Prey 2017 Part 13: Face Time

By Shamus Posted Thursday Oct 7, 2021

Filed under: Retrospectives 78 comments

Last time, Morgan had just launched herself into space and then snuck back on board Talos-1 through the cargo bay. Here we meet a cluster of well-armed survivors who have been gathering supplies and holding the Typhon back. This small group is really all that’s left of the command structure of the station. There are a few isolated survivors elsewhere,Like Danielle Sho, Alex, and the various people possessed by Telepaths. but the cargo bay is the only place where people are still relatively safe and organized.

These survivors aren’t stuck on the other side of a window. We don’t have a locked door between us. We meet face-to-face with these NPCs. And I hate it.

The Uncanniest Valley

According to the subtitles and voice, Tamiko is talking. She's to my right, on the other side of the room. However, the directional audio seems to be coming from Darcy, who is standing to my immediate left. And yet Kevin in front of me is the one moving his mouth. (And also standing in an awkward pose and staring at nothing in particular. And even when he talks for real, his face seems to be about 20 years older than his voice.)
According to the subtitles and voice, Tamiko is talking. She's to my right, on the other side of the room. However, the directional audio seems to be coming from Darcy, who is standing to my immediate left. And yet Kevin in front of me is the one moving his mouth. (And also standing in an awkward pose and staring at nothing in particular. And even when he talks for real, his face seems to be about 20 years older than his voice.)

Designers of story-driven AAA games have a problem. Stories require characters. Characters generally require some degree of back-and-forth dialog. Dialog requires the ability to listen and understand. And in a practical sense, computers are terrible at that last bit.

Maybe the designer has a scene where Jimmy Sidekick tells us about the time Dr. Crazo destroyed his hometown with an army of murder-bots. When the story is over, then the player is probably having some sort of emotional reaction.Assuming the scene was written well. There are a lot of ways someone might respond to something like this. There are countless different ways you might take a conversation in response to someone revealing their trauma…

  1. Listen silently. There’s nothing to say.
  2. Ask for more details, to show Jimmy you’re interested.
  3. Comfort Jimmy with your love / friendship. Remind him that people care about him.
  4. Comfort Jimmy with the promise of eventual revenge.
  5. Try to encourage Jimmy to deal with this pain in a non-destructive way. Advise against vengeance.
  6. Ask questions about the murder-bots, looking for clues or weaknesses.
  7. Ask about Dr. Crazo’s motivations. Why would anyone do something so horrible?
  8. All of this raw emotion is making me uncomfortable. I don’t know how to process this sort of trauma so I’ll crack a joke to lighten the mood.

I’m not proposing these as equally valid in terms of helping someone deal with their trauma, but they are roughly equal in terms of their potential storytelling value. These are all things various players might want to do, or things that the player might feel their character would want to do, or things the designer wants to allow them to do, and so on.

That’s a lot. These choices don’t just represent seven different dialog choices, these are almost eight completely different conversations you could have. And of course, those are just the options that occurred to me. Ask someone else with a different personality and different life experiences, and you’ll get even more possibilities.

Obviously a videogame designer can’t offer this sort of freeform dialog. We can make a game where you can walk in any arbitrary direction, but we can’t make a game where you lead a conversation in an arbitrary direction.

The designer rarely offers the exact idea I want to express. And even when they do, I usually dislike how they’ve phrased it. And even when I’m okay with the phrasing, I’ll often be frustrated by how the actor delivered the line.

Even if the designer is willing to write a dozen different possible conversations, the modern demand for vocalized dialog means that it would be infeasible to produce such a game. Maybe daring indies can come up with something interesting using natural language processing, neural networks, and speech synthesis, but that sort of experimental tech isn’t appropriate for modern AAA titles. You don’t dump 100 people and 50 million dollars into a project that depends on technology that hasn’t been invented yet.

So instead designers must resort to ugly workarounds like dialog trees. Instead of writing 12 different conversations, the writer tries to anticipate the 3 or 4 most likely responses, and writes a conversation that allows you to pick one. It’s not perfect. In fact, it’s often frustrating or immersion-breaking. But it’s the best we can do.

Everyone is Dead, Dave

This shiny plastic-like skin is good enough for corpses, but it's really distracting when you run into living crew members.
This shiny plastic-like skin is good enough for corpses, but it's really distracting when you run into living crew members.

But Prey – like the System Shocks and BioShocks before it – has a built-in workaround. The player doesn’t need to talk to anyone, because everyone else is dead. We hear their stories through audiologs, but we don’t need the game to mediate a conversation between the protagonist and all the people decomposing across the station.

There’s usually someone on the radio to give exposition and guidance, but we don’t meet face-to-face and so we’re not burdened by those interpersonal expectations. If we do meet someone in person, there’s usually a barrier between us or some other problem that prevents us from exchanging supplies and information.

Boom! We’ve created a nice clean setup that allows all the stuff games are good at (combat and delivering exposition) and none of the things they’re bad at (conversing) and thus we can have a world filled with characters without resorting to ugly hacks like dialog wheels.

This is a great system, and it’s one of the reasons I find these games so immersive. I never find myself talking with a creepy dead-eyed mannikin and trying to figure out which of my four uninteresting dialog options is the least unhelpful. I’m not constantly arguing with the designer in my head thinking, “I  should totally be able to ask about X. This dialog wheel is forcing my character to be a dullard!”

Instead we have a world where you can only speak through actions, which is exactly the kind of world that computers are good at simulating.

