[Editor’s Note: This article is the first part of a two-part series. The second part, written by Alyssa, can be found here and takes the the opposite viewpoint.]
Just a few years ago, the concept that voice acting should be prominently featured within The Legend of Zelda series was not universally accepted. Just for a moment, forget that I’m even making the case about Link and just focus on the rest of the characters within the game. Even then, it was generally well believed that voice acting the minor characters would utterly ruin the series.
Times have changed quite a bit since then. At long last, Breath of the Wild will feature, for the first time in the series’ history, voice acting. Actual voices speaking in our native tongues. Cue the outrage in five… four… three… two… one…
But then nothing happened. No one threw their controllers at the screen in fits of disgust. No one started boycotting Nintendo or signing online petitions to remove the voice acting… at least as far as I’m aware. No planets were destroyed and no Zelda game was declared ruined. Everything was as peaceful as a silent night. In fact, people seemed to generally be of the opinion that everything was totally fine and that voice acting was a great addition to the series, that Breath of the Wild would be made better by this thing called voice acting.
Oh but don’t you let Link speak. Link shouldn’t be allowed to speak. If he did, the series would be ruined.
The harrowing tale of voice acting gone wrong
In some ways, the fear is understandable. Voice acting and The Legend of Zelda haven’t always gotten along with one another. In fact, the few times they have flirted with one another have been something of a disaster.
The first time Nintendo ever attempted voice acting within the Zelda universe was at the tail end of the ‘80s with The Legend of Zelda cartoon series and, simultaneously, Captain N: The Game Master. Both debuted in September 1989 following the first wave of Nintendo-branded, well, everything. It was well before it was cool to be a geek or to play video games, though that didn’t stop Nintendo from using its influence to fully take over the lives of those already loving their Nintendo Entertainment Systems. Every Friday during the Super Mario Bros. Super Show!, The Legend of Zelda cartoon would replace the standard Mario cartoon clip. Whether it was Mario, Zelda, or Captain N, we Nintendo addicts could tune in six days a week to get our dose of Nintendo distilled into a more storybook form than could exist in the NES’s eight-bit storytelling.
And for our dedication, this is what we got:
Okay, so perhaps it was a little bit better than that, but for many fans Link didn’t quite hit the mark of whom they presumed Link to be. He was a little whiny, a little cocky, and much too annoying. Perhaps this is why The Legend of Zelda cartoon series ended up folding after just 13 episodes, a single season in American television. Captain N would continue for a while longer, but Zelda would eventually get replaced with The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3 during Saturday morning.
The Zelda cartoon would ultimately be pushed to the edge of most people’s minds throughout the ‘90s, only to be rediscovered and brought back into the community focus in the early 2000s. Fan websites would catalog and unofficially distribute videos of the Zelda cartoons, urging Nintendo to finally bring them back. At some point during the decade, most people had their minds changed on the cartoon; whereas most people originally just viewed them as “bad,” fans now thought it was “so bad it’s good!” Sure, it’s still classic B-grade (or C-grade?) material, but now it’s a treasured part of the Zelda history.
And of course, moving from there, dare I mention this?
For better or worse, in order to demonstrate the CD-i’s capabilities, full-motion video and voice acting was added to The Wand of Gamelon and The Faces of Evil. Unlike the cartoon which eventually charmed the hearts of fans, the first two parts of the CD-i trinity have not been so well received even after decades have flown by. Largely, this probably has to do more with the animation and less the voice acting itself, though the latter certainly doesn’t help the former.
Suffice to say, outside of casual mentions by fans (such as myself), the CD-i games, and to a lesser extent the Zelda cartoon, tend to get shoved to the periphery. And I’ll be honest; I understand that. In both the cartoon and the CD-i games, the personification of Link isn’t who I want Link to be; he’s not the Link I want to be. While CD-i’s Princess Zelda is certainly more representative of whom I want Zelda to be, she isn’t always given the best lines either.
Voice acting, rarely, is the problem
But in neither the Zelda cartoon nor the CD-i games is voice acting what’s truly the core problem. In both of these cases, voice acting is the scapegoat, the black sheep, the most obvious thing that ends up being wrong, but it’s not the core problem.
This is because voice acting is downstream of other issues. In game development, voice acting is usually one of the last things to be injected into the game. Most recording sessions happen late in production with only minimal recordings done earlier in order to produce promotional work or demos for E3 or conventions. And in all cases, the script precedes the voice acting.
Is it possible for a good script to be co-opted by bad voice acting? I suppose there’s probably a case here or there where that has happened. I’m sure a couple of great movie scripts have ultimately failed because of bad casting and bad acting. But I personally feel a more relevant question is this: Can good voice acting compensate for a bad script? And I’d imagine that, across the board, the answer is no.
