January 18, 2019
Turning many heads at E3 2016, an astounding trailer for Breath of the Wild (which had yet to release) revealed that the game would change the series forever, by being the first title in the thirty-year long series to include full voice acting. In this day and age, one would not think voice acting in a video game would be a shocker, but Zelda is a series that stuck to text boxes while series after series hopped aboard the bandwagon. This has been somewhat controversial among the fanbase. Was the series fine without it? Could the casting have been better? Was it finally the right time? None of us can agree, so I’m going to tell you all what I think in hopes of finding a good conversation at the end.
To begin, let’s look at a brief history of voice over in the series before Breath of the Wild. The series’ first title to include voice recording was technically Ocarina of Time, but that was largely limited to “Hyaat!” It steadily added from there, with Wind Waker adding simple phrases from some characters like Beedle’s hearty “Thank You!” to Link himself asking his allies to follow him, with a cheery “Come on!” Twilight Princess did not expand much on this idea, but rather hearkened back to Ocarina, while still adding more depth to characters such as Zelda, Ganondorf, Midna, and Zant to name a few. Skyward Sword had even more diverse voice acting for a wider range of characters, but was still largely the same, relying on text boxes for the meat of the script, supported by supplementary grunts, yells, laughs, and other gestures.
What’s the point of going through all that? Well think back to reviews of Breath of the Wild and how nearly every one claimed that this title refreshed, reinvented, reinvigorated, or re-imagined the series. Surprisingly, very few of them to my memory mentioned voice over as being one of the aspects in which it changed the series, but in my opinion it is among, if not the most radical difference. Zelda has never had full voice acting, and from The Legend of Zelda all the way through Tri Force Heroes, the script has been handled in nigh identical fashion. Suddenly there is voice acting through many cutscenes in the game, and in addition, characters use small sounds and phrases to assist dialogue boxes as well, but it is taken to a new extreme in this title that far surpasses its predecessors.
Breath of the Wild changed a ton of aspects of Zelda, using an open-world, changing the item system, scaling down dungeons, but every one of these left the player with a distinctly Zelda-esque feel. They took concepts used in the series from the beginning and approached them from a new angle. Is that really more of a reinvention of the series than suddenly adding voices to characters who have remained silent for three decades? Personally I do not think so.
My point is that overhauling voice acting is probably the most significant change the series has ever had, with the only possible exception of Adventure of Link’s sidescrolling shenanigans. Does that automatically make it a good thing, though? Well if Adventure of Link is any indication, it’s going to be a very divisive topic among fans. Before the series added voice acting, there were quite a number of fans who desperately anticipated it, however the vast majority seemed indifferent. Zelda was Zelda so it got a pass from a lot of people regarding this subject, and a lot more sincerely did not care, and a handful such as myself believed it added a little unspoken (heh) something to the series’ nostalgic charm. Personally I never wanted voice over to be a part of the series. It seemed to me that Zelda could be that one series that could get away without it in the modern age, and for the longest time I believed that this was the world we lived in.
Of course I was incorrect, as we have already discussed. I am not upset that there is voice acting, I was simply shocked that the designers decided to include it. It seemed like the series was stuck in its old ways and that was among the numerous oddities I loved about it.
Okay, now we have voice over in the series, and it’s great, right? Everybody who wanted it is happy, all the indifferent people are still indifferent and all the people who didn’t really want it are okay with its inclusion! Except that is, of course, not how the world works. Many people are infuriated by what they believe to be subpar performances by a lackluster cast, and OH BOY are they vocal about it. I do not think this is the majority of fans, but it is a huge number, and they have gone out of their way to decry voice actors publicly on Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, and any number of other outlets. Basically if there is a place to complain on the internet, it has seen a ton of hate for the voice acting in the game.
So is that better? A violently divided fanbase who attack and defend one of their favorite or least favorite aspects of the game? Personally if we could go back I would not mind the silence from an apathetic majority, but we cannot, so what is the best way to go forward? Many have stated that we have had it once, so therefore it is here to stay, and that has been the case for many games, however I would remind anybody of that mind that this is Zelda. The series is full of one-off ideas that are never reused. It was once a sidescroller. There were once timed powerups for your attack and defense. One time you drove a train. Another you transformed into three various races to solve puzzles. Is it so far fetched to believe that we may have only one game with full voice over? Personally I think we will have voice over going forward, but it certainly is food for thought. If you faced as much backlash as the cast and game creators have suffered, is it something to which you would eagerly return? I’m not so sure, and thus lies my uncertainty regarding future voice acting in the series.
Of course I left out one category of people from the debate so far, and that is of course the people who dearly love the voice cast and believe it enhances the game immeasurably. These fans are fewer and further between, but I must admit they do make some good points. One of our founding members, Hick, more or less described the voice acting as adding one more level of immersion to the game. To me, text boxes are hardly different, and no less immersive but to him, it breaks the belief that one is actually taking part in the game and deprives scenes of impact leaving them to feel bereft of urgency. Now I’m in an odd place because each gamers’ tastes must be accounted for, and I feel like I am probably in the minority. Luckily, I don’t work at Nintendo so I don’t have to find the common ground going forward.
That, as always, is just how I view the issue, and now I turn it over to you. If we have another game with no voice over, will that make or break the series? Was it better when nobody spoke? Please chime in in the comments below, or on Twitter or our Discord server (which is where Hick and I had the conversation that inspired this article) and we can keep the conversation spiraling!