After years of waiting and excitement, Biomutant finally hit store shelves last month to a rather lukewarm reception. The general consensus out there is that Biomutant is a massively ambitious game that tries to do too much and feels stretched out and repetitive as a result. The game has its fans, of course, but one thing almost universally agreed upon is that the narrator needs to learn when to be quiet. This was deemed such a problem that the devs even pushed out a patch to allow players to completely mute him. Unfortunately, I played Biomutant before the patch, and the irritation I endured, caused by the incessant narrator, made me appreciate just how good games with engaging narrators are. One of the best examples out there is The Stanley Parable.
Biomutant and The Stanley Parable might be polar opposites of one another, but they both live and die by the quality of their narrator. Both games have been put into the position where if the narrator isn't top-notch, the game falls flat simply because of how much it relies on them. Without the narrator in The Stanley Parable, the game is pretty much unplayable. Without the narrator in Biomutant, the world feels lifeless and the player misses out on key plot points. Each game's narrator guides the player through the story, but it's the latter that makes the experience tedious.
While there's nothing particularly wrong with David Shaw Parker's performance as the narrator in Biomutant, it's the frequency and inanity of his dialogue that make him irritating. The narrator will comment on the weather, when the sun sets, when the sun rises, when you're out of stamina, when you're low on health, and will even randomly say things like "kachow" during combat. He also voices every single character you meet, resulting in a world stripped of personality in favor of every character speaking in Banjo-Kazooie-esque grunts and gibberish that all sound the same.
On the other hand, The Stanley Parable's narrator only really talks when it's necessary, guiding the player through each ending and reacting to the player's actions in entertaining ways. He'll instruct you along the intended path in a calm soothing tone, or call you an idiot and start referring to you as a monkey if you stand in a broom closet for too long. Most of the enjoyment derived from the game comes from disobeying instructions and seeking out more interesting interactions between the player and the narrator. The Stanley Parable's narrator excites the player; Biomutant's doesn't.
One thing I think developers overlook when deciding they'd like a narrator in their game is that you need more than a smooth voice for it to be successful. Kevan Brighting's performance as the narrator in The Stanley Parable may be one of the greatest examples of in-game narration in video-game history, but that's also partially down to a combination of different talents from multiple people. A talented voice actor is nothing without a strong script and engaging story behind their performance, which is ultimately why I think narrators are so difficult to get right. Parker's performance in Biomutant is solid, but the decision to include a narrator in an RPG that has an incredibly weak story is questionable at best.
Experiment 101 is a very small team of nearly 20 people, and trying to create a game as ambitious as Biomutant was always going to have the team stretched thin. It's clear that a lot of corners were cut to save money, time, or both. Unfortunately, an amazing narrator and enthralling story is not something you can cut corners with, and the quality of Biomutant's narrator sums up the game as a whole: a good idea executed poorly. Smaller, shorter experiences usually benefit from narrators the most, and why someone decided to put a narrator in a 60-hour open-world game is beyond me.
However, I respect Experiment 101 for trying something different, even if it didn't go quite as planned. When you're competing with narrators from games like The Stanley Parable and Bastion, Biomutant's narrator and writing needed to be brilliant. Unfortunately, neither were, and Biomutant will forever be branded as that one mediocre open-world game that had to patch in options to make the narrator shut up.
The one thing which I personally take away from Biomutant's release is that we take games with excellent narrators for granted, and it makes me appreciate games with them even more. It takes so many talented people to be at the top of their game to implement an in-game narrator to perfection, and very rarely do we get a game that manages it. Despite being a decade old, The Stanley Parable is still one of the best examples of a narrator done well, and it likely will be for many years to come.