the small bursts of speech from the rest of the cast – a quirk that had been around since Ocarina of Time – seemed out of place. Most players seem to have liked the idea of “Hylian gibberish,” but why didn’t the other characters speak Hyrulian languages also? There was a sense of inconsistency in the way the game presented its NPCs.

But if you start giving all the characters voices, that opens up even more opportunities. Why force the player to effectively “pause” the action to listen to NPCs? Unlike written dialogue, you don’t necessarily have to give your full attention to a text box if lines are delivered aurally. That’s one thing I really appreciated about The Last Story – dialogue often kept going even while I was moving through the world.

I mentioned that originally NPCs served as clue-tippers and quest-givers. Adding voiced dialogue would introduce some interesting elements in terms of discovering these clues.

Instead of wandering around talking to every NPC you can find, the game could include more “crowd” NPCs – kind of like the wandering citizens from Twilight Princess‘s Castle Town. As you move through the city you might hear a snippet of frantic dialogue from a young mother searching for her lost son or catch wind of someone chatting about a rumor that’s related to your next story objective. The quest scenarios themselves don’t necessarily have to be anything unprecedented, but the way these interactions are delivered would be integrated much better into the process of exploring the game world.

To use another example: there was a short sequence in Twilight Princess where Link had to sneak up on a couple of townspeople to eavesdrop on their conversation. The restriction of dialogue to text boxes severely limited its effectiveness. That scene would have been much more impactful if you could actually hear what those characters were saying, and had to creep close enough to make it out clearly. The components of the eavesdropping scene wouldn’t have changed much, but it would have been delivered in a much more immersive way.

It may sound as though I’m betraying Zelda‘s roots, despite saying earlier that I think games should stick to things that make them stand out, but I don’t think that’s the case. I simply think voice acting would enhance elements that already exist – exploration and NPC interaction.

There is one tradition that I think should definitely be upheld, however: I think Link should remain a silent protagonist. Link speaking wouldn’t offer the same benefits that NPC voices could. All it would really accomplish is to force more drawn-out and scripted scenes between him and the other characters – something that definitely isn’t part of the series’ successful traditions and that I don’t think the franchise has ever needed.

For those who believe that having one-sided conversations with NPCs doesn’t quite qualify as “immersion,” I’d say that Skyward Sword‘s dialogue trees more than suffice to fill in Link’s side of the discussion. And what’s more, dialogue trees mean that the player is the one doing the speaking for Link, not the other way around. I think that including voice acting for NPCs could call for some enhancements for and expansions to the system, but by and large it did an effective job.

What do you think about voice acting in Zelda? Is it needed, or would it taint the purity of one of the longest-running franchises in gaming? Would it really make the world more immersive or would it just be annoying and out-of-place? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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