How Zelda keeps video games inferior to movies and books

The new issue of EGM has a Q&A about Zelda: Twilight Princess, and one of their answers pretty much sums up everything that’s wrong with video games. Or rather, everything that’s wrong with video games that aspire to stand alongside other narrative art. EGM asks: “This game has more narrative than any other Zelda, yet Link remains the silent hero throughout. Do you think we’ll ever see a Zelda where Link speaks?” Here’s Nintendo localization manager Bill Trinen’s answer:

“Part of what the development team haws always felt is that Link the character is the link between the player and the game, and as such they never really want to give him too much personality, because they feel that trying to impose too much personality on him would just distance the player from the character.”

Is Trinen serious? They explicitly try not to give the protagonist of an epic adventure — one of video game’s most prominent series — any personality? And I’d say a character without personality pretty much distances himself from the player from the start.

Trinen also explains that they’re worried the voice acting wouldn’t be up to snuff: “If we were to try to do voice acting, i would expect not just the best voice acting you get in videogames, but really high-quality, movie-caliber acting, and obviously that’s very difficult to do.” Fine. Voice acting can be dicey. And there’s always the matter of maintaining a character’s purity in the reader’s/player’s imagination by not giving him a specific real-life voice; Calvin and Hobbes surely wouldn’t be so rich and memorable if there had been a cartoon giving them real voices.

But that’s a very different problem than not giving the character personality and character in the first place. I noted this problem in an essay about Saints Row, and it happens more than you’d think. The protagonists in many video games are mostly voiceless. Not in terms of voice acting, but in terms of having dialogue and thoughts at all. Or they have a one-dimensional personality and paper-thin motivations, like in Prey.

If personality-free, anonymous-elf characters are all we want from our games, that’s fine. But if we want games that can compete with books, movies, and TV shows, it’s pitiful.

— January 20, 2007

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