Why video game protagonists have become so chatty

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The gaming landscape wasn’t always this loud. Recent protagonists have offered a stark contrast to the strong, silent type that historically dominated video game character design. Back then, voiceless playable characters like Link or Gordon Freeman would sit back and let their companions dictate how to save the day. Friendly NPCs would communicate vital information about the games’ quests and mechanics in brief, simplistic bursts. Enemies would shout out (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 distinct identity, the thinking went, which meant the character could become a person-sized hole for the player to insert themself into the game’s narrative. In 1989, in an interview with Shigeru Miyamoto, Dragon Quest creator Yuji Horii explained how a talking protagonist could make players feel “uncomfortable”: “He’s playing as though the character is an extension of himself, so why is his avatar suddenly speaking of its own accord?”

“I don’t agree that [silence] is for immersion,” Jo Berry, one of the writers of the recent Dead Space remake, told me. “In fact, I find a character that’s walking around and not speaking, not reacting to anything, is less immersive.” According to Berry, most games in prior generations were instead voiceless because voices would consume a majority of the game’s memory and a majority of the company’s budget.

Whatever the reason, as gaming technology has advanced, and gaming itself has been increasingly recognized as an economic force, it seems like more and more protagonists have started to find their voice. They converse with companions who, unlike the blunt urgency of Navi’s “Hey! Listen!” in Ocarina of Time, have themselves become chattier, injected with personality. It’s another matter entirely, however, whether players want to hear what these characters have to say.

More is less

The Dead Space remake protagonist is suited up, standing inside a claustrophobic area. Image: Motive Studio/Electronic Arts

Perhaps this trend partially exists because games have become so much bigger — bigger worlds with bigger budgets. I first noticed this chatter in massive open-world games like Horizon Zero Dawn and Ghost of Tsushima, wherein the player characters wander through gorgeously rendered landscapes with miles and miles’ worth of content. In this current “you can climb any mountain you see” era of marketing, in which each new release boasts another record broken for the size and scale of its world, games have given more empty space for the player to traverse — and, therefore, more opportunity for silence as the character travels from one quest to the next.

And yet recent AAA games seem increasingly anxious of this silence. To shatter it, Rockstar has its companions ride beside you (in your car for Grand Theft Auto or alongside your horse for Red Dead Redemption) to discuss your current mission. Insomniac’s Spider-Man has NPCs call you on the phone or lets you listen to the radio. Typically, this is an easy way for key information to be delivered to you diegetically, in a way that feels immersive and grounded.

However, I’ve found that this immersion tends to be broken when the main character chooses to speak to no one at all. As I traversed through Horizon Forbidden West’s beautiful post-post-apocalyptic America as Aloy, I was bombarded with her constant soliloquy on where to go and what to see. At its worst, Aloy felt like a backseat driver, offering me an illusion of control while spoiling any surprise. Or, as Reddit user CellsInterlinked declared in a post on the Horizon subreddit: “Aloy talks so much […] that I honestly feel robbed of some agency as a player.”

Each time Aloy spoke aloud, as I enjoyed clambering through the hi-res ruins of a decaying Vegas, it strained credulity: Who is she talking to? I wondered. The answer, of course, was that she was talking to me. The bond between “player” and “character” had been neatly severed — we were no longer one and the same.

Holding your hand

Aloy and another character from Horizon Forbidden West stand in the snow Image: Guerrilla Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

This type of hand-holding dialogue isn’t restricted to open-world games. In Game Maker’s Toolkit’s video essay “Why do God of War’s Characters Keep Spoiling Puzzles?” host Mark Brown diagnoses the reasons why your companions make a habit of, well, spoiling puzzles, and identifies a similar habit in games like Psychonauts 2, The Medium, and Horizon Forbidden West.

The reason this puzzle-solving dialogue exists appears to be the same reason open-world protagonists become your tour guide: These games need to earn back their colossal budgets. If the player feels like they’ve overlooked essential content, or they become stuck on a puzzle, it could adversely affect sales. “If we spent $50 million on this cool dungeon,” Jo Berry explained, “we’re going to make sure the player doesn’t feel like they’re missing out.”

