How Talkies Killed Good Storytelling

Constrained to a few lines of pre-recorded dialogue, talkies killed the ability for games to tell good stories writes Seb Wuepper.

How Talkies Killed Good Storytelling

A big selling point of contemporary roleplaying games seems to be the insane amount of spoken dialog they include. Of course, this provides those games with an unprecedented level of immersiveness—given that the voice acting and directing is good—but at the same time it propels production costs. The talkativeness of these games has another side effect. It takes a toll on the possible amount of dynamic storytelling any of these games can pull off.

The problem here is, every line that’s spoken in the games by any one character has to be pre-recorded. That has an impact on the possible solutions and quests given. It means the developers have to go and flesh out an ungodly amount of possible quest lines, write dialog, have it recorded and implemented into the game. I can only wonder what kinds of games might be possible if we moved away from this approach.

Skyrim, while fairly open ended, still has a lot of limitations when it comes to a truly dynamic world and story development.

The big problem is, AI can’t really talk. Not yet anyway. Maybe it’s possible to write AI in a way that allows it to produce meaningful language, but having it speak that language without sounding like some awkward creepy robot is still somewhat further off.

So while it might be possible to construct a game with a wide load of fully dynamic questlines that develop out of the gameworld instead of questlines the designers come up with waiting to be unlocked, this isn’t really possible to pull off with the same kind of sophisticated production quality in the way of Skyrim.

Let’s face it, a game like Skyrim, while fairly open ended, still has a lot of limitations when it comes to a truly dynamic world and story development. It’s a world filled with treasure, the developers have hidden tons and tons of little gems inside, there are a ton of—sometimes random—quests to be discovered, but due to the game’s reliance on pre-recorded dialog, there’s only so much to be done here. The game world is rather static. Not much changes. And not much can change since as it is since Skyrim already is a gargantuan undertaking in both manhours and money thrown at it.

Why does this concern me? Did I think Skyrim wasn’t a fun game, a great game even?
Yes I did. I liked it a lot. But as far as storytelling goes, and as far as freedom goes, the game is far from perfect. And a lot of that can be linked to the over-reliance on prerecorded dialog. I would go as far as saying, voiced dialog, as nice as it is, is hindering the development of truly dynamic storytelling.

Dynamic storytelling would mean that the player has more freedom, that there the game world relies on integrated, dynamic systems—relationships between factions and characters, resources and whatnot—which the player can interact with, eventually really creating a truly unique story. This of course is a lot harder to pull off when every conceivable line of dialog has to be pre-written and pre-recorded. Maybe it’s not even possible with the pure computing power developers have at the moment, though I dare to doubt that.

We have become so used to fully voiced games, that the continuing voicelessness of the Zelda titles for example really stand out.

My anti-example for the Skyrim approach would be Minecraft. It’s a game that allows the player absolute, total freedom to do anything. To top it off, everything in Minecraft is procedurally generated. Imagine a game of the proportions of Minecraft that randomly, procedurally, fills the game world with meaningful characters, problems, relationships and interactions between the inhabitants the player could then influence to whatever end. I think a game like that is possible to build—however it could probably never be fully voiced.

And there’s the tradeoff. We have become so used to fully voiced games, that the continuing voicelessness of the Zelda titles for example really stand out. Some of what are considered the best roleplaying games of all times have not been (fully) voiced. Just remember Plainscape: Torment. Of course that game was really well written and not randomly generated, but still it didn’t need to rely on prerecorded dialog to be remembered even today as one of the pinnacles of RPG design.

The downside is of course that games like this would force the player to read a lot, which in the current climate seems to be a big no-no. Having more lines of voiced dialog than all of Harry Potter seems to be a good selling point.

Another way out of this would be making advances in sound design and voice generation. Writing text is simple (from a mechanical point of view), but with the quality of digitally generated voices we get nowadays, it’d be a trip straight into uncanny valley if a game tried selling those robot voices as human. In general, one of the rarely discussed things in gaming is sound design. Sound design in gaming is still mostly relying on playback of prerecorded samples, there is very little truly dynamic sound in games. The advancement of sound in games is seemingly stuck. If compared with visuals, it’d be as if visuals stopped in the FMV age, never bothering with anything that wasn’t playback of prerecorded (moving) images.

So there we have it. I think if sound design could make significant improvements in that field, we might one day see a fully voiced, fully dynamic game world. Before that, I am doubtful this will ever happen.