I have been playing Fallout 4 pretty much non-stop since last Tuesday, and in that time I have started recognizing a few things about myself and how I play the game. These are not perhaps grand, personal epiphanies caused by Fallout 4 – I have certainly seen the seeds germinating in other games – but there is something about this game that is causing them to be more noticeable than normal.
Voice Acting Makes Characters a Character
Generally speaking, I do not role-play RPGs. By which I mean, I do not construct a character that looks like me, and I do not make decisions based on what I would personally do in that situation. If anything, I role-play the character I am playing as themselves, or whatever idealized form seems more narratively interesting. Which, I suppose, is still technically role-playing, but nevermind.
This predilection means I don’t actually like Fallout 3 or Fallout New Vegas all that much from a narrative standpoint. In Fallout 3, you are a blank slate, literally controlling your character from birth to presumably mold him/her into something resembling you IRL. Which, personally, just always seems like an easy way to skip writing a convincing narrative. “Let the reader fill in the details.”
The protagonist of New Vegas had a backstory, but the implementation was even more discordant, as I noted in my review:
I wasn’t protecting my home, my family, nor was I my own person. I was… the Courier, a stranger in familiar skin, following a past everyone knows about but me.
Fallout 4 reminds me of what I already implicitly knew from Mass Effect: voice acting makes all the difference. Even when you still have the difficult choices to make, a well-delivered line can leave you with an impression of a character, and that impression can serve as your guide to who they “really” are.
Is voice-acting appropriate in every game? No. Does its presence often lead to more railroaded plots (due to the costs of recording twice as many lines)? Yes. But as someone who would rather experience plot vicariously rather than directly, it makes Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style choices a lot more bearable. The characters will tell you who they are.
Even Implied Romance Options Forces Me into Guy-Mode
The first character I created in Fallout 4 was, of course, Azuriel. As in, the wife. Played through the tutorial and even got all the way into Concord before something occurred to me. Could you romance companions in this game? As it turns out, you can.
I immediately rerolled as a dude.
It is a completely ridiculous reaction, but it happens every time in every game where romance is possible. Well, with one exception that proved the rule: I played a lady dwarf in Dragon Age: Origins several years ago. And it was awkward as fuck. Not that romance in any videogame isn’t generally awkward, but there is just something… maybe not immersion-breaking per se, but something personally off-putting about it that I can’t get over. Which makes my reaction to Fallout 4’s version of romance even more ridiculous, since you can romance any gender as any gender. But there it is.
I do plan to play the wife on my next “only pistols, no Power Armor, Renegade” style run though.
Change (in Formula) is Good
For the longest time growing up, I never really understood why all the Final Fantasy games had to have such radically different battle systems each time. Wasn’t FF7 good enough? Innovation, refinement, and so on are all worthy goals, but when you hit a certain plateau of elegance, why not just keep doing that thing?
Well… because then you have Fallout 4’s systems.
I grokked the entirety of Fallout 4 within the first hour or so of playing. The same strategies I’ve committed to muscle memory after hundreds of hours of Fallout 3 and New Vegas were immediately successful. Loot guns, leave the armor. Peek around corner, VATS, hide until AP regenerates. Food > Stimpacks unless you’re pressed for time. If things get dicey, break out the Pip-Boy to stop time and organize your equipment. Shoot X enemies in the face, shoot Y enemies in the legs.
While the out-of-VATS gunplay is much, much improved compared to the prior titles, Fallout 4 is basically Fallout 3/New Vegas all over again. The same tricks work.
As someone who enjoys optimizing the fun out of games, this has left me in a weird spot. All the optimization is basically done. I spent a rather absurd amount of time looking over the Perk tree and trying to figure out the best way to navigate it, but it almost seems meaningless at this point; not only am I near level 30 (and thus am actually hunting for Perks to still take), most of the Perks aren’t actually that good. And even if they were, there is no level cap, so in a sense it doesn’t matter. If I’m going to optimize anything, it’ll have to be a much narrower field, like getting an OP character between levels 2-10 or something.
I feel like the Witcher series has steadily gotten worse from a mechanics standpoint with each iteration, but at least it was different each time. The changes gave me something to mull over and marinate in my mind. And it seems like being able to do that, even if the underlying mechanics end up being worse, is still better than not having to do it at all.
Legendary Items are a Bad Idea
To an extent, I am still conflicted on this point.
Legendary items are cool, generally, in any game they are in. Their rarity gives designers the chance to introduce abilities that might be too powerful to be added to random loot. Legendaries can also facilitate character builds, and thus encourage additional playthroughs. Legendaries are fun in Borderlands, Diablo 3, and Fallout 4.
Legendaries also remove entire categories of loot drops, replacing them with nothing.
In Fallout 4, I have been using the Overseer’s Guardian for the last 30 or so hours of gameplay. The only way I could replace this weapon is if I encounter an even more ridiculous weapon that trivializes the game more than the Overseer’s Guardian already does. Which is sad, because not only does this make all the weapon drops I’ve encountered vendor trash, but it actually discourages me from experimenting with anything new.
For example, I finally saw a Gauss Rifle on a vendor just yesterday. I always enjoy Gauss Rifles in Fallout – mainly due to how cool they were in the movie Eraser (holy shit, 1996?!) – but it “only” deals 125 damage baseline. Even if I could mod the rifle for more damage, it seems unlikely that it’ll beat 137 damage x2 from a semi-automatic sniper rifle. “Maybe I’ll see a Legendary Gauss Rifle drop.”
