Sunday, December 13, 2009

What We Have Lost

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.

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Blogger Jordan Fehr said...

I agree that voice is not a given just because the technology supports it. Every project is different, and some even have budget or time constraints. If you can't do it right, please for the love of god don't do it. I was playing Far Cry 2 recently, for example, and that game has some of the worst dialog I have heard since the PSX rpg days. Every line is hurried, and there are often not even pauses between sentences. The result is, that I don't care about a single thing the writers wrote for that title, which is a sad sad fact. All I want is for people to not talk anymore so I can take my malaria pills and shoot somebody.

December 13, 2009 at 6:52 PM  
Blogger Steve gaynor said...

Hey, I didn't remember that your first post was a response to my blog. Congratulations on the first year of Above 49!

December 13, 2009 at 10:54 PM  
Blogger Michelle said...

I'm hearing a lot of love for Planescape: Torment recently, that game completely passed me by, maybe it's time to change that.

Also congratulations for Above 49's first birthday from a long time lurker :)

December 14, 2009 at 5:55 AM  
Blogger Matthew Gallant said...

Hey, happy blog anniversary Nels!

December 14, 2009 at 11:50 AM  
Blogger Julian said...

Congrats on the anniversary!

This is the way I look at the voice acting issue: what could Bioware have done with Dragon Age had they put the resources they spent on voicing every line of dialogue into expanding the dialogue trees or designing new scenarios. I know it's not as simple as just pouring cash from one bucket into another, but I think it's significant that it took us ten years to build back up to this.

@Eighth Ronin: I think FC2's hurried dialogue is intentional. They expect and want you to feel like the characters should shut up so you can get back to shooting dudes. The rushed cadence of the voice acting is in one way a concession to impatient gamers who just want to shoot stuff anyway. In another way, it serves to distance you from the characters. You're supposed to be a full-on sociopath by the end of the game. Looks like it worked on you. ^_~ That game is smartly designed in some really impressively subtle and unconventional ways.

December 14, 2009 at 12:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Congrats Nels!

Honestly just localizing the amount of text we have in games now blows my mind. I can't imagine dealing with voice acting for all of it.

December 14, 2009 at 6:17 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@8th Ronin Like Julian said, the dialog in Far Cry 2 is delivered at a ... brisk pace. I haven't heard the full tale, but I know Clint and Pat were trying to do something specific there and overcompensated. And due to all of the reasons above, by the time they realized it wasn't ideal, it was likely far too late to rerecord everything.

@Steve Thanks! Fullbright brain food is always delicious (e.g. I've got Saira in the queue right now).

@Michelle Find a way to play it, by whatever means necessary ;) Seriously, it's a bloody fantastic game, but it's a lot of reading. But go in with the right attitude and wow, it's a ride.

@Matthew Thanks! =)

@Julian To be fair, voice acting is a very low-risk way to (in many people's eyes) improve a game. And it's not like I want to see it gone or anything. But I'd like that it be less rote, you know?

@Mike Truly terrifying. And that's outside of the actual issues with localization, e.g. non-Roman alphabets, gendered nouns/verbs/adjectives in other languages, making sure text areas hold translated strings that end up much longer than their source, etc. Sometimes, I'm amazed these games get made at all.

December 15, 2009 at 6:57 AM  
Blogger Jordan Fehr said...

Wow, i hadn't even considered that as a design choice. That is interesting, and a different conversation all together opens up when discussing it. However, yes as you say, they took it too far and the intention fails.

December 15, 2009 at 8:45 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@8th Ronin Yeah, casts a big of a different light, eh? I think I understand what the objective was, but yeah, definitely didn't get there.

December 15, 2009 at 9:35 AM  

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