The game landscape wasn’t always so boisterous. Recent protagonists have been a stark contrast to the strong, silent type that has historically dominated video game character design. Back then, voiceless playable characters like Link or Gordon Freeman sat back and let their companions dictate how to save the day. Friendly NPCs would communicate vital information about the games’ quests and mechanics in short, simplistic bursts. Enemies would scream (or “bark”) their locations, tactics and weaknesses. And these protagonists would never say a word.
Ostensibly, the player character’s silence was intended to add immersion. A lack of voice led to a lack of a clear identity, or so it was thought, which meant the character could become a person-sized hole for the player to insert themselves into the game’s story. In 1989, op an interview with Shigeru Miyamoto, Dragon Quest creator Yuji Horii explained how a talking protagonist can make players feel “uncomfortable”: “He plays as if the character is an extension of himself, so why is his avatar suddenly speaking on his own accord? “
“I do not agree that (silence) is for immersion,” Joe Berryone of the writers of the recent Empty space remake, told me. “In fact, I like a character who walks around and not speak, not responding to something is less compelling.” According to Berry, most previous generation games were instead voiceless because voices would consume most of the company’s game memory and budget.
Whatever the reason, as gaming technology advances and gaming itself becomes increasingly recognized as an economic force, it seems more and more key players are starting to find their voice. They converse with companions who, contrary to the blunt urgency of Navi’s ‘Hey! Listen!” in Ocarina of Time, have become more talkative themselves, injected with personality. However, whether players want to hear what these characters have to say is an entirely different matter.
More is less
Perhaps this trend exists in part because games have become so much taller – bigger worlds with bigger budgets. I first noticed this chatter in huge open world games like Horizon zero dawn And Ghost of Tsushima, in which the player characters wander through beautifully rendered landscapes with miles of content. In this current “you can climb any mountain you seeera of marketing, where each new release has broken a new record for the size and scale of its world, games have given the player more empty space to traverse – and therefore more opportunity for stillness as the character travels from one quest to the next next one.
And yet recent AAA games seem increasingly concerned about this silence. To destroy it, Rockstar has his companions drive alongside you (in your car for Grand Theft Auto or next to your horse for Red Dead Redemption) to discuss your current mission. Insomnia Spider-Man let NPCs call you or let you listen the radio. Typically, this is an easy way to communicate important information to you diegetically, in a way that feels compelling and grounded.
However, I’ve noticed that this immersion is often broken when the main character chooses to talk to him no one at all. As I drove on Horizon Forbidden West‘s beautiful post-post-apocalyptic America as Aloy, I was bombarded with her constant monologue about where to go and what to see. At worst, Aloy felt like a backseat driver, giving me the illusion of control while spoiling any surprise. Or, as Reddit user CellsInterlinked stated in a post on the Horizon subreddit: “Aloy talks so much (…) I feel really robbed of some instance as a player.”
Every time Aloy spoke out loud, as I enjoyed scrambling through the hi-res ruins of a run-down Vegas, it strained my credulity: Who is she talking to? I wondered. The answer, of course, was that she was talking to me. The link between ‘player’ and ‘character’ was neatly broken – we were no longer one and the same.
Hold your hand
This type of hand-holding dialogue isn’t limited to open-world games. In the Game Maker Toolkit video essay “Why do God of War characters keep spoiling puzzles?” host Mark Brown diagnoses the reasons why your companions make a habit of screwing up puzzles, and identifies a similar habit in games like Psychonauts 2The mediumAnd Horizon Forbidden West.
The reason this puzzle-solving dialogue exists seems to be the same reason open-world protagonists become your guide: these games need to recoup their colossal budgets. If the player feels that they have missed essential content or get stuck in a puzzle, sales can be negatively impacted. “If we spent $50 million on this cool dungeon,” explained Jo Berry, “we’re going to make sure the player doesn’t feel like they’re missing out.”