So it’s really baffling to me that Prey goes out of its way to have Morgan meet a group of people.

What’s Wrong With Your FACE?

Austin Cool is probably supposed to be looking through this window, but it looks like he's standing in the dark, all by himself, staring at the wall. Also he's yet another old man with the voice of a young man.
Austin Cool is probably supposed to be looking through this window, but it looks like he's standing in the dark, all by himself, staring at the wall. Also he's yet another old man with the voice of a young man.

Imagine an alternate world where game designers never figured out how to make human faces work. They can do it, but the faces look awful, creepy, and are incredibly immersion breaking.I suppose you could argue that I’m describing our CURRENT world. I mean, our videogame faces aren’t great. But humor me here and imagine them being even WORSE. Over the years we’ve gradually gotten used to the awful faces and we’ve simply accepted this as a limitation of the medium.

And then someone comes up with a concept for a game where the zombie plague is spread via airborne virus. So everyone hides inside their homes and you just speak to them through the mail slot. If someone leaves the house, they have to wear a full face-covering mask. This effectively routes around this face-rendering limitation. We can have characters in our games without those icky faces messing things up. Sure, you can’t generalize this solution for all games, but we have found a way to avoid having gross faces in this game. That’s great!

And then somewhere in the mid-point of the zombie game you get a brief scene where you enter someone’s house and you get to see a bunch of people without masks, and the faces are just awful. Like, worse than other games. You’d probably find yourself wondering, what’s the deal? Why did the designer have this scene? They had such a good thing going!

This is what it feels like to reach the Talos-1 cargo bay and meet all these wandering NPCs.

Making Friends

Dr. Igwe doesn't look too bad, although maybe that's because he's just standing in a neutral pose and not trying to do anything fancy. Also, please lower your shotgun, Morgan. I know you have amnesia, but I'm pretty sure you can tell Igwe isn't a monster.
Dr. Igwe doesn't look too bad, although maybe that's because he's just standing in a neutral pose and not trying to do anything fancy. Also, please lower your shotgun, Morgan. I know you have amnesia, but I'm pretty sure you can tell Igwe isn't a monster.

The levels in this game look amazing. The environments are packed with detail, the interactions with computers are crisp and seamless, the lighting is varied so that different areas have different moods, and the soundscape is brilliant. The enemy designs are properly creepy and their animations are appropriately alien. Artistically, this game is very strong.

EXCEPT…

Except the one area where the game doesn’t quite measure up is with NPC interactions. Faces look plastic. The lip sync is all over the place. The faces have dead eyes that don’t properly track the player. Most of the people in the cargo bay have awkward poses and a couple have very robotic patrol routes.

And that’s fine! Given the design of this game, this is a good place to cut corners. In a game about exploring alone, it doesn’t make sense to spend thousands of manhours polishing face-to-face conversations. But if dialog is going to be so rough and if it’s such a small part of the game, then why bother having it at all? Let’s just focus on the bits the game is good at and leave NPC interactions to the BioWares and Don’t Nods of the world.

Moreover, we’re once again breaking the rules of the silent protagonist. It’s fine to be silent when there’s nothing you need to  say. But as an amnesiac CEO in the middle of a crisis, I have a lot of questions to ask these people and a lot of orders I’d like to give. I don’t mind when Gordon Freeman doesn’t have anything to say. He’s not in charge and – as the least knowledgeable person in the room – nobody needs his opinion. Also, his silence is a bit of a running joke. And finally, the scenes in Half-Life 2 are filled with hurried chatter between the other NPCs. It’s not like there’s a long silence where Gordon could play 20 questions with Dr. Vance.

But it’s really weird when Morgan finds herself in this group of people and can’t ask any of her dozens of questions or tell people all the important things she’s learned.

Everything feels so fake. These dead-eyed, plastic-faced people shuffle through their mechanical patrol routes or stand around in identical poses. The people don’t feel real, and my interactions with them are stiff and mechanical. While most of this game is a world of pure immersion, this scene in the cargo bay feels as artificial as a conversation in Skyrim.

On the Other Hand…

Uh, yeah? What did you expect me to do, Sarah? Walk home?
Uh, yeah? What did you expect me to do, Sarah? Walk home?

Like I said in my Mass Effect series, it’s really important to have peasants in your gameworld. The player needs to meet the rank-and-file normies they’re trying to save. And these folks in the cargo bay fulfill that purpose. They put a face on the tragedy and give you someone to save. Without this group, your entire experience with the crew would be looting their corpses on the way to your next objective.

You could make these people less immersion-breaking if you were willing to spend more money on them. Give everyone unique poses that show how tired they are. Bring them to life with some facial expressions. Have them make eye contact when you get close. Give them stuff to do in the form of pacing, operating machinery, tending to wounded, or carrying stuff around so they aren’t all stuck in idle poses.

Then again, that kind of work is stupefyingly expensive. I’m basically asking the developers to turn these modest 3D characters into Naughty Dog style virtual actors with fully articulated faces and motion-captured performances. That’s a really unreasonable thing to ask for! Not every team has the equipment and expertise to do that kind of work, and setting it all up for this one scene in cargo bay would be a terrible way to allocate resources.

These peasants shatter my immersion, but they’re also important to giving the world stakes and putting a face on the tragedy. And making them better would require a frankly unreasonable amount of resources. These games are already too expensive relative to their niche audience.

