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
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…
- Listen silently. There’s nothing to say.
- Ask for more details, to show Jimmy you’re interested.
- Comfort Jimmy with your love / friendship. Remind him that people care about him.
- Comfort Jimmy with the promise of eventual revenge.
- Try to encourage Jimmy to deal with this pain in a non-destructive way. Advise against vengeance.
- Ask questions about the murder-bots, looking for clues or weaknesses.
- Ask about Dr. Crazo’s motivations. Why would anyone do something so horrible?
- 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
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?
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.
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 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…
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.
 Like Danielle Sho, Alex, and the various people possessed by Telepaths.
 Assuming the scene was written well.
 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.
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