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It really says something about video games that we now have awards for the best people to voice a character in one. Where video game characters can become iconic from their voice alone. Even Mario, who still doesn’t speak in full dialogue, likely wouldn’t be quite the worldwide sensation without the “wahoos!” of Charles Martinet.
Pokemon is the highest-grossing media franchise of all time and with Scarlet and Violet now released, there’s been something on my mind regarding the game: should it have full voice acting?
It’s not just Pokemon either, Square Enix’s latest RPG Havestella also lacks full voice acting with many players feeling something is missing from the title as a result.
I can understand why developers may not see the need to have voice acting in their games. Hiring voice actors can be expensive, it also means that animations may have to be changed to match up to the voice acting. There’s also the fact that less story-oriented games may not even need voice acting as they often don’t have a lot of dialogue. You can even argue this applies to Pokemon when much of its dialogue often includes lines like “I like shorts because they’re comfy to wear.”
Despite this though, I’d argue that a game series like Pokemon would actually benefit from voice acting and that’s in part because of how good the game’s design and the world are.
The importance of voice acting
Much of this conversation stems from a recent trailer for Pokemon Scarlet and Violet featuring the new Gym Leader Iono:
Other than Pokemon suddenly unleashing streamers into their world, many noticed that Iono was fully voiced in the trailer and she sounded great. Hearing Iono talk and work the crowd added a certain energy to the new Pokemon that made it sound more exciting.
In general, there are two main benefits of voice acting. The first is that it’s better at maintaining the viewer’s attention. In a video game, that has both a visual and interactive aspect, it can be easy for players to be distracted away from the dialogue. Voice acting can help maintain their attention as the words are quite literally spoken to them.
The more important benefit, however, is expression. Simply by hearing a character’s voice, you get a better idea of their personality which allows you to get more invested in their story. Many of the most popular characters in gaming were made iconic for their voices. When you think of Solid Snake, you think David Hayter, when you think of Dante, you think Rueben Langdon. Kira Buckland, who voiced 2B in Nier Automata was so well-received that she’s been typed cast as a number of other cold, cool-headed assassin roles.
Games Without Voice Acting
The counterpoint to this is that plenty of other games have well-developed characters or moving storylines, without needing voice acting (I mean books have been doing it for thousands of years). To this day most Pokemon fans say that the best games in the series were the DS games: Pokemon Platinum, Heart Gold, Black and White, and Black and White 2. The latter two are especially important as they’re fondly remembered for having some of the best stories and characters in the franchise, despite there being no voice acting.
Likewise, many older RPGs like Chrono Trigger, Earthbound and Final Fantasy 1-9 also lacked speaking roles yet were able to bring people to tears back in the day. Other aspects of these games like their heart-filled soundtracks and character animation made up for the lack of voice acting.
If they can do it, then why can’t Pokemon continue to do so, especially if it means they can focus on more important elements like the gameplay? When you add one new element to a game, less time can be given to another so it makes sense that Pokemon would want to focus more on the main appeal of the game: catching the pocket monsters.
Times Have Changed
While it is true that many classic games of old were able to bring out emotion without voice acting we should also be acknowledged how the times, and especially graphics have changed.
There’s a reason that classic Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest didn’t have voice acting but their modern iterations do. In older games, voice acting was not always possible and games made use of sprites or lower-res polygons, with the characters often not even having visible mouths half of the time. This meant that animators had to rely more on exaggerated body language to convey their personalities. Voice acting was less important, partly because it was harder to do and partially because expression could be done in other ways.
In modern times, however, character models, even more, stylized models, are far cleaner and make more human-like movements. You can now see the Pokemon characters in Sword and Shield as well as Legends Arceus actually moving their mouths, singing, gesturing, and shouting. The characters look great, yet there’s no actual sound coming from them.
It feels like they should be speaking. Ken Sugimori’s character designs are so memorable and eye-catching but it often feels like there’s something missing from them when these cool designs aren’t backed up by cool voice acting. Even the mobile gacha game Pokemon Masters EX seems to understand this as it gives each of the various Pokewaifus voice clips.
To be clear, I do like Pokemon Scarlet and Violet overall in spite of its many issues. With that being said, however, I do think it would benefit from the use of voice acting (alongside some performance patches).
A lot of Nintendo franchises like Splatoon, Animal Crossing, and Pikmin actually use a sort of gibberish language for their characters. Even though you can’t understand what they’re saying, when one of your villagers in Animal Crossing is sad, you can tell that they’re sad. I wouldn’t mind if Pokemon did something similar if they’d prefer not to have full-on acting. The important thing here is that they’re able to have more expansive emotions and their mouths aren’t just miming words.
Not every game needs voice acting but for games with such good character designs, expressive facial features, and a lot of dialogue, there’s no harm in the characters being able to speak for themselves.
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