In the wake of the success of Obsidian's Project Eternity Kickstarter, supporters are eagerly watching the stretch goals to see what promised goodies will be put into the game. Meanwhile, I am hoping to see one thing left out: voice acting. Recently, Kotaku's Jason Schreier similarly stated that Japanese role-playing games (JRPGs) should abandon voice acting, but like Rowan Kaiser, I think he targeted the wrong subgenre. Done correctly, voice acting can significantly improve a JRPG. However, recording voices for characters diminishes a Western RPG (WRPG), regardless of the reading's quality. For this reason, I feel that WRPGs should avoid having voiced dialogue.
Schreier's argument against voice acting in JRPGs boils down to an attack on the quality those games generally deliver. I agree that low-quality actors reading awkwardly-translated dialogue, directed by—if some commenters are to be believed—non-native speakers will be injurious to the experience. This suggests that the real problem with voice acting in JRPGs is that it unavoidably confronts the player with the lurid idiocy of the average JRPG script. However, as Schreier himself acknowledges, skillful voice acting can dramatically improve a game.
JRPGs are characterized by linear stories and a broad lack of player agency. On both a mechanical and narrative level, the developer defines the principal characters. Because the player has so little expression in the game's world, the goal of the design should be to encourage him to identify with the cast, and especially the protagonist. In other words, a well-designed JRPG should mold the player to fit the character.
Having voice acting serves this goal in two ways. The first is that voice acting works to define the supporting characters as the lead sees them. With good voice acting, even a bland phrase like "As you wish" can be invested with a particular meaning that can shape the player's perception of the game world and its characters. As Kaiser's examples and discussion with Chris Avellone imply, voice acting works best in games where the burden of storytelling and defining the characters lies mostly with the developer. Additionally, voice acting makes the cinematics and machinima characteristic of JRPGs (at least since the 5th generation) more immersive, as Schreier notes. This is consistent with the aim of putting the player into the world as an observer.
WRPGs, on the other hand, are characterized by non-linear or flexible stories and a considerable amount of player agency. The player determines almost every mechanical and moral aspect of the lead character, and often those of assisting NPCs. WRPGs tend to eschew cinematics, and give the player control over the flow and content of nearly every conversation. In contrast to the JRPG, the player is a narrative force in the world, and the protagonist is his avatar. A well-designed WRPG therefore builds a narrative that suits the player's vision for the main character.
With this in mind the disadvantages of voice acting become clear. The largest problem is cost—as Schreier notes, voice acting is an expensive proposition. This is true even in a linear JRPG, where the status of the main character at any given point in the story should be known with certainty. In a WRPG the costs escalate, as actors must read lines to accommodate the many possible routes the player may have taken to a given conversation. In the absence of voice acting, the only limit on the construction of unique conversations that recognize the details of the player's behavior is the imagination and endurance of the writing staff. In the context of voiced lines, however, something must be done to limit the costs.
Of course, one could just use as few and as cheap of voice actors as can possibly be obtained, but as the player response to Oblivion made clear, this undermines the very sense of immersion that expensive voice acting is meant to achieve. A similar problem arises if one tries to just make dialogue as utilitarian or general as possible—this replaces characters with automata, Fable-style, making the vocals superfluous. This approaches also do little to mitigate the production obstacle VO presents—as Kaiser's article notes, the need to record and localize voices also freezes the plotline earlier in the process, reducing the developers' flexibility to remove or alter elements that aren't working.
A somewhat more palatable response to this difficulty is to adopt a structure built around atomistic sidequests and enforced linearity—an approach especially evident in Mass Effect 2 and 3, the most cinematic of the WRPGs. These design choices naturally constrain the dialogue requirements, allowing for an enhancement of immersion, albeit at the expense of of player control and world cohesion. Eliminating subtle player choices can also help reduce the conversational burden: it's easier to write for a world when the character has either saved the town or burned down an orphanage than for one where the character might have burned down the building but saved the orphans.
Taking the actor out of the equation also eases the burden on the writers to some extent. A given reading will tend to impose a single meaning to a given line, even if the words alone could serve many different contexts. In the absence of a vocal track, the player will happily supply the line with the emotional nuance that the situation demands. The engaged WRPG player creates much of the game world in his own mind, and asking him to imagine how a line is said might increase engagement, even if it diminishes immersion.
The flip side of this idea is that having voiced lines tends to impose a particular interpretation of NPCs on the player. Inflection does as much to define a character as the words themselves, and it's partly in recognition of this that WRPG protagonists are functionally silent, even if the precise words they're saying are made completely explicit. Voicing the NPCs diminishes the player's role as the story's co-creator, which is especially to be avoided in a WRPG.
The improved immersion that comes with voiced lines does not add as much to WRPGs as to JRPGs, because the player is a presence in a WRPG game world in a way that he is not in JRPGs. Moreover, while it merely emphasizes the poor writing of JRPGs, voice acting actively makes the design and writing of WRPGs worse. JRPGs could be improved by having better voice acting; WRPGs would be improved by having less.