The Playable RPG Character––Voice Acted vs. Non-Voice Acted

RPGs are great games to play. You take full control of a character, and you are off on your adventure. A lot of these games involve exploration of massive worlds and interaction with exotic creatures or races. You also get games where you are given options to play as a male or female, and you get to choose the class or background of your playable character.

The Final Fantasy games always have a pre-determined protagonist a player plays as. You watch his/her story unfold, and you keep playing and beating each level until you can find out what is in store for the hero or heroine. These games do offer an open world to explore at your leisure, but you don’t have control over the outcome in the game. The player is a casual spectator in their story. Games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins give you the option to choose to play as a male or female, and rather than be the bystander, you are actively determining how your character’s story will go and how it ends.

If you have been reading my blog, I tend to discuss Mass Effect or Dragon Age a lot in my posts. It’s not that I don’t like to play other RPG games, it’s just that I haven’t bought any other major RPG games lately to really make other comparisons. With that said, since playing and finishing both Mass Effect and Dragon Age, I have had the pleasure of experiencing two differences between these two games. Yes, they are both made by the same developer and they are heavy on choice base consequences that affect how your games are shaped, but I couldn’t help but notice the different gaming experience of taking on the roles of the main characters in either game. Mass Effect has a fully voiced male and female Shepard while Dragon Age: Origins gives you a silent protagonist.

An example of the dialogue system in Dragon Age: Origins

When I think of RPG games, they are what you expect them to be––playing a role. RPGs tend to be heavy on the story, character development, world exploration, and in most cases having a non-linear way of doing things. I played Dragon Age: Origins first before playing the Mass Effect games. Being new to the world of Xbox and having my gaming universe completely open up beyond the Wii and DS systems, I was very excited to play Dragon Age: Origins. I enjoyed creating my Warden in my image, and I let my imagination run wild with how her personality, interests, and values would be. The fact that your Warden is the only character without a voice actor speaking the lines of dialogue you choose on the conversation wheel adds to the fantasy element. I completely had a voice for her dreamed up in my head as I played.

Making the transition from a non-voice acted main protagonist in Dragon Age: Origins to Mass Effect was kind of a shock to the system at first. I completely gave myself over to the idea of using your imagination to give voice to the character you create. It also brings us back to the child in us who would use our imaginations to play act the adventures we always made up for ourselves in our rooms or backyards. To have professional voice actors lending their voices to a character you control, but can still imagine what their values, ideals, and beliefs are was something I wasn’t sure if I could entirely enjoy. But I gave it a shot. It is a new game and a new experience after all.

You can probably guess how I felt about a voice acted playable character––I devoured the Mass Effect series just like I devoured Dragon Age: Origins. It also helps to have a good voice actress like Jennifer Hale bringing life to the female Commander Shepard. As many players have said, she is Commander Shepard for a lot of people just like the voice actor for male Commander Shepard, Mark Meer is for many players. They took these characters and made them their own. Playing Mass Effect without these voice actors wouldn’t feel right in a sense. This brings me to the topic of my post––which is better? A voice acted playable character or a silent one?

The male and female characters you get to play as in Persona 3 for PSP

I read a few articles and forum debates on this topic a long time ago, and I was thinking about this recently as I do a second playthrough of Mass Effect as the male Shepard this time around. I also kept thinking about it further as I play Persona 3 on the PSP when I’m not on my Xbox. Persona 3 is a Japanese RPG that looks to be a decision based game from what I have played of it so far. The PSP version not only allows you to play the original story from the Playstation version, but they add something that wasn’t in the original game––players can play as a female character instead of the default male like in the original. These characters are, of course, silent. You can’t change the way they look, but you can imagine how they sound, change their name, and you can choose how and what they say to the other NPCs in the game.

Having played both types of RPGs where your character is either voice acted or silent, I believe there are pros and cons to either method. Having a silent protagonist allows you to put those imagination muscles to work as I have mentioned before. Want your character to have a British, American, or any kind of accent you can think of? Imagine it. Do you think your character has a soft and well-spoken voice? Or do you believe your character would be more of an aggressive figure with a bit of an intimidating rumble at the back of their throat? Picture it in your mind and it is easily done. The beauty of imagination is you can make a character whoever you want them to be when you play the game.

The downside to having a silent protagonist in RPGs? It feels a little strange when an emotionally charged scene comes up between your character and an NPC, and it’s time for your character to choose the response. You choose the response, imagine the emotion behind the voice, and the voice acted NPC reacts to your dialogue choice. It falls flat sometimes. The love interest of your choice just declares their undying love for your character, then the camera switches to your character and he/she just stands there dumbly waiting for you, the player, to decide what they should say. If the RPG is really good, you can get swept up in the moment and not really notice this much. If you pay attention enough, it may bother you when your silent protagonist just stands there like an emotionless robot. A forum I stumbled upon once had a commenter mention how creepy it looked to see their playable character in Dragon Age: Origins just staring off into space during those conversation cutscenes. I’ll admit, it can be a buzzkill on a well-executed scene in a game.

