Game studios have recently started rebooting established and popular gaming franchises with younger, updated versions of established characters. These are often termed “soft reboots,” a term designed to establish that a character’s history still “matters” while allowing developers to throw out the old rulebook. Examples range from Lara Croft’s first adventure in the excellent Tomb Raider, to the new protagonist in Assassin’s Creed IV, a rookie Batman the still unreleased Arkham Asylum: Origins, and a lead actor as Sam Fischer in Splinter Cell: Blacklist.
Like Casino Royale was to the Bond franchise, reboots are also designed to introduce a new persona, modernizing the design of an intellectual property, or adding additional motivations to previously flimsy back stories. Origins and Blacklist in particular jump the characters back a few years, to when they were more agile or inexperienced, allowing the player to live through their formative years.
In this case, long-standing voice actors, Kevin Conroy and Michael Ironside, came to define their characters in a way that transcended merely reading lines off a script. Conroy is Batman, just as Ironside is Sam Fischer, and our journey through their lives depend significantly on this peculiar identification to audio.
Think of the Grand Theft Auto franchise. Aside from the protagonist of GTA III (by far the weakest of the franchise), every protagonist in Rockstar’s long-running series came to embody the themes and ethos of the world they live in. Ray Liotta as Tommy Vercetti drove the 80s theme of Vice City, while CJ of San Andreas and Niko Bellic of GTA IV allowed the writers to cleverly comment on the nineties and post-9/11 New York themes of race and immigration. All these characters are inextricable from the voice actors that gave them life, thanks to excellent voice direction and pitch perfect casting.
In some cases players rally together to reject these changes, such as when IO Interactive contemplated replacing the voice actor of Agent 47 for Hitman: Absolution. Fortunately, thanks to fan outcry, the developers realized what an essential element voice acting adds to an interactive medium and reversed their position, keeping the unique voice talents of David Bateson.
Player identification strengthens the bond between player and character leading to a far greater chance for escapism. Before voice acting, RPGs allowed players to control the dialogue their character “spoke.” But with improvements to technology, and increasingly cinematic presentations, voice acting became inextricable from immersive gameplay.
Instead of thinking about how pressing buttons on a controller will translate into an onscreen reaction, players truly come to care about their digital persona, and believe they’re actually living in another world, albeit temporarily. In some cases, such as the third-person perspective in Uncharted or Tomb Raider, players will experience digital characters at a remove, as if voyeuristic watching them experience dramatic encounters.
Nintendo has famously ignored voice acting as a growing trend, instead largely leaving their protagonists voiceless. Link has never spoken more than grunts, and while Mario tends to exclaim monosyllables, neither would ever be found delivering pages of dialogue. Whereas voice actors tend to enhance the specific bond between a player and an on screen representation, Nintendo believes in the blank slate, in which everyone responds to their character, and the player gets to fill in whatever response they want to. Valve has followed this trend as well with the mute Gordon Freeman in Half-life, and with Chell, the hero of Portal and Portal 2.
The ability to portray complex and engaging storytelling will become far more important as the gaming industry progresses, surpassing non-interactive art forms as a primary source of entertainment. Creating on-going relationships between player and character is crucial to sustaining franchises, allowing for greater levels of interactive storytelling. Hopefully, game developers realize this before further alienating their fanbase.