About a year ago I wrote a piece about how and why voice acting in RPGs isn’t necessarily a good idea. In fact it’s often a pretty bad idea. In the wake of the instant megahit that is Fallout 4 making every single mistake I mentioned (and then some) with regards to the voice acting and the dialog system it’s tied to, and some general time to refine my perspective, I want to talk about it again. Fallout 4 is a great example of how and why voice acting an RPG can go so very wrong in so many ways, even with quality actors doing fine performances. I’m likely to focus on Fallout 4, but it’s far from the only game to make those mistakes, it’s just an easy target because it’s popular, new, and did so very poorly on that front.
There will be spoilers for the plot of Fallout 4 and possibly a few older games. It’s necessary to illustrate my points. If you read past the end of this bolded paragraph, then get mad at me for spoiling a plot, you have nobody to blame but yourself.
Perhaps the biggest problem, and the one I’ll be talking about, is especially common in (but not limited to) Open World games and with 2 aspects: The disconnect between the characters apparent emotions and their actions and the disconnect between the characters emotions and what the player expects them to be. As a reference, text only games are not immune to this, it’s just greatly amplified by voice acting where emotional influence is far more concrete.
Now there are many examples in Fallout 4, but I’ll start with the earliest example. At the very beginning you watch your husband be murdered and child be stolen, exit the vault to discover that the world has basically ended and go to a nearby town looking for help. All fine and dandy. Then you start being shot at and are forced to kill a bunch of people, get into a small mech, break out a minigun and murder like 12 more people and a giant bipedal lizard with 9 inch long claws it uses to eviscerate people. Ignoring the absurdity of all that, does this desperate, grieving, very recently traumatized mother (it’s mere hours after her entire life was killed or stolen and just killed her first people) respond anything like a normal human under those circumstances? No, you range from concerned about the people you’re saving to downright mercenary (BTW, how do you know that Caps are currency?) Why? Because while the devs may expect you to do this first thing, they can’t make you, and reflecting the obvious weepy terrified mess that this ex-lawyer should be as I describe her doesn’t make sense if you’ve spent the last 6 in game months doing other things. The icing on this failure cake is that by skipping the voice acting, any of those same lines could be read by the player to much more closely match the characters circumstances.
Dragon Age 2 has a similar problem if you play as a mage. So far as we know mage Hawke had never killed so much as a rabbit in their entire lives, and none of the dialog uses tone of voice to reflect the terrified mess I’d expect that version of Hawke to be. Why? Because unless they want to record everything 4+ times, they have the mage share most of the dialog with the rogue and warrior Hawke, who are experienced soldiers.
Seriously, Fallout 4 spoilers, last warning.
Later on you get into the Institute, and this problem plays out in reverse. You just found your son after the few weeks of desperate searching, you’re understandably emotional and all the dialog reflects this. Except what if you haven’t been searching? What if you’ve spent the last 6 in game months building (or raiding) random farms, stealing everything that isn’t nailed down, freeing slaves, making out with Cait and otherwise proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that you do not care about your missing infant? What if you’re not sad and just downright furious that the Institute continues to do things like wipe out University Point or keep obviously intelligent beings as slaves under Shaun’s leadership? Too bad, none of that is reflected in dialog. You can be sad/dissapointed or happy, nothing else. Removing the voice acting on it’s own certainly wouldn’t fix it, but it would make it better, and by not having voice acting (at least for the protagonist) it would be cheaper and easier to implement more of those options, and it could still collapse down to the 3 available options (join, join+betray, don’t join) and thus require no changes to the actual plot.