So I don’t know. I realize you can’t have everything, but I felt like the game and I had a good thing going until it asked me to pretend these dead-eyed statues were people. I always hurry through the cargo bay and do my best to avoid looking at anyone’s faces too closely.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Like Danielle Sho, Alex, and the various people possessed by Telepaths.

[2] Assuming the scene was written well.

[3]

[4] I suppose you could argue that I’m describing our CURRENT world. I mean, our videogame faces aren’t great. But humor me here and imagine them being even WORSE.



From The Archives:
 

78 thoughts on “Prey 2017 Part 13: Face Time

  1. LBW995 says:

    I’m surprised you didn’t touch on the horrible HORRIBLE audio mixing when it comes to NPC’s. I’ve had to turn down the speech volume to 20 or so and the voices still sounded like the actor was uncomfortably close to their mic.

  2. Gargamel Le Noir says:

    I was very glad they put a camp of survivors in the game, dodgy graphics or not. Finding dead person after dead person gets old after a while, and it’s not quite as tragic or shocking when you know everyone’s dead anyway. In System Shock 2 there is (very old spoiler) a quest giver that you discover is actually dead and being impersonated. But of course she’s dead! Everyone is!
    In Prey you don’t know, maybe you can still save Dr X. When a telepath holds a bunch of people in its thrall they’re not automatically doomed, you can save them and be something of a hero for a change in this otherwise bleak setting. It’s well worth a janky face model.

    1. Coming Second says:

      Agreed. As janky as they were I was glad to find survivors around Talos 1. The fact it was difficult but not impossible to save most of them, and each had a name and a job, all contributed to making them feel real.

      And I wasn’t frustrated by the fact you couldn’t ask them questions; by the time you got to the cargo bay it had already been well established that Morgan was a Gordon Freeman. And you probably know way more about the situation than any of the people there anyway.

      I remember finding the quasi-puzzle areas around the bay very annoying, though.

      1. Awetugiw says:

        The existence of a few survivors is also important in order to give some meaning to the decision of whether you want to blow up the station. If everyone was dead then you’d still be blowing yourself up, sure, but that’s not the same as blowing up yourself and a bunch of other people, most of whom are far less responsible for the mess than you are.

        You could, to some extent, do this with people that are alive but that you did not meet (like the people on the shuttle), but that does not have the same impact.

      2. Chad+Miller says:

        I remember finding the quasi-puzzle areas around the bay very annoying, though.

        To date, no matter how stealth focused I’ve been in multiple playthroughs, I’ve never figured out how to get to the security personnel through the “intended” entrance on the balcony.

        At least it’s nice that they programmed in the common-sense reactivity here; Cool says you’ll need to use the balcony to get in because “I can’t open this door with those things out there!” But if you kill all the Typhon in the chamber he says something like “Well…remind me never to piss you off.” and opens the door.

        1. Fizban says:

          You can still go in the balcony rather than opening the door, and keeping it closed can protect the crew from say a Nightmare spawn. I’m pretty sure you only get the badass line if you clear the room, so killing just what you need to while “sneaking” in is probably expected.

          Getting to the balcony is annoying, IIRC there’s a switch or lever you have to pull which is very non-obvious, or you do some finnicy jumping- I think it was moving the docking bits along the wall left of the door with a control panel so you can jump across them, though you can also get there from straight across with a much more annoying jump. My second playthrough I wanted to keep that door closed and I went in and out a lot.

    2. Zekiel says:

      I agree. Everything Shamus says here about the crew members is fair comment, but it didn’t really bother me a great deal. I was pleasantly surprised to meet actual living friendly people who weren’t just quest givers stuck behind unbreakable glass (hello, Bioshock). And I wasn’t expecting that much from them in terms of AI or lip syncing or the like. It genuinely was nice to meet friendly people!

      But the poor audio design was infuriating though.

  3. John says:

    You don’t dump 100 people and 50 million dollars into a project that depends on technology that hasn’t been invented yet.

    Not if you actually want to ship a game you don’t. But if you’re Chris Roberts you do exactly this and call it Star Citizen.

    1. Geebs says:

      The central technology behind Star Citizen is “get people to pay for a picture of something that doesn’t actually exist”, which has been a proven business model for several centuries now.

      1. BlueHorus says:

        The fascinating thing is that usually this business model has a final step of ‘run away with all the money before the buyers catch on and get angry’.
        Good ol’ Star Citizen, however, has managed to find a way to just keep the cycle going.

        1. baud says:

          Well, the Star Citizen devs have released something and are continuing to develop it. Then if the get ever gets finished or the finished product has any resemblence to what was sold is another matter.

        2. Coming Second says:

          The best cons have you sticking around and the marks thanking you for what you did afterwards. After all, if they were dim enough to give you money once, they’ll probably do it a second time.

      2. ColeusRattus says:

        As someone who, blinded by nostalgia for the old Wing Comander Saga, shelled out a few real bucks for a ship or two, that hurts.

        Because it’s true.

      3. Dalisclock says:

        I keep forgetting Star Citizen is a thing until someone reminds me of it, and then once I stop looking at it it slips right back down the memory hole again.

        Mostly because I don’t expect it ever reach “finished” state, but also don’t think it’s going to implode anytime soon either. It’ll just keep rolling up money like a Katamari forever.

        1. Paul Spooner says:

          Like a Katamari… “A star that remembers tasting a bit of the cruelty of the outside world.” A star that re-members. Members. Membership. Citizenship. A Star Citizen OH MYYYYYYYYYY!