As such, this chatter tends to get created after extensive playtests. According to Brown, if a playtester takes too long on a puzzle, the writer will construct dialogue that reduces the player’s time spent scratching their head. If utilized properly, these playtests also provide the devs a peek into the player’s mindset as they play — which, said Berry, is critical for writing authentic dialogue that expresses “exactly what the player’s thinking.”

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Therefore, it seems like frustration arises only if the character vocalizes something before the player thinks of it themselves. Having a character explain too much too quickly, High on Life’s narrative director (and past contributor to Polygon) Alec Robbins told me via email, is an easy path to annoyance: “As a player, I find it condescending.”

Quiplash

High On Life screenshot of your gun, Kenny, talking to the player. Image: Squanch Games via Polygon

Chatty companions or player characters can be divisive, regardless of their purpose within the game. But the divide between a game’s marketing and an audience’s reception is particularly vast when it comes to “banter.”

Banter, and whether it’s funny or effective, has become a flashpoint for so many fans and critics of recent games. Despite Forspoken devs’ statements that they weren’t worried about initial reactions to the banter between protagonist Freya and her sentient bracelet Cuff, the dialogue garnered so much criticism — particularly because of its perceived similarities to the MCU’s brand of wisecracks — that it made The Avengers writer Joss Whedon trend on Twitter. And while High on Life’s initial trailer highlighted the irreverent, gross-out gags of its talking guns, reviews declared the game’s banter suffered from a severe case of “verbal diarrhoea.”

To be fair, inclusion of this banter is often out of the writers’ hands. When High on Life’s Robbins arrived on the project, he expressed initial concerns about the talking guns, yet discovered 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 hard to write comedy that lands for everybody,” Robbins said.

Of course, there are plenty of games that devs commonly cite as examples of humorous banter done well. Berry highlighted the Uncharted series, whose dialogue took cues from 1930s screwball comedies, while Robbins praised the Portal games’ “funny, natural, and unobtrusively instructive” chatter.

However, despite many games’ use of banter to illustrate how “quirky” their protagonists can be, this same engineered banter often reveals that the player character sounds like everyone else. While Forspoken’s banter was deemed “Whedonesque,” Atomic Heart’s was compared to dialogue from FPS games of yore. Robbins wasn’t given an explicit mandate to make High on Life’s humor similar to Rick and Morty’s; however, because they shared a creator, it “was very obvious where I was supposed to be taking my cues from.”

And characterization can consequently suffer. If this banter hits its saturation point, or is overly stylized, the player won’t feel bonded to your protagonist, Berry warns — they’ll just be reminded of the writer.

Speech is here to stay

Frey, a young woman wearing a cloak, is seen from the side unleashing a magic spell with her arms outstretched Image: Luminous Productions/Square Enix

To be clear: I believe this chatter-heavy trend does more good than harm. It adds further accessibility for those who’d like it and reduces the amount of gameplay-interrupting cutscenes needed to propel the narrative. If done well, it can even, as Robbins claimed, “help keep the world alive.”

And for those like me, who operate under a stricter “silence is golden” mentality, there’s hope on the horizon. Most of the games I’ve mentioned here have introduced in-game options or patches to reduce the amount of chatter. Critical and commercial successes like Elden Ring, Polygon’s Game of the Year for 2022, have proven that players can still fall in love with silent characters that wade through cryptic worlds. And, despite companies’ previous fears, Berry informed me that conversation up 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 orbited around Berry’s assertion that dialogue must fortify the symbiotic and sacred bond between player and character. When she crafted Isaac Clarke’s dialogue in the Dead Space remake (which departed from the original’s silent Clarke), she imposed strict restrictions on what he could and couldn’t say. He was a “polite boy” who only spoke when spoken to. He refrained from “technobabble,” and instead explained scientific concepts in a way any player could understand, all so the player could 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 boundary between “myself” and “my character” begins to blur. I become Kratos. I become Aloy. I become Isaac. But if the dialogue holds my hand too often, I’m reminded I’m a player that the game is anxious to assist. And if the banter calls too much attention to itself, I feel like I’m puppeteering a character — and playing a game — that’s desperate to be loved.