Voice acting vs literature

· by Steve · Read in about 4 min · (744 Words)

Ok, soapbox time. I’m going to alienate a lot of people and say that ubiquitous voice acting in many games, particularly roleplaying games, is a bad thing. The reason is that it’s constraining the ability of script writers, particularly in conversations.

It’s obvious really - recording voice is more expensive than text, both in terms of the time required to produce it,  and the space it consumes on the final media. Therefore, it’s a scarce resource. You simply cannot afford to have a ton of conversation that only 5% of the player base will ever hear.

I think about the games that I hold as some of the best in terms of script writing and particularly flexible, engaging and truly variable dialogue, and they’re all in the past, because they are all text-based. Planescape Torment sits on the ultimate podium here - a game simply bursting with rich, well-written dialog with a very large number of variations. Also Fallout (the original) - where you really could affect the world around you, and have genuinely different conversations depending on what you did, and the kind of character you were. It’s watching the videos of the latest one that I can clearly see how far conversational systems have fallen from those heights.

Fast-forward to the current generation and current ‘standards’ say that we can’t expect the player to actually read anything, because today’s gamers expect everything to be narrated to them, as if they’re a 3-year old wanting a bed-time story. Sure, in games like Mass Effect there’s a bunch of supplemental material that you can read if you want, but all the information pertaining to the actual game experience is stubbornly all voice acted. As such, although they clearly do try to make it individual and variable, the constraints of time and space mean that the dialog options can’t hold the merest glimmer of a candle to the best roleplaying games I was playing 10-15 years ago. How many games do we see now where the only conversation options are:

  • “No thanks”
  • “I’ll do it”
  • “Give me more money and I’ll do it”
  • “I kill you! I kill you now!”

Is this the best we can do?

Far too many games these days want to be movies so badly that they seem to forget that there are other media forms they could also be looking to for inspiration, such as literature. A good book is arguably much richer and deeper than any film could ever be, simply because it doesn’t have to rely on moment-to-moment live communication through visuals and narration; it is consumed by the mind first and foremost, rather than the eyes and ears, and as such the flow of information is dynamic - I can choose the pace at which I consume and how much I ponder. Guess what - games can be consumed at varying speeds / intensities depending on the player too, so why aren’t we giving people more opportunity to have a deeper experience if they look for it, rather than going for the lowest-common denominator, the whiz-bang Hollywood level?

Planescape Torment was so good precisely because it tapped into the principle that you can deliver good literary material in pieces, as part of an adapting, changing story, in response to the players actions. There was a huge amount of material there if you decided to dig for it, and different players had genuinely different experiences, and not just at a superficial level. The beauty of games is that they can mix different media and make it new - I don’t want to sit there just reading pages and pages of static text, any more than I want to sit there watching a long cutscene (I’ll read a book or watch a film if I want those things), but I can certainly have a wide variety of quality writing delivered to me piecemeal on demand, interactively, depending on on my actions - that’s what a good conversation system should be like, deep and involving with lots of options, that almost certainly can’t all be voice acted economically.

But, of course visual and audio spectacles sell by the bucketload to the kind of people who buy the latest consoles, and far too many of these players wouldn’t know a good book if one hit them in the face. There’s probably no going back to text conversations in games, but I do think we’re the poorer for it in many cases.