    2. Lars says:

      If CIG would licence the technics Chris Roberts put 100 people and 50 million dollars to develop, they could make more money than Epic. That server technology they are developing right now is so advanced, amazon and ten cent would pay billions for that.

  4. Dreadjaws says:

    This is one of the reasons I’m still supremely annoyed by the constant pursuit of photorealism. Say what you will about Dishonored’s plot, but the art style chosen for the game where faces and bodies have exaggerated features and the colors make everything look like something painted with oil makes sure that you don’t really care that much when the lip-synching isn’t great.

    There’s one thing that bothers me even more from this section than everything you mention, though. These people ask you to get a few turrets to protect them and once you do then they proceed to stand in front of them like a bunch of dunces. I thought the entire point of getting them the turrets was because they wanted to stay behind them for protection while they attacked from afar, but apparently they just wanted something to keep their asses warm while they threw themselves at a bunch of monsters. If I hadn’t been an absolute powerhouse by that point in the game these assholes would have all killed themselves immediately. Every sympathy I had garnered for them vanished at that moment, because they were all being a bunch of idiots.

    1. Geebs says:

      Yeah, I agree that full facial capture is too much of an ask but the friendly AI is straight out of Marathon (1994). Not standing directly in front of a turret is a couple of lines of code.

      1. Addie says:

        Going to have to disagree with you there. The crew are probably modelled as finite state machines, to represent {CHATTING, PATROLLING, FIGHTING} and so on, and with various triggers and timers to change between states.

        To get them out of the way of some turrets, you’re going to have to raycast from the crewmember’s eyes to an alien to determine whether they’re in their vision cone, and set some flags for ‘having seen an alien recently’, and then raycast from the guns to the alien to see whether the crew member is in the way, and transition their state machines to MOVING_OUT_OF_THE_WAY_OF_BULLETS if it’s appropriate to do so, and then pathfind to an appropriate place for them to stand, based on what they’ve seen before and whether it’s out of the way of any other alien that they’ve seen recently, and then start them on their moving animations. If it’s a couple of lines of code, it’s a couple of *very long* lines of code. And raycasting and pathfinding are very computationally expensive, so you want an efficient implementation which probably runs in a background thread.

        Playing back the facial capture is more-or-less just a matter of setting all the animation vertexes to the positions in your data file. Getting that data is really expensive, but it’s an easier programming job – convincing AI is a hard problem. Doesn’t excuse the Prey NPC AI from getting stuck in doorways quite so often, unless it was intended to be hint towards the ***spoiler***, which I doubt.

        1. Chad Miller says:

          I feel like if this problem were something noticed in playtesting, maybe the answer would be something like “forbid the human NPCs from entering the entryway during this fight.” The quest involves gives you a specific area, literally outlined on the floor, where you have to put the turrets before the NPCs will open the door. If the player decides to do something like point turrets backwards they’d likely accept that this is on them.

          1. Fizban says:

            That turret placement area is infuriating. You can’t place the turrets at good angles to avoid them being immediately destroyed. The NPCs will go into the area and block the turrets. The enemies will lob AoEs at the turrets, killing anyone nearby even if the person wouldn’t have been hit before. So essentially you have to place the turrets to make them feel better, but in the worst possible positions. So indeed, the best solution is to just be such a badass that you immediately lockdown or rushdown all the enemies before they can even see the room.

            It’s not actually that hard, but really kills the “defend this room with the NPCs while keeping them alive!” mission, because the best move is to keep the NPCs completely out of it: no power of teamwork, just videogame badass.

        2. Geebs says:

          I think you’re over-thinking it. All you’d need is to do a quick and dirty 2D calculation for whether the NPC is standing within, say, 30 degrees of the turret’s facing vector and have them move away from it in the direction of “behind the turret”, if they’re within 20 metres of the turret and at the same elevation. The turrets don’t have a player-visible vision cone so it doesn’t need to be precise.

          It’s pretty simple trig and you don’t need to worry about casting rays for whether they can actually see the turret because we can assume they know where it is and all we’re trying to simulate is basic situational awareness.

          1. Echo Tango says:

            I was going to write a similar comment – people shouldn’t feel comfortable standing downrange of machine gun. I’m guessing there aren’t many (surviving) people who think like “Maybe this gunner behind me hasn’t noticed an enemy yet and therefore wouldn’t shoot me if I walked in front of them”…

    2. FluffySquirrel says:

      If I recall, that bit was some kind of bug. I had it the first time too, where they just walked out into the room and started attacking the enemies and got absolutely slaughtered

      I reloaded and rejigged things a little, and next time, they all stayed in the room, safely with the turrets protecting them and it was a cakewalk to mop up the few aliens left

      Something in the AI occasionally causes them to break or something I think, I’m not sure what

      1. Chad Miller says:

        Yeah I’ve never had this problem either. With 3 turrets you barely need to do anything (I’ve seen a speed runner win the fight with one recycler and zero casualties) and with a fourth you might literally be able to just stand there.

        I was actually expecting some talk about the “moral choice” of helping them but maybe that’s deliberately being left for the inevitable post about the ending.

      2. Dreadjaws says:

        If it’s a bug then it’s a persistent one, because those jerks kept getting in the line of fire after several reloads. I tried to see if I could get them to behave properly and when I got sick of watching them fail I just spammed my powers quickly to kill all the enemies before the refugees could get themselves killed.

