With the technology that current game systems employ it's easy to make characters that look, sound, and act more realistic than ever before. The question though, is whether or not that's always a good thing.
Now, talking characters are nothing new; there's been talking characters in the strictest sense since there have been dialogue boxes to give them voices, but it's only been with roughly the past two generations that voice acting has opened the opportunities for characters that can be fully fleshed out in terms of expressing themselves like normal (or more often than not abnormal) people.
Giving a character a voice is a mixed bag. After all there are plenty of youtube countdowns out there that have anywhere from the laughably bad voice acting to stuff that's just downright terrible and really so awful that it's not even funny. But when it's done well it really helps cement a character in the minds of the audience.
The first thing that I have to say of course is that when a character talks a decent amount it sort of breaks the idea that "you are that character" to a great degree. For example I've played Devil May Cry, but I wouldn't say that I felt like I was Dante during any point of the game, more like I was just guiding Dante along on his journey. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but hurting immersion has to be counterbalanced against getting the audience to still find the character endearing and worth playing the game for, a task which is now much more difficult and full of pitfalls.
There are cases when it really does work though. For me a stand out title would have to be Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. This was the first Grand Theft Auto where they arguably went all out with the voice acting hiring a lot of big names to flesh out the cast, and for me Ray Liotta as the leading man Tommy Vercetti was just spot on. They obviously knew from his performance in Goodfellas that Liotta could do a good grimy mobster, and even though (according to this unsubstantiated source) Liotta admits that he only did it for the paycheck, I think he did a damn good job of making Tommy a character that epitomized the greed and excess of the 80's era goon. The smarmy in a likeable way guy that has a serious bunch of issues boiling just underneath that "I don't give a shit" demeanour. I had a blast playing Vice City, it's easily still my favourite GTA game, and that's in part due to all the great voice acting that was done for it. The characters were all captured really well, and it shows.
On the flip side of the coin (and I know that this one might be more of a personal foible than anything) is that sometimes voice acting can cause the audience to dislike or even hate a character. My personal example here has to be Final Fantasy X. It was the first Final Fantasy on one of the -- at the time -- next gen systems, and they really pulled out all the stops: the cutscenes were gorgeous, the story was engrossing (to me at least), the gameplay was above par. But there was one rather glaring problem that pretty much made sure that I'd only really be playing the game once: I frigging hated Tidus.
Don't get me wrong, I like James Arnold Taylor, and I think that he did exactly what they asked him to do for this role. The problem is that Tidus well ... to put it bluntly he came off like a whiny little bitch. Sure, his character design was the same fairly effeminate sort that they'd been using pretty much since Final Fantasy 7, but man that voice. Even when he was happy and having a good time I couldn't always help but think that "here's that guy, he thinks he's the life of the party but really everyone just wants him to shut up but doesn't have the heart to tell him". And that's when the character was in a good mood. When he was angsting, and he does angst believe me, the whole thing just struck me as utterly unsympathetic. The thing is both him and Yuna, the co-protagonist in this story, are both built up as sort of tragic characters: each have their own reasons as to why they are tragic, but with Yuna the tragedy resonated, while with Tidus, I mostly wanted to say "shut up you whiny little asshole". Would I have had the same reaction if the dialogue were mostly done through text, rather than voice? I don't honestly know of course, but I would tend to think that I probably would have been more sympathetic to the guy.
It's a fine line to walk between endearing and off-putting, and the more attributes you give to anything -- from character to story to design -- then the more chances that it might go wrong. Of course it's when it doesn't that great franchises are born. Whether it's worth the gamble is up to the individual case. Of course, up to this point I've only focused on the characterizations of the main characters themselves. Tomorrow I turn to the flip side of the coin: characterizing antagonists.