The recent announcement that Clarke will now have a voice and personality in Dead Space 2 (together with a bit of debate over on Ars Technica) got me thinking.
The key driver for making characters "strong and silent" is to give the player a more immersive experience: rather than playing a character, they can be the character. However, does this always work? When should you instead implement a character that the player can identify with?
To start with the basics, player-avatar implementations generally fall into one of three groups:
1) Silent/passive: all actions/choices are effectively those of the player
2) Vocal/static: all actions/choices follow a predefined script and are effectively those of the character
3) Vocal/flexible: all actions/choices follow a branching predefined script, thereby making actions a blend of character and player decisions
When should these be used? Again, I think this comes down to two simple questions:
1) Does the player-avatar directly interact with NPCs?
2) How much background is there to the player-avatar's character (e.g. previous games, relationships with NPCs, etc)?
If the answer to these questions is "yes" and "lots", then the developer should target one of the two "vocal" options.
Admittedly, life is rarely that simple, as there's other factors to consider, such as the nature of the gameplay - for instance, in a sandbox environment, a silent player-avatar makes far more sense, as it makes it easier for the player to become immersed in the emergent gameplay.
In any case, here's a set of games which I consider to be good examples of when (and when not!) to implement one of the three strategies above.
Aliens vs Predator (Rebellion, 1999): in this classic, the Marine campaign is a perfect example of a silent/passive avatar. And it works, for the simple reason that there are no direct interactions with other NPCs - in fact, there are no other NPCs, excepting for the Aliens (which try to eat your brains) and the occasional Predator (which tries to kill you). The only interaction with another human is indirect: you receive a series of radio'd instructions from a superior officer.
Half Life (Valve, 1998): the use of the silent/passive avatar is a bit more stretched than in AvP, but it still works fairly well, as while you do interact with other characters, there's generally little or no background history between Gordon and the character; also, the NPCs tend to deliver "one-sided" instructions or guidance, rather than attempting to engage Gordon in a "two-sided" conversation.
Half Life 2 (Valve, 2004): Valve elected to retain the silent/passive avatar in HL2 while massively increasing the level of backstory: Gordon is now famous and virtually every character he interacts with is aware of this. The result is somewhat ridiculous, as Gordon effectively blanks out all NPC conversations, including those with Alyx, who appears to form a personal attachment with him despite the complete lack of any response.
GTA3 (Rockstar, 2001): this is possibly the greatest silent/passive game ever made: as the first mainstream sandbox game, players were able to carry out missions however they chose - or they could choose to just play with the environment. The silent/passive mode is a perfect match for this freedom of choice.
GTA3: Vice City (Rockstar, 2002): the sequel to GTA3 opted to go for the vocal/static approach: players are still free to play with the sandbox environment, but their choices and actions had zero impact on the overarching plot. As a result, the game lacked the freedom of choice found in GTA3; personally, while GTA:VC is a great game, I still prefer the original!
Batman: Arkham Asylum (Rocksteady, 2009): possibly the greatest surprise of 2009 - and also one of the greatest games that year - Arkham Asylum is another vocal/static game. However, with Batman having such a strongly defined character, this works well: the player knows how he will react to other characters and plot-twists.
Silent Hill 2 (Konami, 2001): this is a classic vocal/flexible game: there are four possible endings on a first playthrough (and two more comedy-endings if you replay it), depending on the player's choices. Though as is common with multiple-choice endings, the factors which decide on the ending are based on the "right place, right time" principle, rather than being specifically due to the player's explicit actions. The benefit of this sort of implementation is debatable: if the player doesn't know they're making a choice, is it really a choice?
Dead Space (EA, 2008): picking up Doom 3's sci-fi-horror mantle, Dead Space features the most ridiculous silent-passive protagonist to date: there's not a flicker of humanity as he watches his companions die, nor is there an ounce of emotion when he finally finds his girlfriend amid the death and horror of the space station. Instead, you get the occasional grunt as he lumbers about the place, shooting down monsters and stomping on their heads. Clarke isn't human: he's a reincarnation of Jason Voorhees, an indestructible, murderous golem...