I really love RPGs. They are my favorite type of video game, and my love affair with them began with the Elder Scrolls: Morrowind on the original Xbox when I was a child. I was enthralled by the strangeness of Morrowind’s world, and the creativity of the writing. Being a little child, I was also terrified of the strange corners of the game, and you couldn’t convince me to leave the towns at night until I was a little bit older, which is a bit embarrassing.
Morrowind was a magical experience, but it was also a mostly silent one. Morrowind came out prior to the greater popularity of voice acting in RPGs. In fact, its sequel Oblivion is the game that I believe ushered in this age of voice acted RPGs, although the Mass Effect series is definitely the one that cemented it as a standard of the industry. Both Oblivion and the Mass Effect games are fully voiced, in comparison with Morrowind, which only had a few key scenes and generic lines from NPCs voiced.
Morrowind was a quiet experience, sure, but it allowed an incredible depth to the experience of the quests in the game. Dialogue was rich and wasn’t constrained by budgetary concerns, allowing the writers to come up with some really deep and fascinating quests. It also helps that Morrowind’s lack of voiced dialogue made it easier to enjoy Jeremy Soule’s award-winning score!
RPGs have to be voiced now, however. We saw just how rough this could be in Oblivion, where a large percent of the voice acting budget was spent on a celebrity appearance, leaving a small cadre of voice actors to round out every other character in this very large world.
Bioware’s decision to voice their protagonists has introduced yet another economic constraint upon dialogue as they moved away from the silent protagonist model, having to pay voice actors, potentially multiple voice actors in order to offer more customization, to voice every string of protagonist dialogue for the entire game. Protagonists in these games arguably speak more than anyone else, as they are constantly at the center of the action, and that can’t be cheap.
Perhaps this is just a component of RPG development becoming more of a AAA space, but I think it’s a shame. I’ve seen games without voiced dialogue decried as old-fashioned, while other series like the Legend of Zelda can get away with it thanks to stylization and nostalgia. If we want RPGs to continue to be diverse and financially feasible for companies that aren’t economic behemoths, we need to be more forgiving of silent dialogue. In fact, we should welcome it for the opportunity it offers, for complex character development and ideas.