As such, this chatter is often created after extensive play tests. According to Brown, if a game tester takes too long on a puzzle, the writer will build dialogue that reduces the time the player spends scratching the back of their head. When used properly, these playtests also give the developers a window into the player’s mindset as they play – which Berry says is critical to writing authentic dialogue that “expresses exactly what the player is thinking “.
Therefore, it seems that frustration only arises when the character speaks up for the player comes up with it himself. Making a character explain too much too soon, High in life‘s narrative director (and former Polygon contributor) Alec Robbins told me via email, is an easy route to annoyance: “As a player, I find it condescending.”
Talkative companions or player characters can be divisive regardless of their purpose in the game. But the gap between a game’s marketing and an audience’s reception is particularly wide when it comes to “chitchat.”
Banter, whether funny or effective, has become a flashpoint for so many fans and critics of recent games. Despite To leave developer statements that they weren’t concerned about the initial reactions to the banter between main character Freya and her sentient bracelet Cuff, the dialogue was criticized so much – especially for its perceived similarities to the MCU’s pranksters – that it made The Avengers writer Joss Whedon trending on Twitter. And while High in life‘s first trailer highlighted the irreverent, cheeky jokes of its talking guns, reviews stated that the game’s banter suffered from a severe case of “verbal diarrhea.”
To be fair, including this banter is often out of the hands of the writers. When High in lifeWhen Robbins joined the project, he expressed initial concerns about the talking weapons, only to find that they were “already decided, prototyped and not even up for discussion”. This style of banter is also inherently humor-driven, and humor can be wildly subjective: “It’s very difficult to write comedy that will land for everyone,” Robbins said.
Of course, there are plenty of games that developers often cite as examples of well-executed humorous banter. Berry highlighted the Uncharted series, whose dialogue took directions from 1930s screwball comedies, while Robbins praised the Portal games’ “funny, natural, and unobtrusively educational” chatter.
Despite the fact that many games use banter to illustrate how “quirky” their protagonists can be, this same constructed banter often reveals that the player character sounds like everyone else. While To leave‘s banter was considered “Whedonesque,” Atom Heart‘s was compared to dialogues from old FPS games. Robbins was not given an explicit mandate to make High in life‘s humor similar to Rick and Morty‘s; however, since they shared a creator, it was “very clear where to get my cues from.”
And characterization can suffer as a result. If this chatter reaches its saturation point, or is overly stylized, the player won’t feel connected to your protagonist, Berry warns — they’ll just be reminded of the writer.
Speech is here to stay
To be clear, I believe this trend of talking a lot is doing more good than harm. It adds further accessibility for those who like it and reduces the amount of gameplay-interrupting cutscenes required to propel the story forward. Done right, it can even, as Robbins claimed, “help keep the world alive.”
And for those like me who operate under a stricter “silence is gold” mentality, there is hope on the horizon. Most of the games I’ve listed here have introduced in-game options or band aids to reduce the amount of chatter. Critical and commercial successes such as Elder ring, Polygon’s Game of the Year for 2022, have proven that players can still fall in love with silent characters who wade through cryptic worlds. And despite companies’ previous fears, Berry informed me that the conversation on the corporate ladder has shifted from “We can’t let players miss our content!” to “Missed content adds replay value.”
As I wrote this article, my thoughts revolved around Berry’s claim that dialogue should strengthen the symbiotic and sacred bond between player and character. When she read Isaac Clarke’s dialogue in the Empty space remake (which differed from the quiet Clarke of the original), she placed strict restrictions on what he could and couldn’t say. He was a “polite boy” who spoke only when spoken to. He dispensed with “technobabble” and instead explained scientific concepts in a way that any player could understand, allowing the player to feel like a brilliant, humble engineer – just like Clarke.
That’s exactly why this chatter shouldn’t be treated as an afterthought or an add-on after playtests. When it works (and it often does), the line between “myself” and “my character” begins to blur. i become Kratos. i become Aloy. i become Isaac. But if the dialogue grabs my hand too often, I’m reminded that I’m a player eager to help the game. And if the chatter draws too much attention to itself, I feel like I’m playing a character — and playing a game — desperate for love.