It is the folly of too many to mistake the echo of a London coffee-house for the voice of the kingdom

Player characters in MMOGs don’t tend to be a very chatty bunch. Not the *players*; fascinating socio-political debates in /general, the growing prevalence of voice chat, you can’t shut those buggers up. Their characters, though, tend to let their actions speak for them, giving eloquent speeches like “KILL RAT KILL RAT KILL RAT KILL RAT KILL RAT KILL RAT KILL RAT KILL RAT KILL RAT KILL RAT”, with an occasional bit of interpretive dance (or as close as you can get with an /emote) chucked in. Even textual dialogue choices are mostly limited to “Yes, I would love to perform a menial task for meagre reward” or “I would love to perform a menial task for meagre reward, but have no room in my quest log at the moment.”

Recent games are featuring much chattier player characters; in Guild Wars 2 your character has fully voiced conversations, and of course there’s the Guinness World Record holding Star Wars: The Old Republic, but it’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand some players find it odd if ‘you’ are mute, especially when everyone else in the world is yakking away nineteen to the dozen, on the other hand if you don’t like the voice, or think it inappropriate for your character, it can be a real immersion-breaker.

In The Secret World Funcom have either ignored the issue entirely, or tackled it head-on, I’m not quite sure. There are many cutscenes as your character is recruited into a society, briefed on missions, given general information on what’s happening in the world, with extremely voluble NPCs, and throughout them all you say… nothing. Hardly unprecedented, but it’s a touch odd, especially given the amount of talking other people are doing. Sometimes, like when you’re recruited, it’s quite obvious the NPC is talking directly to you, other times it’s almost like they’re extemporising away and you just happen to be in the area… one scene seemed to be two other characters talking to each other while I stood somewhere in the vicinity (almost out of camera shot), but I still ended up being assigned a mission out of it. The game even lampshades your inaction, having NPCs offer a handshake, and commenting when you continue standing entirely immobile with no indication you’re even aware of their presence. Outside cutscenes you can quiz some NPCs about a range of subjects and receive a spoken response, with no in-game indication of how you managed to elicit it; my current theory is that you have a big pad of paper, and scrawl “YOURSELF” or “ZOMBIES” on it, then wave it at the NPC until they start talking.

It’s quite peculiar and has been mentioned in many of the posts and reviews of The Secret World that I’ve seen, but somehow it sort of works. Perhaps because the world in general in TSW is quite peculiar, in a good way. The whole business starts with an origin story inspired by Burl Ives (“I know an old Templar who swallowed a fly, I don’t know why she swallowed a fly, perhaps she’ll die? Or perhaps she’ll gain magical powers that enable healing through the medium of an assault rifle. It’s pretty much 50-50.”), and builds from there. I think a lot of the appeal of the game has been leaping head-first into the off-kilter version of our world without any prior knowledge, much like your character, and gradually piecing together what’s happening from talking to NPCs, examining lore items and other snippets you happen across, and in that context your character’s silence is an inspired Brechtian alienation device. Or maybe they just ran out of time and money for recording dialogue.

4 thoughts on “It is the folly of too many to mistake the echo of a London coffee-house for the voice of the kingdom

  1. Stumps

    “Brechtian alienation device”

    I’ve seen the whole “Silent character” thing debated on several sites and I understand that some find it offputting and why so. Myself, I find it refreshing. I actually think it’s a stroke of brilliance and helps entirely with immersion from my side of things. My character is an extension of me – it doesn’t have canned responses the like of which I would never say and it doesn’t speak with some strange voice in a strange accent that I simply don’t identify with.

  2. darkeye

    Don’t really mind the silence, but the rather unreactive facial expressions are more offputting. If they went completely 1st person perspective (or focused on an over the shoulder viewpoint) for cinematics it might have been cleaner and avoid some of the more confused scenes where my character ended up unintentionally too close and eyeballing the speaker, but I do like the way they play off of the unreponsiveness.

  3. Winged Nazgul

    From the volume and quality of the voiceovers in this game, I’m going to go with the theory they purposely didn’t go with voiced player characters for the immersion reasons already given.

    While SWTOR can match the volume and quality, it can’t match the immersion TSW gives me. In SWTOR, I feel like I’m watching someone else play the game when they have my PC give responses (which most of the time doesn’t match what I chose in the first place).

  4. Klepsacovic

    I don’t mind a lack of voiceovers, particularly when characters can be customized. Otherwise you can end up with voice-appearance mixes which are jarring. While the two aren’t necessarily linked, we do tend to have images. I know I’m not the only person who surprised by the appearance of a radio person.

    It may also be a way for the player to fit in better. We’re used to our voices, even more so than appearances, so to impose a voice on players is a risky thing unless it’s clear that they aren’t really controlling the character (contrast an open-world game with a hallway shooter where you are almost a complete puppet).

    Half Life 2 did the silent protagonist thing and it worked quite well. The dialogue had to be worked around it, or in some cases, directly lampshade it, but that seems like a smaller task than having several dozen voice actors redo everything just so players can get a voice that fits.

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