  5. Joshua says:

    vMaybe daring indies can come up with something interesting using natural language processing, neural networks, and speech synthesis

    I found this little tool for my D&D games and it’s been interesting, but nowhere near perfect unless you’re looking for creepy, off-kilter dialogue (which I was):
    https://voicemaker.in/

  6. Joshua says:

    But as an amnesiac CEO in the middle of a crisis, I have a lot of questions to ask these people and a lot of orders I’d like to give.

    I’m reminded of MMOs, where you’re constantly faced with the issue of running into people where you should be the one asking questions or giving commands (especially in games where you have some kind of rank), yet everyone else in the world from a Prince down to the local candle-maker is telling you exactly what to do and not giving you an option to ask any reasonable question, especially when their plans are terrible. Problem of the medium, I suppose.

    1. Thomas says:

      It is a problem of the medium, but it can somewhat be remedied by a couple of smart decisions and avoiding clichés.

      Greedfall generally writes all their quests so they’re an appropriate level for an ambassador. Would an ambassador send an underling to investigate the existence of a secret prison camp? Probably, but it’s just conceivable that they might want to do that job personally, and if there are monsters in the way, oh well it looks like you’re on a quest.

      An ambassador was also a smart choice as someone who is respected but is not always authorative. And they even write moments where you -do- command other people to clean up the mess.

      You can also have a side mechanic where you make regal decisions (something Dragon Age: Inquisition did) which makes you feel better when you’re killing 10 beavers, because at least it’s not always like this. They also fill the game with indicators of power – NPCs reporting to you in the game world, your personal flag being set up where you’ve been. That makes you feel less like everyone’s errand boy.

      It’s the kind of thing where an RPG can make a name for itself by really making you feel like you’re the rank you’re meant to be, and honestly there’s a lot of interesting gameplay and questing that can come of taking it seriously.

      Kindgom Come: Deliverance did it from the reverse. They decided to make a game where the NPCs and gameplay mechanics treated you like the peasant you are (initially) and the game is so much better for it.

      1. The Rocketeer says:

        I did really like Greedfall’s decision to make the player-character a diplomat. It consistently paid dividends throughout the game for me.

        1. SimeSublime says:

          I found this rather amusing late game, when things like this happened constantly.

          Foreign Governor: Our city is besieged by forces so insurmountable that our vast military will be crushed without help.
          Governor’s Aide: Our allies’ forces have arrived!
          Governor: Excellent! How many regiments of troops did they send?
          Governor’s Aide: A diplomat, a sea captain and a propagandist of our nations bitter enemy.
          Governor: *Long pause* Huzzah, we’re saved!

          Then again, your party does proceed to singlehandedly kills the entire invading army so I suppose they’re justified.

          1. Dalisclock says:

            Your allies: What the hell? Our reinforcements are only 3 guys!
            Your enemies: Oh shit, their reinforcements are only 3 guys!

            1. Thomas says:

              The orcs should have been relieved when the ghost army revealed themselves. A trio of main characters facing an army by themselves is terrifying.

              1. ContribuTor says:

                The inverse ninja law feels applicable here.

              2. modus0 says:

                3 people facing an army by themselves are either A: Seriously bluffing, or B: Powerful enough to wipe out said army, and not to be messed with.

                It takes a smart, well-informed commander to figure out which.

                1. Syal says:

                  It takes a smart, well-informed commander to figure out which.

                  …I mean it should only take six guys. If you send six guys at three guys and the three guys win… maybe run.

  7. Lino says:

    Typolice:

    but the don’t meet face-to-face

    Should be “we”.

    Regarding NPCs, unfortunately we’ve been in this state for a really long time. While graphics can look almost life-like, our systems’ reactivity comes nowhere near that. Developers are struggling to do reactivity with the environment and NPC reactions, so when you add the nearly limitless complexity of dialogue, all these problems get exacerbated…

  8. Chris says:

    I haven’t played prey myself, but from what you describe the problem is more the terrible production values than anything else. Like, get actors that fit the characters they portray, make the correct character move his lips and make the voice come from his direction. Then it sounds like a serviceable moment in the game.

    As for being a silent protagonist, well, you get what you asked for. In half-life 1 gordon freeman works out, because you barely talk with people for more than one line. Maybe at the start it is a bit strange (you cant ask if this new experiment might be a bad idea), but after that you move past people quickly. In HL2 meanwhile, Gordon should have a lot of questions about the situation. But he never is able to ask them. You spend time in those story rooms without being able to think along or say anything. And even if alyx is talking to you, you can only stand there like a dummy.

    And if you could talk in this game this moment would still limit you. How would people react if they realize you have no memory? How do they react to your orders? How do they react to your revelations (and whether you tell them about how to breed aliens)?

    1. Ophelia says:

      Well, not that it makes it any better, but Morgan being a silent protagonist despite speaking in audio logs and looking-glass videos and yet NOW never speaks and ALSO nobody else seems to notice/care is actually explained by the game. It’s hyper-spoilerific territory so if you’re learning about the plot alongside Shamus’ posts I’ll leave it there until we get to that part in the series :)

  9. Volvagia says:

    Okay, faces. I assume you’re talking about realistic-leaning faces? YAKUZA. 0, Kiwami, Kiwami 2, Like a Dragon. Those faces are awesome.

