The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the first game in the Zelda series to use voice acting in cutscenes. Before this game, characters including Link would sometimes say barely recognizable words and phrases that were odd or endearing more than anything else. Most of the Zelda games, including some of the most critically acclaimed video games of all time have stuck to text boxes and still get across the atmosphere and story really well. So has voice acting in Zelda worked and should Link ever talk?
The story has never been the most important part of Nintendo games but the later Zelda games rely on it more to motivate the player to move forward in the game. Cinematic cutscenes have been in all the 3D games, and while these are usually not pre-rendered, they help build tension and can be impressive. The Wind Waker comes to mind when thinking of good cutscenes; they could be funny or serious but made up maybe the best storytelling in a Zelda game. Among western AAA games importance is often put on the story just as much as the gameplay, and while Nintendo focuses on gameplay (which is good) there’s increasing pressure to have an epic story in games like Zelda.
Story vs Gameplay
The thing is, do we need voice acting to have a good story? The answer to this is obviously no. Games rely on atmosphere to create a vibe and bad voice acting can make a game cringy and not as emotive as what the designers (or fans) would hope for. Just look at the Sonic games. Once that series made the jump to 3D and immediately introduced voice acting, it lowered the value of the series because the voice acting was so cringy and out of place. There are other examples of this in a wide variety of video game series.
The story in Breath of the Wild was thin and not very good. It dealt with generic video game tropes – damsel in distress, stoic knight, etc. The way the character of Zelda was portrayed was so predictable that it rivals Samus in Metroid: Other M for making an iconic, respected character weak and vulnerable. I’m not blaming the voice actress, I think she did a good job, but the writing and direction of the cutscenes were disappointing.
I came away from Breath of the Wild loving the game, but disliking the characters, even Link. Okay, so he didn’t speak (which is good because that might have made things even worse), but it just seemed so cringy and awkward. Daruk was an over the top caricature, and Revali was unrealistically boastful. Honestly, the respect I had for the Deku Tree (because of his portrayal in Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker) got lost because the voice acting ruined the mystique of the character. The game is great of course, but in terms of story, it was a huge letdown.
Link: The Silent Protagonist
Originally, Link was silent because the player was meant to project themselves onto the character, relate to the trials around the main character and not have their immersion ruined by a personality that didn’t match their own. This is a good philosophy for a video game developer in my opinion, and it can extend further, in terms of us creating our own interpretations of the worlds in front of us in our own heads. The scene from the temple of light (in the sacred realm) in Ocarina of Time is an iconic moment in the game; where link becomes an adult, and it can maintain this epicness precisely because there is no voice acting. Text bubbles are simpler and much less likely for the developer to mess up than full voice acting. Nintendo should stick to focusing on gameplay, and refine their storytelling technique, but be careful about having full voice acting.
Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity was a good game, with high production values and decent, albeit simple gameplay. But again, the story and voice acting (although better than in Breath of the Wild) seemed cringy at times. Zelda games were fine the way they were, let’s not lose the mystery that is so ingrained in these games by adding in a bad story and awkward voice overs.