Procrastination Amplification: Punditry on MMOs and games in general.

Where has My Voice Gone?

When I came back home on Sunday, Dragon Age: Origins was lying on my desk, waiting for me. (Thank you Amazon! Cross country shipping in 2 days and €15 saved.) I haven’t had a lot of time for it, but I really liked the time I did spend in the game. So far it is quite linear, plays a bit like the interactive movies of old, but not in a bad way. I’m really immersed in the storyline and love talking to the various characters around.
One thing, however, irks me. Where is my voice?

The game is fully voice acted except for your character’s part of the conversation. An NPC will say something and then you get a choice of lines to pick from as an answer. As soon as you select one, the NPC will react again – your character never opens her mouth.
Now this is quite common in computer role-playing games and I probably wouldn’t even realize that there is an issue if not the same company that made Dragon Age: Origins had shown us how it’s really done in 2007. Bioware’s Mass Effect was also in full voice over, but that also included your character’s part in the conversation. Instead of having to read a lot (relatively speaking) between parts of voice work, Mass Effect gave you the full cinematic experience.

This was handled with two pretty simple tricks: For one, you didn’t pick complete answers from a list like you do in Dragon Age: Origins, but instead got a list of keywords to pick from that corresponded to answers from your character. Trick number two was that all player characters had the last name Shepard and the title Commander. That allowed voice acting that fit for whatever kind of character you had chosen to play. In Dragon Age:Origins, references to the player character by NPCs become stale pretty fast because they feel contrived at times.

I realize that a system like the one from Mass Effect causes a considerable amount of extra voice work – especially if you want to account for the different origins you can have in the game – but I think it would have been absolutely worth it. Requiring you to read through a list of answers and never seeing your character open her mouth in the (brilliantly cut) video sequences is an immersion killer. Especially since you get to choose a voice for your character at the character creation, but it is only ever used for RTS-like responses to your clicks. Every character down to the lowly guards at a gate has a personality and a voice, but the main star of the show does not. That doesn’t feel right to me at all.

You might say that you are supposed to play as yourself in the game and it would therefore be odd to force a voice on the character – but seriously, who imagines a RPG character to be him or herself? I know I don’t, especially not in a game with third person view. I loved playing Shepard, I don’t like playing a mute.

The other issue with this system is that all the entertainment has to come from the NPCs, the player’s responses are just there to stimulate the next piece of NPC monologue. In Mass Effect, selecting a single keyword could start your character into a two minute speech if necessary. In Dragon Age: Origins, it’s rare to see more than one sentence in a row from the player. Scenes like the speech to the crew of the Normandy in Mass Effect just can’t happen in the new game, which takes away from the epic feel.

I don’t know why Bioware chose this route with Dragon Age: Origins, but I suppose it was a budget decision. Seriously though, if they can afford to make a fully voice acted MMO (!), they should be able to afford this. I think it would have greatly increased the immersion and cinematic experience the game provides.