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The Sound of Silence

Starfield gameplay reveal reignites the oldest debate in gaming

Should Bethesda let the spaceperson speak?

Bethesda

Starfield just joined the list of games featuring a mute protagonist. After the Xbox and Bethesda Showcase, the developer confirmed that the player character would not have a voice despite taking part in many, many conversations. The game apparently has more than 1,000 planets but not a single vowel coming out of its hero’s mouth. Is this a good thing? Unknown. But we do know that this is one of the oldest debates in modern gaming.

Gamers have argued for ages about whether or not video game protagonists should speak. However, some of them miss the nuance about which kinds of games work with a voice and which ones don’t. One side of the spectrum reflects an immersive experience tailored to the player. The other offers control over what’s essentially an already-made character, even if they don’t have a voice. Starfield is the former.

Bethesda’s silent protagonist reveal attracted a range of responses on Twitter. Many applauded the decision because it leaves the voices open to interpretation. Others argued that a protagonist without a voice would actually take away from the story’s immersion. After all, voices can add realism to a character and make it more emotionally appealing than a silent avatar.

“Wow, your character not having a voice is kinda bad,” one commenter complained. “It's 2022. Look at Dying Light 2 for example, your character does have a voice and it makes you connect with the character better.”

One person argued that imagining the character’s voice was the point. Plus, it isn’t anything new, considering Bethesda’s speechless avatars in games like Elder Scrolls Online.

“Not having a voice isn’t going to make you connect with a character any less,” another agreed. “Voice doesn’t strengthen connection. That’s just silly.”

Starfield’s character creator lets you choose your background, faction, and appearance down to a T.Bethesda

Both sides of the argument address immersion. One side argues that a voice takes away from the immersion, while the other believes it adds to it. It’s easy to boil the answer down to preference, but there’s more than that. Some commenters mention games that made a voiced protagonist work like Geralt from The Witcher. TheActMan, a popular gaming YouTuber, brought up Skyrim, Oblivion, and Dragon Age: Origins as other examples where a silent protagonist succeeded.

So what’s the difference between games like The Witcher and games like Skyrim? Skyrim gives players free reign with designing characters. One person sums it up with one line: “Geralt is his own character.”

Starfield advertises a highly customizable experience. Its character creator lets players choose every aspect of the avatar from their background to their body type. It’s difficult to justify set dialogue and voice lines for characters that may have completely different upbringings and appearances. Some people pointed out that having swappable dialogue could work, but then that exponentially increases the work that creative teams have to do for any situation with selectable dialogue.

Spot the red emblems representing one of Starfield’s factions.Bethesda

Games like Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Persona 5 Royal feature silent protagonists that basically have canon personalities. Link and Joker are both recklessly brave heroes with a sense of justice. They have set appearances, like Link’s iconic green cap and shaggy blond hair, and regularly make bold choices throughout the story. In that sense, it feels like the player is controlling a specific character instead of immersing themselves in the world as their own person.

On the other hand, Bethesda seems to purposefully let players customize Starfield characters as much as possible. If they can’t choose the voice lines for their characters, then it might be easier to leave them silent.

Todd Howard mentioned something similar during this past weekend’s Starfield presentation. “Ultimately, it’s not our story,” he said. “It’s the story you create.”

Starfield launches in the first half of 2023 for PC and Xbox Series X|S. It’s an Xbox Game Pass first-day access title.

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