Fans generally don’t believe that the Zelda cartoon is “good.” It may be nostalgic, yes; it may be funny at times, yes. But I don’t think many would dare say that it wasn’t campy, that it wasn’t often stupid, or that it was a television marvel. However, if we dissect the cartoon down to its components, the animation is actually quite passable and certainly isn’t worse than much of the other stuff the ‘80s and ‘90s presented. The overall plot of the episodes could probably be improved, but I don’t think many people were expecting much more out of it than Link and Zelda trouncing Ganon every week.
It’s really the writing of Link and Zelda as characters where everything starts to go pear-shaped. It’s because Link is so desperate for a kiss, it’s because Link likes to be smarmy and get into one-upmanship with Zelda, it’s because Link apologizes all the time that he’s a bad character, not the voice actor himself. A voice actor can’t save a bad line; he or she may minimize its impact, but ultimately the writing has already done its damage.
It’s because Link is so desperate for a kiss that he’s a bad character, not the voice acting. A voice actor can’t save a bad line; the writing has already done its damage.
Funnily enough, I’d actually personally argue that the CD-i games themselves do their best to try to compensate for a bad script when trying to put voice to animation. Can you imagine a world where a villain would, in all due seriousness with flat intonation, say, “You dare bring light into my lair? You must die!” The scene would be dead on arrival! It wouldn’t work at all, and everyone would be cringing at it, proclaiming that the voice actor phoned it in. It couldn’t be done. And so the voice actors playing Link, Zelda, and Ganon had to be at least moderately funny to compensate for their lines. They had to be over the top to at least give it some sort of value. Sure, it’s still not comic gold, but it’s better than the lines on paper without any emotion in them.
Despite the changes, Aonuma holds on tightly to tradition
So when Breath of the Wild featured voice acting, it’s understandable that people wouldn’t want Link to follow suit. Outside of the CD-i games, which many wouldn’t count, Link has remained the silent protagonist throughout his 30 years, and thus he should remain. And Aonuma agreed with this premise. At E3 this past year, he remained reluctant to give Link a voice, asserting that, “If Link said something the user doesn’t agree with, that relationship between the user and Link would be lost. That’s why I chose not to go with that.”
In fairness, this has some degree of truthfulness to it. Link, as was designed by Shigeru Miyamoto in 1986, is in part named such because he is meant to be the “link” between the player and the game, and to his credit the idea was a huge success. That notion has perpetuated in creating fans of the franchise for 30 years running, and it’s clear from the lines that media representatives stood in to play Nintendo’s sole contribution to the E3 floor that people are still inspired by this franchise decades after the fact. I can’t disagree that it’s a strong design premise… at least for 1986.
The NES and SNES days were filled with silent protagonists. Text contributed a much larger percentage of a game’s physical memory in the ‘80s and ‘90s than it does today now that we have 1080p, hi-resolution graphics and 3D models that barely show any signs of polygonization. RPGs, or at least more specifically JRPGs, once the last bastion of games that strongly featured silent protagonists, have slowly drifted away from this paradigm as the capacity with which to tell stories has improved. To have a silent protagonist is no longer “industry standard”; it’s industry rarity.
Some people might protest and say that this makes the Zelda series “special,” like how the Zelda three-pronged timeline is “special.” And I suppose that there’s a possible argument there. I mean, take a look at the love story told in the first seven minutes of Pixar’s Up or, even greater, the almost complete lack of dialog in Wall-E, and one could make an argument that voice acting isn’t needed for a good story. I’ll cede that point. If the more recent renditions of The Legend of Zelda could go toe to toe with the storytelling capacity that more modern games, games that feature a fully-voiced protagonist, provided, there would be an decent argument for that feature being special.
If we’re being fair, Nintendo has gradually moved in the direction of increasing their ability to tell stories through the characters; however, that movement has been painfully slow. During the unveiling of The Wind Waker, one of the advertised strengths of the cel-shaded animation style was that Link’s facial expressions could be animated and therefore more expressive. In essence, over a decade ago, Nintendo started to make Link less and less an objectively neutral character. Link had thoughts, feelings, concerns, emotions, and goals, and they were all written directly upon his face. And if we’re honest, the way Link feels about his adventures and discoveries doesn’t always mesh with how we as players feel at that moment in time. I’d argue those moments erode players’ links to the game just as much as an errant line players disagree with.
But while Zelda remains one of the few standout games within the “adventure” genre and thus has extremely few peers, there are similar franchises that have made the leap to being fully voiced with rich, encompassing stories and found significant success at it. Tomb Raider, Prince of Persia, Assassin’s Creed, and The Witcher—all games that I would argue are adventure-like—feature a fully realized protagonist. And while I might not always resonate with the characters of the games, the games don’t suddenly cease to be fun or challenging.