Let’s look at a counter example. The Witcher (any of them). We’re straying out of pure voice acting and into talk of writing and structure, but they’re tied together on a pretty basic level here. In the Witcher you play a specific character: Geralt. Geralt is Geralt, no matter the choices you make they’re almost all believable for that 1 character. Geralt. This (and conscious and clever writing/design that downplays the urgency of many tasks while having you do a lot of hunting and investigating so ugency rarily feels fake and thus choosing to ignore something for a bit doesn’t trigger conflicting dialog when you get back) is why the voiced protagonist works. It’s 1 character with 1 set of motivations who’s allowed to act almost exclusively in line with those fixed traits. Commander Shephard of the Mass Effect series mostly fits this mold as well. Sure you can change some of his or her values and preferences, but the core of Shephard’s character (stubborn to a fault, driven, self sacrificing, ect) never changes. This is not what Fallout 4 is or does (though perhaps it should have been.)
Totalbiscuit likes to say game development isn’t a zero sum game, but it’s only technically true. There are shareholders and investors and publishers to please, each company has a finite about of money, a finite amount of time and a limit imposed on how much of either is available with or for any given resource by practicality concerns like productivity, the amount of money a game needs to make to profit (thus the amount needed to make enough profit to keep investors happy and cover operating costs) rising dramatically with dev time and the availability of the voice actors. The reality is, until we have computer programs doing all our voice acting, full voice acting eats a ton of time (thus money) and resources (more money) and imposes more limits (rooted in time and money or the bigwigs perception there of) on how many dialog options can be presented to the player and reacted to by the NPCs, quests and world in general. Either that or all RPG devs suddenly get lazy with full voice acting, which seems rather far fetched.
After all that, it just doesn’t work. When you allow the player to define a character, through words or action, the limits imposed by voice acting are inevitably going to cause conflict between the dialog options (and emotional under/overtones they contain) and how the player has defined their character. Just as bad, you inevitably create scenarios where the player character or the people they’re talking to should respond (either in tone of voice or with actual words) to things but don’t, because that adds to the number of things that have to be recorded very quickly. (For example, at no point did my close ties and diehard support of the Railroad open conversation options for helping Synths I meet in other quests, and neither did any interaction with Synths generate responses from the Railroad or allow me to send Railroad agents to help them out.)
I know these things, Obsidian knows these things, CD Project Red knows these things, even Bioware knows these things (though their success in avoiding the pitfalls varies in recent years.) It isn’t rocket science. I’d like to think I’m a smart guy and both know what I’m talking about and got my point across, but if you don’t believe me then replay and examine the story and dialog in Knights of the Old Republic, The Witcher, and Fallout New Vegas and compare them to Dragon Age 2, Dragon Age Inquisition and Fallout 4 directly. See the problems I’ve pointed out for yourself and see how clever sturcture and/or fixed characters and/or a lack of voice acting fixes, circumvents or lessens the magnitude of these problems.
On the off chance you’re a dev reading this: stop making these mistakes. Fallout 4 can get away with it for being Fallout 4, but even it has taken some major criticism for it. You, whoever you are and whatever title you’re working on, probably can’t afford to. It (among other, admittedly not insignificant, things) butchered Dragon Age 2’s sales, and you don’t have that kind of fanbase.
For everyone else: Stop asking for this crap. Stop buying RPGs that do it. I can say with relative confidence that experiencing shallow, crappy dialog in worlds that don’t react to the player is not why we play RPGs. Buy RPGs that do things properly. It isn’t a zero sum game either. We don’t have to settle for just isometric Kickstarter projects (not that they’re inferior, far from it, just that it shouldn’t be all we get,) New Vegas proves that even a horribly broken but but still highly reactive RPGs can be a mainstream success, and games like Borderlands and Dark Souls show that people are willing to learn how a bunch of complicated systems interact. We deserve more, and the mainstream market has room for it. We just have to convince publishers by making devs that listen a ton of money.
If you do get suckered in by one, don’t write petty little metacritic reviews full of rage and hyperbole before giving it a 0/10. Nobody reads those, you just perpetuate the myth that proper RPG fans are whiny fanatics who hate everything released after 2002. Be thoughtful, be honest, use examples.
Hopefully this is the last time I have to go on about this.
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