A topic that I enjoy ruminating on is the debate over whether voiced or silent protagonists are more effective in video game. By this, I mean the extent to which the voicing of the playable character(s) influences player immersion in the game world. There is no simple answer, in my view. To add complication, one has to consider the matter of perspective. Whether the playable character is viewed by the player in the first- or third-person, is a key consideration.
Whilst considering the subject recently, I stumbled on an article on PC Gamer in which two writers engaged in this very debate. One particular bold assertion caught my eye: that the acclaimed Half-Life games would have been even better had Gordon Freeman not been a resolute mute.
Nonsense! That was my first thought. Dr. Freeman speaking could have grated against the personality that we, the players, had projected on to the bare bones character. If his voice hadn’t matched the one that all of us had in our heads, undoubtedly unique to every one of us, then the immersion would have crumbled. We would no longer have been experiencing this dangerous adventure; we would just have been playing a game.
But then I thought about it a little more, and I began to doubt my previous conviction.
Gordon Freeman’s stony silence has always been an aspect of the Half-Life games that has caused some amusement. Perhaps if he offered some small utterances when engaged in conversation, or made the odd nerdy but endearing scientific remark, we may have found him more relatable as a character. Having a more believable protagonist may have actually improved overall immersion.
Perhaps the debate wasn’t as clear cut as I’d originally thought.
As I outlined in a previous article on the methods of narrative delivery in video games, whether a playable character is voiced or voiceless intrinsically influences how the game’s narrative is framed. Having Gordon Freeman as silent places the onus on the game world, and the non-playable characters that inhabit it, to tell the story. If the famous physicist had been given a voice and dialogue responsibilities, then the whole narrative landscape would have shifted. We, the players, would have expected Dr. Freeman to react to his situations and engage in conversations in a more believable manner.
In short, giving Gordon Freeman a voice would have necessitated greater character development. As infamous as it may be, we came to accept the protagonist’s silence as a quirk, ignorable because the NPCs and rich game world that drove the narrative in the Half-Life games were so well developed. It therefore wouldn’t have been enough to simply have Dr. Freeman uttering the odd, isolated phrase. He would have had to have been an integral part of the story; a driving force himself. Such a change, whilst seemingly innocuous at first, would actually have necessitated a seismic shift in the way that the Half-Life series’ story is told.
But what if Valve had pulled it off? Surely there are few comparable studios out there, Naughty Dog being one, more qualified to bring a protagonist to life? Simply put, it’s hard to tell now. With the departure of stalwart Half-Life writer Marc Laidlaw, there is a strong but painful possibility that we’ll never find out. On the flip side, perhaps a new lead writer at Valve may be up for tackling what would without doubt be one of the greatest challenges in video game writing: giving Gordon Freeman a voice. Just imagine the physicist fully-realised as a character as well written as Alyx Vance. It’s hard to envisage many players complaining about the loss of an avatar if it were so successfully replaced with a deep, nuanced Gordon Freeman character.
In today’s gaming landscape, it is often expected that every character is voiced. But for video games that pride themselves on character progression, as the Half-Life series did, it is not simply a case of throwing some words into the game. If Half-Life 3, or Half-Life 2: Episode Three were ever to see the light of day, and Gordon Freeman were voiced, it would necessitate a complete re-think of the famous formula. The designers and writers would have to create a believable, responsive Gordon Freeman from scratch, whilst ensuring the player immersion isn’t jeopardised by an incongruous voice or poorly-developed character.
It would not be an easy task, and there’s no easy answer to question of whether the Half-Life series would be even better if Gordon Freeman was voiced. Perhaps Valve are agonising over this very dilemma, and it’s one of the reasons why we’re yet to see the next instalment in the series. We can but hope.