  10. beleester says:

    I think the workaround is to have one really nicely rendered NPC as the spokesperson for the survivors, and then everyone else is hiding in a room you’re not allowed to see (or maybe you see them through a window so you can’t examine them too closely). And the guard can be like “I’ve got a dozen people in this cargo bay behind me, can you do this sidequest to keep us safe?”

    1. Syal says:

      I think the chef trying to trick and kill you earlier means any lone NPC isn’t going to be trustworthy enough to represent the station.

      1. baud says:

        You can have some semi-hidden NPCs, for example silhouettes of people patrolling, someone taking a look through a small window, some chatter…

        1. Coming Second says:

          The nature of this game, particularly the intro, means that would remain very suspicious to the player.

      2. Chad+Miller says:

        Conversely, if you decide you don’t want to help this team, you can attack Chief Elazar for the key card and power your way through the zone.

        It’s kinda stupid, but you can do it, and it’s one of the few events that affects this game’s not-yet-discussed morality system.

    2. ContribuTor says:

      A dozen people? At this time of day? At this time of year? In this part of the country? Localized to this cargo bay???

      May I see them?

  11. Forty-Bot says:

    Since you posted part 14 too early, I had a look at your 404 page, which has no style for whatever reason. You may want to look into that.

  12. Vladius says:

    I never had a problem with the survivors. They made the game feel less lonely. Which isn’t really something I should worry about, I just like it.

  13. Christopher says:

    Since I haven’t played a lot of these sorts of games, I tend to relate these Prey blog posts to Metroid instead. It’s an especially easy comparison with Metroid Fusion, which is about how a shapeshifting and all-absorbing species known as the X Parasite has taken over a research space station. I’ll be a bit self-indulgent here and just write down the thoughts I’ve had about this while reading these posts.

    Downplayed NPC interaction through logs and radio chatter and windows sounds a bit radical compared to just having NPCs hang out and talk in some safer areas, but Metroid is usually even more dismissive of that stuff. There’s nothing like audio logs around at all, and if anything, Metroid Fusion has taken a bit of flak from some fans because it introduced a computer commanding officer who sends you messages in Navigation rooms and points you in the direction of the next objective. It’s not a lot, but for a series that I’m not sure has a spoken word in all of Super Metroid, some bot telling Samus where to go is more than what some people want. Nintendo as a whole are very gameplay first, so downplaying the story is nothing new, but the Metroid games have attracted a lot of fans for their immersive qualities, relative groundedness compared to Nintendo’s other properties and its freedom of exploration.

    Metroid Fusion did have an interesting take on NPCs behind glass. The space station studied a variety of species and has various biomes to house them in. This is a convenient reason for both level and enemy variety. Instead of some ship that largely looks the same and a handful of bad guys, you get an aquarium zone and a cooler area etc, and the X parasite absorbs and morphs into the various wildlife species – often altering them to be more dangerous in the process. At some point during the game, you find the only wildlife that hasn’t been absorbed, some cute alien emus and monkeys, in some sorta containment area behind a big window. These guys are friendly to you, appreciate you letting them out, and give you a hand later.

    I don’t necessarily think this would fit with Prey so well. Personally I think audio logs and diary entries feel plenty artificial on their own(I would describe going through everyone’s stuff in Gone Home as one of the least immersive things I’ve done in a game for instance lol), but obviously cartoony alien animals aren’t necessarily a great fit for Prey’s style, and I get the sense most of the appeal is learning about the situation rather than solving it. You need a bunch of Lore for there to be something like that to consistently discover, and actually talking to people alive is necessary for that stuff to be in some way emotionally tied to the drama atm and not just be exposition. Suggesting a shapeshifting antagonistic force taking on a ton of different forms and a more varied setting also doesn’t seem feasible for a studio that could only pull out like five enemies. But it’s at least a way to see how different developers approached the same idea.

    Metroid Prime released just one day ahead of Metroid Fusion(all the way back in november 2002) and was developed largely by an American studio, and presumably as a result of that it was
    1) first person
    2) included the Scan Visor – You put on the visor, you look at something scannable(indicated by an icon) and you get some text about whatever that is.

    That gives you a lot of optional log-like text dumps if you’re looking for context and lore, and it avoids the need for any contrived notepads on all this stuff just lying around – though you have to imagine the scan visor sure is knowledgable when it has all this info for you about remote alien species and temples.

    I’d say Metroid Prime also benefitted a lot from not having any dialogue or NPC interactions in the game at all. Peasants are nice and all, but I think if you’re just going to explore the ruins of some place and fight monsters in there all by your lonesome, that experience isn’t improved by having a bunch of other people along for the ride. Especially when they’re poorly portrayed. You need more focus on story across the board, and focus resources on that rather than freedom of approach.

    1. Fizban says:

      What I just posted on the last This Dumb Industry in response to Metroid discussion fits here as well:

      Samus is usually a silent protagonist, with maybe some scan data, upon which you can impose much of your own reactions*.

      *I don’t recall what it may have said in the logs in Prime 3 about them, but suddenly having NPCs that needed my special badass help made the “bounty hunter,” (as in, professional adventurer) thing a lot more powerful, and the marines showing up in late/endgame zones had me genuinely stoked. Meanwhile the other hunters and their inevitably being bosses you’d have to kill made me really sad considering one of them is a shapeshifter who idolizes you (and uses your form because it makes her feel badass, IIRC), it’s just cute and then damn you Phaaze!. I’m pretty sure Samus says jack all in response to any of it, but that means I can feel whatever I want.

