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.
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?
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.
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?