Planescape: Torment was released ten years ago yesterday. It is a masterwork and still unsurpassed in many ways. It remains one of my favourite games of all time and it is only by technicality that it's not dominating every "Best Of 00s" list. While I don't plan on doing a Best of 00s list of my own (too many choices, too busy with other endeavours), I have been thinking about how games have changed in the past decade. The transition from text to voice acted dialog in games, especially RPGs, is one interesting change to consider.
We're wrapping most of the recording for dialog in DeathSpank right now, which is probably why I've been thinking about this. DeathSpank has about 7000 recorded lines of dialog by Ron's count. That seems like a lot, especially considering the effort I've seen the folks closest to that aspect of the game putting in. But then one hears Dragon Age shipped with over 80,000 lines of recorded dialog. I am horrified thinking about the logistical scope that much dialog necessitates.
Planescape: Torment had about the same number of lines as Dragon Age, but very few of them were recorded (similar to Fallout). And from what I remember, most of the recorded lines are more like barks rather than conversational dialog. I can't help but wonder how the lack of that constraint affected the development of Planescape: Torment's writing.
In game development, dialog recording is almost always done last. There's too much in flux for dialog recording to take place early. But with 80,000 lines, that's a tremendous amount of content that needs to be cast, recorded, edited, implemented and tested. If the game is sim-shipping worldwide with foreign language recording, all of that work must be done in time to allow translation and testing as well. Relative to the development time of the entire project, the time writing can be flexible is shorter than it was a decade ago.
With text only dialog, written content can be changing right up to the point where it needs to go off for localization. And even then, sending a few pages with changes that require additional translation is much easier than rerecording lines in a half-dozen languages.
I can't help but think having that additional freedom to make changes and keep improving and polishing the script contributed to the excellence we saw in games of the late 90s/early 00s. Aside from Planescape: Torment, Baldur's Gate II, Fallout 1/2, Arcanum and others still stand out for their writing excellence.
As much as poor voice can pull one out of an otherwise excellent game, a good voice actor truly can bring a character to life in ways otherwise impossible. Once the recorded dialog started going into DeathSpank, I couldn't help but start listening to conversations I had read many times before, simply because of how much more engaging it is with a good performance (and hopefully you'll agree). I don't think we're going to see voice acting in games go away and as long as we can get good performances, I think this is a good thing. But I can't help but think we've lost something along the way.
While the delivery is different, how the dialog is presented remains the same for most games as it was a decade ago. Perhaps Mass Effect did take the right tack in creating a system for interacting with dialog that fits more naturally with voice acted dialog conversations. If we're never going to surpass the quality of Planescape: Torment's writing on its own terms, perhaps we should find ways to best exploit the advantages of voice acted dialog, rather that just having an actor read the same text the player would have done in the past.
While I appreciate what a good voice performance can bring to writing in games, it's maybe unfortunate all games opt for voice acting by default. While I can't see this trend reversing, I would love to see more experimentation in how players interact with dialog in games.
In an unrelated anniversary, I've also been blogging for just over one year, with 70 posts made starting December 9th, 2008. My first post was a reflection on something Steve wrote, and I think it really exemplifies what I've found so excellent about this endeavour. Being engaged in the conversation has challenged me to not only pay more attention to what other have to say, but to be more reflective about my own thoughts and opinions. So to everyone that has given me something to think about, or taken the time to consider something I've written, my sincere thanks.