Narrative, Video Games and You
“Let’s go, pal.”
These immortal words set the world on fire. At least, they did in my small corner of the intertubes that deals with video games as fans the country over rejoiced at the announcement of the long awaited Fallout 4.
You see, over the last week the video game industry has been holding their annual trade fair show: the Electronic Entertainment Expo (better known as E3). This is little more than console developers and big publishing studios’ chance to put out a metric tonne of advertising and build hype for upcoming titles meant to push units and sales. It’s big. It’s glamourous and it’s entirely not for me.
You see, I’m a PC gamer which means I primarily enjoy my little hobby on my personal computer instead of utilizing one of the many handheld and dedicated machines built to solely play these morsels of amusement. I am primarily stuck to this “one console” lifestyle due to an element of cost. It’s not financially feasible for me to purchase every single platform which can run these video games and so I stick with the one that has the broadest options and the lowest cost. The fact that I need to have a computer anyway makes this a no brainer in terms of decision making.
As a PC gamer, however, E3 has spent most of its years quite joyfully ignoring me.
I don’t begrudge them by any means. The show is what it’s meant to be: a massive marketing ploy funded by the big companies willing to throw enough money at it. I pay a little attention to the trade fair for the select few games that would be ported to the PC a year later.
Well, this year things were different! This year they had a PC conference! And then they went and promptly showed multi-platform games that are primarily console focused and will be ported to PC later. Needless to say, I didn’t watch.
I did hear that Bethesda finally announced Fallout 4 and I did watch the trailer.
And now, here we are.
For the world’s quickest summary on the Fallout franchise and why I’m discussing it now: Fallout was originally a isometric role-playing game produced by Interplay and developed by Black Isle Studios back in the days when Interplay existed and Black Isle Studios was still around. The franchise was inspired by Wasteland which, in turn, was inspired by Mad Max in dropping the player into a world ravaged by a massive nuclear apocalypse. The primary difference between Fallout and Wasteland is the visual aesthetic. Wasteland projected a world that was created when the bombs landed during the grim and gritty 1980s. Fallout envisioned a world lost in the far more incongruous 1950s.
Needless to say, I’ve enjoyed Fallout more than Wasteland because of the anachronistic element that, for the most part, was better executed in the original Fallout and Fallout 2. However, Interplay died as video game companies are wont to do and the IP sort of floated in limbo for many years until Bethesda snatched it up.
Bethesda then released a rather successful third person shooter/action role-playing game Fallout 3 that, outside of sharing the visual elements, setting and lore had really nothing else in common with its prior games. It was… ok. I enjoyed it when it first released but it’s certainly not aged well. It’s a mixed bag made all the worse by the fact that Obsidian Entertainment got to do a spin-off of sorts in Fallout: New Vegas.
This ended up being everything that Fallout 3 was not. I loved it and you can read my reviews on its DLC somewhere in these archives.
That’s a long story short. So what does this have to do with the opening quote?
Well, Bethesda’s reveal trailer for their next instalment ends with the protagonist uttering those lines to his faithful canine companion.
And that has me in a furor.
I do not like voice acting. It has been an ever expanding and ever popular development in video games. People praise it for increasing their immersion with the medium. Companies spend big bucks hiring named actors to read a handful of lines so they can advertise that Sean Bean or Patrick Stewart or whoever is in their latest release. The player then gets to listen to upwards of twenty to forty hours of Nolan North voicing the main character and then a handful of three or four people voicing every single other person that you meet. Which wouldn’t be a problem if you only ever meet three or four other people but by the time you’ve come across your third city populated with the uncannily same voiced citizens you either wonder if the world has developed instantaneous transportation or why mimicry seems to be the past-time of choice for its minor characters.
I understand the love for voice acting. It lets people forget for a moment that they’re playing a video game and buy into the illusion that they’re playing a really lengthy movie. The problem is that video games aren’t movies and shouldn’t ever have made that their goal.