In fact, sometimes I think it makes it more engaging. One of my favorite protagonists in recent history is Ezio Auditore from Assassin’s Creed II. His story as it’s told is one of tragedy and heartache, rage and dedication. Many of the things he goes through in the game are utterly foreign concepts. I don’t know what it’s like to lose a family to a corrupt oligarchy, but I do understand wallowing in helplessness, the desire of revenge, the hope of peace at the end of the tunnel. But those moments, despite their foreignness, still draw out strong emotions in me. The ending of 2006’s Prince of Persia made me scream loudly as the Prince defied what I wanted to happen and completely rewrote how the ending should be, but, let me tell you, does it ever make him an interesting character!
The ending of Prince of Persia made me scream loudly as the Prince completely rewrote how the ending should be, but does it ever make him an interesting character!
The “tradition” of Link’s being a link to the player isn’t predicated upon him being a silent protagonist. In so many games now, developers set up dialog trees of mind-bogglingly complex depth to allow users to establish their own characters. Mass Effect has used this to great success. Commander Shephard is ill-defined; that character starts out as a complete cipher without any details whatsoever, including gender and physical appearance. But to each player, Commander Shephard isn’t a cipher; ask 10 different players who Commander Shephard is and you’ll get 11 different answers. That’s because he or she is still a link between the player and the game because the player defines the character, not the other way around.
Besides, Link isn’t a mute
But just because Link hasn’t actually had any lines of text in the game doesn’t mean he’s actually silent. I don’t mean to say that he can’t be a hero of few words, but to suggest that he’s actually incapable of speech or has taken some total vow of silence is fairly impractical, especially in such a big world as Hyrule.
When characters speak to Link, they immediately start describing any number of things: secrets, rumors, legends, stories, gossip, or idle chit-chat. There’s never been a character to date that has opened a conversation to Link with, “Hey, speak up, sonny!” or “What’s a matter? Cat got your tongue?” Instead they open up past all the standard greetings and trivialities, moving past the “Hello” and “How are you?” and “Why are you so upset?” lines and moving straight, without delay, to the important stuff that the player needs to know.
All of this just smells of implied dialog between characters and not just a one-way conversation.
And if we must prove the point, Link actually has had lines going back all the way to A Link to the Past. Certainly they’re not lines of significance, but technically speaking they’re likes nonetheless. You might think replying to the simple question “Do you understand?” with a simple yes or no answer might not count as speech, but Link does communicate that to the speaker, and of course accidentally saying no to the wrong person (or owl) will repeat the whole conversation from the beginning. Sure, Link could technically communicate that nonverbally, I suppose, but there’s no indication to suggest that it’s not a verbal cue.
We can go a little further and say that Link actually does speak for real starting in Ocarina of Time. After all, Link technically has a voice actor. Sure, those lines are limited to “Hya,” “Hye,” and “Auuuugh,” but at least this proves definitively that Link’s vocal cords are technically functioning instead of him being an absolute mute.
Charles Martinet is a legend in voicing Mario, Luigi, and many more; I think Nintendo can find someone capably talented to be our Link.
If that’s not good enough for you, let’s jump all the way to Skyward Sword, the most recent title in the series. While there are a lot of things that annoyed me about the game, one of the things I did like was that Link had dialog options. It wasn’t just simple yes/no alternatives that would repeat the course of dialog all over again; we could actually choose how enthusiastically he would respond. Granted, those choices never really changed the course of events over time; however, it allowed you to customize your Link in a way that mere facial expressions and personality archetypes can’t entirely convey.
To follow Aonuma’s quote blindly that Link cannot be a pure, pristine connection or bridge between the player and the game if he speaks just because he might say one thing the player disagrees with is pure naïveté. It can be done; it’s been proven before. I’m not going to pretend, of course, that implementing something as deep as Mass Effect’s personality system is easy or wouldn’t require time, money, and energy. The point is that it can be done. Even if it’s something as simple as Skyward Sword’s system, having dialog allows players to create and influence their link to the game.
And, to follow up from everything before, if Link can speak, there is absolutely no sane reason why giving him a voice would be detrimental to the series. There’s no way Nintendo would allow any “excuse me, princess” or “it sure is boring around here” lines to crop into a new game, and so I don’t see why we can’t trust them to do a quality job on hiring and directing talent to represent our green-clad hero. I mean, Charles Martinet is a legend in voicing Mario, Luigi, Wario, Waluigi, and many more; I think they could find someone else capably talented to be our Link.