When Metroid: Other M is released this year, Samus is going to be breaking her long held silence. But with the quality of the voice acting already coming in for some harsh scrutiny perhaps it would have been better for her to have kept her mouth shut. Of course the cinematic, cutscene heavy interpretation of the series by Team Ninja would seem to require Samus finding her voice; it’s just that the voice is unlikely to be similar to the one that has echoed in our imaginations since she first started waging war on aliens. So, with a slight sense of foreboding, you have to wonder at the future of Link, Nintendo’s other great silent protagonist. Although the speculation surrounding the game is primarily focused on the use of the Wii Motion Plus, perhaps there should be more concern with how he will sound, if Nintendo choose to go down that dangerous path. After all, the nasal whining of the CD-i Link still haunts those who have had the misfortune to hear it. Even ignoring that affront to the cochlea, the most memorable line of spoken dialogue from the franchise is undoubtedly Navi’s infamous squeal of ‘Hey! Listen!’. Hardly cause for confidence.
Nintendo’s eventual transition from the silent genre to the ‘talkies’ is a sign that games are finally leaving behind their text-based past. Telling a story through written words will remain in the realm of handheld games and traditional RPGs, but for the majority of games we can expect to have our narratives spoon-fed to us. The problem doesn’t necessarily lie in the quality of the voice acting as that has improved considerably this generation, but rather in the ability of developers to tell their tale effectively without the clarity of text. With developers like Nintendo not yet being well versed in telling their tales through voices rather than text, is it premature to abandon the soon to be forgotten art of reading?
The full potential of text remains unexplored by the majority of games that still use it. In my opinion there are few games that take advantage of text to the extent that the Ace Attorney series has. If the dialogue was spoken, even in the unlikely circumstance that the voices of the beloved characters weren’t so appalling they would make you want to tear your ears off, the use of text is so masterful that its absence would harm the game immeasurably.
What might be surprising to those who aren’t fans of the series is the way in which the characters manage to emote so effectively without voice – and only using a few different pose frames. In fact, the pictures of the characters aren’t even the most expressive aspect; they are simply framing devices for the text. When a character adopts his shocked/angry/forlorn/confident pose, it is merely providing a context for the text and is an effective influence for us to interpret the way in which the character is speaking. When Edgeworth gives his cocky grin and shrugs his shoulders languidly, arms held aloft, the way in which he is delivering the lines is made absolutely clear, without the need to hear an irritating smug voiceover. Even the pace at which the text is given to the player provides an indication of their personality. Famously obnoxious old woman, Wendy Oldbag, delivers her most heated ramblings about the youth of today with the next lines of dialogue appearing before you have the chance to read the previous ones, and you can’t help but get a good sense of her character. A character like Cammy on the other hand often drifts off into slumber, and the text stops completely as you are forced to wait for her to go through her lengthy frames of animation as she stirs from her sleep. In both cases the text isn’t simply giving a deeper look at the character’s personality, it is also causing the player to feel an emotion towards that character. Irritation in both of these cases.
In much the same way, the music is incredibly effectively in conjuring the emotion of a scene and providing that context for the text to be better understood. Through repetition of certain songs and different musical arrangements, these MIDI miracles evoke atmospheres that would only be sullied by the intervention of voices. The theme song of the Faye sisters is particularly memorable and has been used to describe a wide range of emotions, from tragedy and reflection to relief and triumph. And while each game has a unique courtroom theme, the score changes in order to represent the twists and turns of unfurling events and emphasises in what direction the course of the trial has shifted. The sheer volume at which some of the more dramatic themes play (as a means of accentuating the panic of a situation) is another key part of the experience.
Finally, the use of text sidesteps what would prove to be some of the most obviously problematic points of a voiced game. As the series focuses on carefully picking apart witness testimony, you are often forced to go back and forth, rereading text. This reevaluating of statements and examination of held information is one of the biggest appeals of the game to certain people; but if we were forced to hear the same dialogue repeated over and over again it is clear that it would lose its lustre. And whilst the sly parodies and pop culture references in the games are enjoyable for those that spot them, would we really want to hear Moe the Clown do his own version of the opening theme of the show that made Will Smith famous? Altogether now, “In West Clownadelphia born and raised…”
It is strange that despite the number of years many developers were restricted to text rather than character acting, few games really attempted to do something beyond providing the player with paragraphs presented in a uniform manner. Whilst the Ace Attorney series doesn’t really do anything unique or innovative, it has honed its craft to the point where familiarity with its style of storytelling improves the experience rather than denigrates from it. We can only hope that Nintendo will be fast learners when some of their long muted characters finally turn up the volume.