  14. Mye says:

    I didn’t have much of an issue with the NPC since the encounter is so quick and they can’t really provide you with much answer anyway (noticed you didn’t talk about the other engineer who you can rescue and goes to your office, coming up next I guess). My main problem with them is that if you go back to cargo and the nighmare spawn there it’ll quickly murder a bunch of them since they wander outside their little room and there’s nothing you can do about it. So every time I went there I had to make a safety save before heading in, just in case.

  15. Melfina+the+Blue says:

    Heck, even your list leaves out what I’d actually do in the matter. Sympathy, showing some understanding of what they’re going through, offering to help stop (but not kill) Murderbot Dude if I can. Or possibly the “nope, I can’t right now, not in a good enough emotional (or physical) place to deal with your pain, sorry, I suck, I know,” escape. I’ve been dealing with this my entire life, I’ve gotten pretty good at it.

    Though honestly, I don’t want better faces, really. I am an empath (not psychic, just really really good at reading the emotions of other people, to the point they can override mine, my best guess is it’s genetic on some level as my mom had the same issue) and people are freaking exhausting. In games, I can ignore my brain’s over-development in that area to just have fun. Bad emoting doesn’t pull me out of stuff, thankfully, or I’d watch a movie or show once in a blue moon.

    1. Syal says:

      Or possibly the “nope, I can’t right now, not in a good enough emotional (or physical) place to deal with your pain, sorry, I suck, I know,” escape.

      “Laugh and the world laughs with you,
      Weep and you weep alone.
      For the sad old Earth must borrow its mirth
      But has trouble enough of its own.”

  16. Christopher says:

    So everyone hides inside their homes and you just speak to them through the mail slot.

    I’m sure Fromsoft were relieved they didn’t have to model half the Yharnam NPCs.

  17. The Rocketeer says:

    This article finally clarifies something that’s been on my mind for a while: if you can put an Archer image macro in a footnote, formatted text and hyperlinks are probably fine.

    1. Shamus says:

      Yes indeed. The footnotes are just a regular ol’ box of HTML. You can put pretty much anything in there.

      1. Gautsu says:

        Boom, phrasing

    2. Erik says:

      Hyperlinks are definitely fine; Shamus has been using them in footnotes for years.

  18. Fluffy boy says:

    It’s interesting you hated the cargo bay, because for me that was the best part of the game (besides the intro sequence) because you finally get to see the other survivors and learn how they’re coping with the situation. I was frankly bored of Talos I being populated only by corpses and never meeting any other characters.

    Plus, the section where you have to defend the bay from a horde of Typhon alongside the other survivors was fun and it was nice how the NPCs would react to the other characters living or dying

  19. The Rocketeer says:

    Odd that Morgan not being able to ask questions as an amnesiac CEO is the part that stands out to you; shouldn’t Morgan be mobbed with frantic, angry questions the second she steps through the door?

    1. Chad+Miller says:

      The security people in particular already know that present!Morgan is in the dark; there was already a raid/mutiny planned to bust Morgan out of the simulation labs before the Typhon took over. And this Cargo Bay group is almost entirely security (which is why they’re the biggest pocket of survivors)

      1. Smith says:

        That explains a lot. Of course, the ending explains a lot more, except a lot of the same stuff will probably happen in Prey 2.

  20. Grimwear says:

    Yep I got real unlucky meeting the survivors. While I was hacking into the storage containers on the side a freaking Nightmare spawned and just charged into their hallway murdering most of them before I even knew what happened. Great planning there game.

  21. Fizban says:

    I don’t mind when Gordon Freeman doesn’t have anything to say. He’s not in charge and – as the least knowledgeable person in the room – nobody needs his opinion.

    I see Morgan, through that whole interaction only through actions bit, as someone who’s decided they’re the only person that can do the thing are are going to lone wolf their way to the end through anything that gets in the way- or in short, working in a mind state where they aren’t going to bother asking questions. No reason to assume anyone knows anything more useful than you when 90% of the people you’ve found are dead, the cause of the problem, or both, so why bother when it’s all you anyway? Maybe not realistic, but something I’m accustomed to in video games, the impossibly single-minded determinator who flies like a bullet with about as much care for other people’s input.

    Like I said in my Mass Effect series, it’s really important to have peasants in your gameworld. The player needs to meet the rank-and-file normies they’re trying to save. And these folks in the cargo bay fulfill that purpose. They put a face on the tragedy and give you someone to save. Without this group, your entire experience with the crew would be looting their corpses on the way to your next objective.

    Exactly.

    Give them stuff to do in the form of pacing, operating machinery, tending to wounded, or carrying stuff around so they aren’t all stuck in idle poses.

    I actually took those half broken patrol routes as the furtive about-to-break pacing (and wall staring) of those characters- bit of headcanon since it seems more likely the routing is just bad, but it fits. These poor people can’t even focus on what they need to do to survive they’re so rattled, and with the enemy right there on the other side of the window that’s not even surprising.

    I could see trying to put everyone in helmets (and convey their emotive states with only voice and head bobs), give some excuse like no-one wants to risk it since a sudden decompression suffocated someone, or that it gives them a couple extra seconds if a mimic goes for their face. But if they’re all faceless you need to do a lot more lifting to make them feel like people, where bad faces are still obviously faces.