There is no other voice for female Commander Shepard except Jennifer Hale

The flip side of this is the voice acted playable characters. The advantage of having a voice actor assigned to a character you control makes your character more like a living and breathing human who interacts and reacts to the people and environment surrounding them. They are able to play out the proper emotions you see fit for the scene, and you don’t have to make your brain work so hard to conjure a “voice” for your character. The developers did all the work for you by choosing the right sounding voice actor to be the voice of your character. Bioware games are known for their moral based choices. As a result, voice actors like Jennifer Hale and Mark Meer as Commander Shepard are given the task of voice acting certain lines of dialogue in varying shades of emotion. If you play a Paragon in Mass Effect, then the tone and inflection in the voice will reflect a more gentler or kinder response to an NPC. Choose the Renegade dialogue options, then Shepard will sound more aggressive and harsher in their responses. The lines of dialogue may be exactly the same, but the approach and emotion behind it will be vastly different.

The only real disadvantage of having a fully voiced playable character is you can’t choose how you imagine the character should sound. If you absolutely despise a voice actor’s voice, then you are out of luck because you are stuck with the voice for the entire game. Players who prefer their playable RPG characters to remain silent have said a fully voice acted character takes away the purpose of an RPG, using your imagination and controlling nearly every single aspect of the character you have created for the game. The arguments I’ve read said having a voice acted character doesn’t make your playable character truly your own. Giving voices to them makes it more like their character and personality have already been pre-determined when it’s supposed to give the player the freedom to choose how and what their character should be.

Where do I stand in this debate? I’m more neutral. I don’t necessarily hate or like one over the other. I used to lean more towards having a silent protagonist in an open world RPG, but after experiencing Mass Effect and even the voice acted Dragon Age 2, I also enjoy having the voice actors breathe life into the characters you control. I indulged my imagination of having a Warden in Dragon Age: Origins who, in my mind, is a well-spoken noble who is kind and speaks with a British accent, but also is a bit of a badass with a sword and dagger when someone tries to push her around. In Mass Effect, my Shepard may have a voice but I can still imagine how she would think or act in certain situations based on the basic background choices we are given in the game to shape Shepard. The developers only left us with the basics, but the game still gives players free reign over what we the players think Shepard is likely to do. What we don’t see in the game, we fill in the blanks ourselves. Whether a playable character is silent or voice acted, it’s still a role play game. The players are encouraged to step into the role and still use their imaginations. The voice is just a small part in the grander scheme of RPGs. We go on an adventure, and we write the story of our character. For me, having a silent or voice acted playable character doesn’t take away from the experience but adds to it. Unless the voice acting is really terrible, well, that’s a whole other story entirely.

If you are a gamer and enjoy RPGs, what is your opinion on this topic? Do you prefer to have a silent protagonist? Or do you want a fully voice acted character? Does it even matter to you? Do you think an RPG is ruined when a developer/studio decides to have a talking playable character?

17 thoughts on “The Playable RPG Character––Voice Acted vs. Non-Voice Acted

  1. I really enjoy RPGS and I gotta say I prefer a silent hero. Since I’m making the character, I like to think it’s my voice behind the amour and weapon. Nice article!

      1. Thank you! As I’ve said, I found myself enjoying both ways of playing a silent or voice acted character. I think it really depends on the game. But I do like how a silent character encourages using your active imagination though.

  2. Interesting post! I played RPGs that had unvoiced playable characters first — DA:O was one of my first games. I didn’t mind it. But since playing games with voiced characters, I much prefer them with voices.

    So much of the non-voiced games is guesswork — I’d choose a dialogue option and the response by the NPC would seem way off, because I imagined the intonation differently. Sarcasm was almost impossible. With the voiced characters, I have a better idea of what’s happening in the conversation, and the interplay between the characters just flows better. A voice also helps me get into the game, because it’s more realistic and, for me, it adds personality.

    1. It’s funny you mention that. I did remember reading how when you have a voice acted playable character some actually didn’t expect the voice actor to deliver the lines the way they did. It was quite the opposite. Some believed the execution of the lines were off. I found the comments about a complaint in having a voice acted character more in Dragon Age 2 than Mass Effect though. Players didn’t care for the voice actors for Hawke so much.

  3. I’m usually a handheld console gamer and I have completely followed the Nintendo path since I was a little girl. So when it comes to rpgs I’m used to a silent character called Susie (even if it’s clearly a boy). For games like Pokemon and Dragon Quest, I think the silent character works well. But to be honest, if it’s a good game it doesn’t matter to me whether the lead character is voiced or not. Great post!