As soon as that thought formed in my mind, I began massaging my temples. After all, this is the same game that hands out weapons like this:
Maybe I’m less conflicted than I thought. Legendaries are a bad idea, even if I enjoy the existence of Legendary mobs in Fallout 4. The latter fills holes in the gameplay, whereas the Legendaries they drop create them.
I am about ~15 hours into Mass Effect 2.
Everything is going swimmingly, although I am beginning to suspect (all) other games have been ruined for me in two very specific ways.
First, I am not sure I can go back to text boxes in RPGs anymore. It is not just about BioWare’s penchant for fully-voiced stories, it is about the equally gripping body language. Everyone has heard about the whole “93% of communication is nonverbal,” right? We are now at a point in game design when at least one company is capable of delivering on that 93% and I do not know if I can go back.
It isn’t just about the smiles, the winks, the nods, or the scare quotes by characters with only three fingers either. It is about the more subtle touches that keep my eyeballs glued to the story exposition. For example:
The asari bartender in the background facepalms when Conrad speaks the part about his wife buying the ticket. I actually had some difficulty taking that screenshot because the time between the background facepalm and the camera switching back to Shepard is less than a second – I had to redo that part of the conversation twice to get the shot.
Think about that for a moment. Someone actually went through the trouble of programming a facepalm into a (presumably) throwaway, non-required dialog option, with less than a second of screentime. Understated is an… er, understatement.
Going back to strict text and using my imagination to fill in the blanks? I am not quite sure it will feel the same knowing that the blanks are literal blanks; unless the developers clearly make up for it in other areas of the game, I suspect I will recognize the gaps as deficiencies rather than “imagination opportunities.”
The second way I have been ruined actually came via The Witcher, and is very clearly manifesting itself in Mass Effect 2. Specifically, I now believe I can and should be able to romance anyone and everyone, simultaneously.
I first noticed this tendency when I was flirting with the ship psychiatrist – whom should really know better – and became nervous that things might get out of hand before the entire playing field became available, so to speak. This was not a problem in The Witcher; in fact, you typically only had a single opportunity for “romance” at any given time, so it was a series of all or nothing encounters.
To be honest, this probably has more to do with my methodical nature in gaming than anything else. The baseline assumption I operate on is that I will only ever play a game once – I am looking to maximize my fun, not fill time, and 2nd playthroughs almost always lose out to the dozens of other games available. Ironically, this leads to counter-intuitive game behavior wherein I suck the very marrow out of a game’s bones, completing every sidequest and bonus mission long after such things have ceased being fun and/or make sense to do. Exploring every planet in every system cluster in Mass Effect 1, running Miscellaneous quests in Skyrim as a level 54 character with 100k+ gold, and so on.
As you might suspect, mutually exclusive romance options present a certain difficulty to me.
I do have a residual desire to play ME1&2 again as FemShep, which I would have done originally if not for the availability of romance options at all (that’s another post). The ideal romance scenario would be the “Deus Ex ending” one, wherein you could save right before the critical choice and I could reload to see each outcome. I am getting the impression that this is not how things will shake out.
Youtube exists, but it is just not the same.
It’s fascinating to me reading this Kotaku article about how BioShock Infinite’s Actors Berated Each Other to the Point of Tears to Get the Scene. Although I would agree with some critics that Bioshock 1 was worlds better than Bioshock 2, I was already pretty excited about Bioshock Infinite from its first trailer (assuming I can actually play it on my PC). Seeing the lengths (depths?) the voice actors go through to paint a scene makes me want it more.
But then… how important is good voice acting to begin with?
Games have had voice acting for decades now, and I am not entirely sure I can even remember particularly good performances. Sure, bad voice acting tends to stand out, if only because it pulls us out of the narrative flow. But is that not the paradox of good or even amazing voice acting? The better the voice acting is, the less we remember it. This lies is stark contrast to amazing soundtracks which you tend to vividly recall.
Perhaps this is some sort of physiological thing insofar as in these games we are not concentrating on how well the actor sounds, but rather what sort of information they are conveying – we remember the words, the story, the way the narrative makes us feel, but we lose their voice in the process. And maybe that in itself, the ability of spoken words to immerse you in the narrative instead of jarring you out of it, is the mark of quality acting. That just seems… cosmically tragic, as opposed to how other forms of art usually work.
Honestly, I am trying to remember any of the voice acting in games I have played.
- “War… war never changes.” Fallout narrator.
- “James!” The wife of the protagonist of Silent Hill 2, but mainly for that one specific (but hidden) exclamation.
- Thrall and Aggra during the Call of the World-Shaman questline. The dialog is pretty bad (aside from Thrall’s Fire speech clips), but the emotion got through. In fact, Thrall’s voice acting and dialog during the Flame segment is the best I have heard in WoW and many other games.
- Well, I thought King Terenas’ acting was rather brilliant in WotLK’s intro and ending segments.
I am starting to wonder if I remember WoW’s actors more simply due to repetition than quality (although they have it too in the above examples); the Fallout narrator is the same from all the Fallouts, and each time he says that catchphrase. In any case do you typically remember quality voice acting in the games you play? Do you have favorites?