    Unless you’re going to try some sort of next-level thing where these are people that are always in helmets so they all have personalized art or even faces on them, some of which has been trashed in combat or scribbled out or had epitaphs added. Maybe if you stuck the bad faces in transparent helmets with lighting that “causes” their ghastly appearance, and so people offset that by adding the art to cheer things up.

    My biggest problem is the constantly overlapping dialogue and subtitle stuff if you don’t stop and listen to everyone. But there’s pretty much no way to have those trigger upon seeing something while allowing the player to move at their own pace without allowing the player to muck them up. The cramped quarters actually do make a lot of the overlap make sense in a way, even if it’s annoying.

  22. Nick says:

    I don’t remember if you addressed (or encountered) it already, but I had a lot of instances where multiple sources of audio played at the same time. It happened in bits and spurts before the cargo bay, where Alex would call me on the radio while I was listening to an audiolog, and I would get frustrated because I wanted to listen to everything.

    And then I arrived here and it was an absolute train wreck, everyone wanted to talk as soon as I got close to them, and they were all bunched together, so everyone ended up talking and I couldn’t make out any of the conversations.

    1. Zekiel says:

      Absolutely. They really made a mess of audio in this game wherever there’s more than one bit of dialogue playing.

      I remember there’s an audio log where playing it completes a quest, and the “you’ve completed a quest!” noise plays over part of the audio log so you can’t hear it. Urgh.

      1. Chad Miller says:

        I think the worst of that comes later if you rescue certain NPCs who use your office as a base of operations. There is some interesting ambient conversation between them, all of which is clobbered if you get even vaguely close to them and they start in with “oh hi morgan here’s some random loot”

  23. Trevor says:

    I feel like this might be a problem for the survivors only? I don’t recall having any problems with Alex whose face is pretty well animated and with whom you spend a lot more time looking-at-while-he-talks-at-you. I also really appreciate when there are video games where not every character uses the same super fit/buff model and so I love him all the more for that.

    1. Smith says:

      I saw a Randomizer playthrough which randomly swaps models for characters. Alex was swapped with the Cook, as, presumably, the only other “heavyset” guy with that class of model.

  24. Mr. Wolf says:

    “I know you have amnesia, but I’m pretty sure you can tell Igwe isn’t a monster.”

    I’m pretty sure the amnesia is the only way she can tell that he is. He’s a senior scientist on Talos I, after all.

  25. Content Consumer says:

    After reading this, I am being forced to reconsider my opinion of Bethesda’s initial choice to not include human NPCs in Fallout 76.

    Robots don’t have faces, so you don’t need to animate them. They are expected to have robotic speech patterns, patrols, animations, etcetera. Not to mention that if you avoid putting humans in, you avoid people poking fun at your studio for it’s long-running failures at PC-NPC interactions.

    Of course, it didn’t really work out for them, but for different reasons.

    1. Chad Miller says:

      Honestly, I never understood the appeal of human NPCs in a game like FO76 in the first place; FO4 was what we got when Bethesda tried to have a story, so why would we expect better when they switch to a genre where story tends to get in the way? That said, there was definitely criticism of the same sort brought up earlier in this comment thread about System Shock, namely the fact that “If there aren’t any living NPCs then I can’t be surprised when a specific NPC is dead.”

      But yeah, it’s hard to say how much of that game flopping was “this game sucks because no NPCs” vs. “this game sucks for countless other reasons”

  26. Smith says:

    And then someone comes up with a concept for a game where the zombie plague is spread via airborne virus. So everyone hides inside their homes and you just speak to them through the mail slot. If someone leaves the house, they have to wear a full face-covering mask.

    I’m not sure what would be worse for me to do here. Making a Topical Political Joke™, or making a meta-joke about how I’m not making Topical Political Joke™.

    I guess I could always go with with meta-meta-joke about the meta-joke I’m not making. That might work.

    Also, I’m pretty sure Arkane is actually proud of their…let’s call them ‘stylized’ characters. The prettiest, most realistic-looking people in Prey and Dishonored are usually the player character, or someone we’re supposed to care a lot about, like the Empress of Dunwall or Russian lady in this game. The password of Morgan’s secretary is “OMGHOTBOSS”, so that’s kind of a lampshade.

    1. Chad Miller says:

      I’m pretty sure “we reused our artist from Dishonored” is the only explanation for why the Yu family portrait looks as evil as it does.

      https://prey.fandom.com/wiki/Morgan_Yu?file=T8ubW4jhjkljhl.png

  27. Mr. Wolf says:

    “But as an amnesiac CEO in the middle of a crisis,”

    Amnesiac Director of Research, Alex is CEO. Come to think of it, wouldn’t it be really hard to run a company when your CEO and Dir. Res. are both permanently in lunar orbit? More to the point, an amnesiac Dir. Res. would be a pretty big limitation. Surely they have other holdings and labs that require management.

  28. Teltnuag says:

    The Cargo Bay went especially poorly for me on my first playthrough, as I ran into a bug where the fellow guarding the door didn’t recognize that I had cleared the rest of the area and I had to stun him to get the key to open the door. Despite keeping everyone alive after opening the other door in there, I would randomly get either of the dialogue options from the survivors afterward, and sometimes both at the same time of: “Thank you! We’ll never forget what you did.” along with “You psychopath; you could have killed us all opening that!”

  29. Zoltan says:

    “Also, please lower your shotgun, Morgan.”

    Not sure if this is obvious or not, so I’m just going to say it: you can hold “f” to holster your currently equipped weapon, even though the game does not mention this. So nice to free up the visual real estate.

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