    1. Thank you! I think I’ve been more exposed to the silent protagonist than the voice acted ones, at least the ones where you have control over the game to a certain degree. My real exposure to the voice acted ones have been the Bioware games, and they really hire great voice actors for most of their games.

  4. Expanding on what Susie said, it definitely fits more with certain games than with others. For games where you play as someone (most Final Fantasy games), it makes a lot of sense for there to be voice acting as it brings that personality to life. For games that want you to self insert yourself into the protagonist or are intentionally trying to re-create the feel of late 80s/early 90s games, it makes more sense for the protagonist to be silent. Then there are certain legacy games where the fan base just expects a certain kind of approach. I believe half the reason people were so upset with Other M was because it was the first time Samus ever talked (the other half being the genuinely disturbing imagery). For a game series that never employed voice acting, its fan base had certain expectations that would obviously go unfulfilled the moment the developers gave Samus a voice. I think in these sorts of cases, it really is best to leave the protagonist silent.

    As for myself, I am a bit partial to the silent protagonist (and no voice acting in general) since I grew up with games where voice acting was not yet possible. Voice acting certainly adds to the presentation and story of a game and I do appreciate it when I have it, but it’s never really been such an important aspect for me. Most games I’ve played to date have been older or handheld titles with little to no voice acting and I honestly don’t feel like I’m missing out. But then I guess that I like creating the voices in my head for all characters. I do it with manga too. xD

    1. I was told by my cousin that the Other M wasn’t well received at all. I didn’t realize that part of the complaints about the game had something to do with giving a voice to Samus. I think when it comes to the silent vs. voiced characters, it really depends on the game. In the case of the Other M and Samus, the developers should have left well enough alone. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it as they say.

      I agree with you. When I have silent characters, I really enjoy thinking of a voice for them. Like you said, you do it for manga! But I think the same can be said for reading any kind of fictional book. You have to imagine what the character looks and sounds like based on what the writer/mangaka gives you. Imagination is a fun thing to indulge in. 🙂

      1. Yeah, your cousin is absolutely right. It bombed pretty bad. A lot of people didn’t like that Samus talked at all because it broke what they imagined she was like and others didn’t like the voice they picked for her. That’s what I mean, when a silent character suddenly gets a voice and backstory, most people are going to get angry because the image doesn’t fit what they imagined all those years back. So I do think in these cases, it probably is best to leave well enough alone, like you say, because even if some people complain that the game’s presentation is archaic, it will probably just end up splitting the fanbase if a developer tries to force a certain image onto a character that never really had one to begin with.

        Yeah, definitely~ Maybe that’s why I prefer silent protagonists. I grew up reading too. :3

      2. Fans of Samus prefer she remain voiceless, but when I read players’ opinion of Dragon Age: Origins in comparison to Dragon Age 2, there were a good amount of people who wished their Warden from Origins was voice-acted after experiencing voice-acted playable characters for Dragon Age 2 and Mass Effect. Then again, the ones who wished the Warden was voice-acted are the ones who didn’t play Dragon Age: Origins first, but second after playing Dragon Age 2. It really is a matter of opinion and preference. I prefer the Warden to be voiceless because it is very much like a tabletop RPG but in video game form. Besides, I think it would be out of place if the Warden suddenly got a voice when in the first game the Warden never had one. Just like fans were upset over Samus getting a voice in the Other M, and not living up to fans’ expectations.

  5. I know I’m a little late commenting on this but I was just thinking about this very topic! I have played a lot of RPGs and I agree with many of the points that you made! I however think there are many games out there that need voice actors but don’t have them. One of these games that I think would have been better is persona 3. I have played both persona 3 and persona 3 FES and am currently playing persona 4 and I believe that these games would have been better with voices because of how deep the story line is. I think it would have helped make it better and made a lot of the scenes a lot more emotional

    1. Thanks for leaving a comment, and it’s never too late to voice your opinion either! I haven’t gotten too deep into Persona 3, the PSP version, but I do enjoy it so far. I don’t mind the silent protagonist in Persona 3. It adds to the role-play aspect of the game, but having a voiced protagonist is also very appealing too. At least a voiced protagonist isn’t so bad as long as the voice acting is done well. If a developer chose a voice actor who doesn’t fit the character, then it can potentially ruin the experience for the player. I can see why some RPG players prefer their characters silent. They want the ability to use their imagination and create their own “voice” for the character.

  6. I LOOOOOOVE VICE ACTING IN GAMES!!! And never in my life will I play a game without voice acting EVER!!! voice and sound gives life to movies and games… otherwise I’d just read a book.

    1. It certainly would be weird if the games you played had zero voice acting. But when it comes to voice acting for your playable character, it depends. I don’t mind using my imagination in an RPG like Dragon Age: Origins, but I do appreciate the good voice acting in Mass Effect.

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