Now, I’m not going to try and argue that voice acting can’t bring value to the medium. One of my most cherished games is Baldur’s Gate and it has voice acting. It has some of the best and I can’t help but still recall some of the more powerful speeches given by its primary antagonist and just how spot on the actor delivered them. But for every Baldur’s Gate, there’s a dozen Deus Ex games where it’s distracting, aggravating and possibly controversial.
And much like everything else, the real use of voice acting needs to be focused on playing to the medium’s strength rather than trying to co-adopt techniques from elsewhere wholesale without any concern for its impact on the product. This brings me to the reason why I loathe seeing voice acting. In role-playing games–a genre that’s already well beyond a movie’s experience as those that are twenty hours in length are generally considered “too short”–the addition of full voice acting for every character heavily detracts from the main draw of the game. For every line that needs to be voiced, there is way more than a dozen of lines that have to be cut due to file size and cost of production reasons. Voice acting really bloats the memory usage of a game and pushes against the technological limits that our current computers can maintain. It also puts monetary strain on developer’s budgets that now have to pay actors for every line delivered. So, to increase the ever popular “immersion” of a play, the developer must sacrifice options and length.
If I’m ever given a choice between depth of experience or “ermersion,” well I think my choice would be rather clear.
The irony, of course, is that people always bemoan how the modern role-playing games are often filled with cliches and shallow plots. Well, part of the reason for this is your demands to have everything voice necessitates that your options are extremely reduced down to an inconsequential option between three “attitudes” that all say the same but let you say it nicely, neutrally, or dickishly.
However, even if we were somehow able to handwave away the practicality of voicing every piece of dialogue and somehow made it a non-issue (whether through the magic of technology or accepting that unvoiced is superior) it, ultimately, wouldn’t address why video game stories can’t compete with novels.
The real reason plots are paper thin and contradictory while characters are shallow and stereotypical is because there is no environment in the video game industry for producing great stories. Unlike a novel where the focus is placed primarily on character interactions, motivations and world pressures, the onus first and foremost for games is being games. Thus, the majority of the development is placed on rendering and bringing to life all the game systems, physics, lightning and technical doodads that bring a digital environment to life. We’re looking at an industry that has teams of hundreds of people working to create a project. How many of those are going to be writers? Probably less than 1%.
And if we chose to solely focus on role-playing games, the genre that arguably has the most people working as writers in it, things become even more bleak. While we will have more people working together to give words to voices scattered all across the wasteland, the sheer organizational and manpower requirements necessary to fill them all with good voices is practically impossible. The reason that novels work is because there are few “cooks in the kitchen” so to speak. You can keep consistent voice and tone when you have one or two people overseeing it. When you need three writers just to fill one city and start including the writers that are tasked with creating the companion characters, major quests, major locations, minor locations, minor quests, primary villains and whatnot… well the number of competing voices starts to create a traffic jam of different hands in the pot.
So, yeah, I’m disappointed to see Bethesda opt to create their new game with a voiced protagonist because it places an emphasis on writing that they never were capable of achieving in the first place. Having actors try in vain to bring non-nonsensical writing to life simply makes the experience awkward. On the other hand, Bethesda doesn’t really have the ability to make a strong story experience without voice acting either so it’s really a moot issue in the end.
So what’s the solution? Ultimately, I don’t know. I know I’ve been scaling back my expectations and I’m no longer looking for improvement in narrative and writing within video games. I think that expectation was wrong in the first place. I’ve ranted before about how the nature of television creates poor story structure and it’s unfortunate that video games share a similar fate. This isn’t to say some of it can’t be interesting, however. I still enjoy Obsidian’s work and there are a handful of talented writers in the industry. The simple fact is, however, when someone says they want a game with a “good story” and I hear a person reply back with “well, read a book” I don’t think I’m going to argue that response.
Our expectations for what makes a good story simply cannot be met in a digital space. However, I do think there is room to grow. The one element that video games beat out all other mediums is in that dreaded “immersion” factor. Nothing else lets you get in there, get your hands dirty and shift the pieces around quite like video games do. So, perhaps in the future there will be a way to really deliver some truly reactive and compelling writing. Until then, however, I think we’re going to have to simply smile and enjoy the few nuggets that appear and get repeated over and over again.
Because war, war never changes.