The Grognard: The time has come to talk about tone.
Achilles: Is this going to be one of those discussions that ends up being about what words mean?
The Grognard: Yes. Tone is the way a game makes you feel. It comes from everything: visuals, gameplay, sound design, writing, and voice acting. It’s crucially important, yet also completely subjective. In short, the perfect topic for an argument.
Achilles: I don’t know about that. I only have one fairly short argument: the tone seems fine, and I don’t see anything obviously wrong with it. How can you tell, anyway, when we’ve still seen so little?
The Grognard: By the powers of extrapolation. I’ve played Larian’s previous games, especially Divinity II. If I had to force the tone of that game into a single word, I suppose the word might be “hammy.”
Achilles: “Hammy” meaning not dark enough?
The Grognard: Tone doesn’t map well onto a one-dimensional dark/light scale. Instead, take a listen at the voice acting. Larian’s house performance style is very stage-y. Lots of enunciating for the back row, ten-pound words, broad gestures, and British accents, both posh and occasionally otherwise. If you look at IMDB’s page for the game and click through some of the talent, you’ll see plenty of credits for BBC shows and stage plays in addition to the usual voice work.
Achilles: You can literally swim to England from Belgium. Where else would they look for English-speaking voice actors?
The Grognard: I don’t object to the casting – just pointing out that they have a deliberately chosen style. Classical and formal, more so than naturalistic. In a game like this, which has Bioware-style camera work during dialogue scenes, it’s going to be extra noticeable.
Achilles: But that’s what people are actually like in the Forgotten Realms. They wear doublets and say “well met” all the time. It’s like a Renaissance fair, but with actual swordfights.
The Grognard: That’s fine for a Renaissance fair, or for stage acting, which both take place in large spaces. A game, whether played at a desk or a couch, is more like a TV show. The first Mass Effect tried to deliberately emulate classic sci-fi TV, right down to including a film grain effect in the graphics options. It’s no coincidence that it set a new standard for presentation in the process, all with lower-key performances made more for a camera than a stage.
Achilles: What about a tabletop? That’s halfway between a camera and a stage. That’s what they’re going for too. They’re leaning into the whole dramatic die roll thing, and the dialog options are all “I did this” and “I did that.” They’re making a play for the Critical Role crowd, I bet.
The Grognard: Tabletop roleplaying is having a moment right now, it’s true. But take the tabletop vibe too far and it goes from cute to cutesy. What do you think of how the dialogue is handled?
Achilles: One, it should be in present tense. Two, my main rule is that I want to be able to see what my character says before they say it. The exact words. No getting caught off guard picking a friendly-sounding option and then having my guy go all hostile. RPG after RPG has made me guess. I’m sick of quicksaving before every conversation.
The Grognard: Agreed. But what do you think of the tabletop elements more broadly? Do they work for you?
Achilles: Basically, yeah. This is the dream, isn’t it? To play DnD with a bunch of cool people who can do crazy voices and stuff. I could’ve sworn this is what you always say you want: staying close to the live roleplaying experience.
The Grognard: Yes, but my ideas usually only float around in a hypothetical ether. By taking physical form, they run the foolish risk of possibly not working as well as I said they would. The intersection between actual people and an executable file trying to act like actual people is a tricky one. If you don’t slow down and make the turn properly, you’ll skid right into the uncanny valley.
Achilles: That’s a visual thing, and you worry too much. There’s no uncanny valley for gameplay.
The Grognard: Oh, yes there is! I’ve worried about it extensively, and Larian are tacking dangerously close to its treacherous reefs.
Achilles: A valley with reefs? And are they a car or a boat?
The Grognard: Stop expecting consistency in my metaphors. The point I was making my way towards is that it looks like they’ve layered a 90’s style adventure game on top of an isometric RPG.
The Grognard: Look, they even have a SCUMM bar, or the equivalent: those buttons down on the left end of the action bar (from Gamesradar.com).
They’re just words, these buttons – doing words, like ‘throw’, ‘jump’, ‘dip’, ‘help’ and ‘shove’, pulled straight from D&D. Their power comes from the fact that they can be applied to anything, in or out of combat. You might jump across a ravine to access a hidden area, then throw the goods you find back over the chasm to your friends. Or you might help an ally back to their feet, then jump onto higher ground to take the advantage in a fight. These are verbs waiting to be placed into long sentences, as if you were writing your own adventure.
Point-and-click adventure fans will know this is not strictly new. Back in the ’90s, genre classics like Monkey Island cluttered the screen with commands to ‘open’, ‘close’, ‘push’ and ‘pull’. Over time, these buttons were merged to the point where a game like Broken Age has a single, contextual click. That saves a lot of tedious trial and error – and frees writers from finding any more variations on the phrase “I can’t open that!” – but those verbs served a purpose, which was to prompt ideas. In Baldur’s Gate 3, the D&D action bar does precisely the same thing, reminding you of options that might otherwise go unexplored.
Achilles: See, you seem alarmed by this, while I’m looking forward to it. Think of the shenanigans!
The Grognard: Shenanigans are a condiment, not a main dish. The much-praised environmental destruction of Divinity worked out to the entire screen being on fire too much of the time. Feature creep has done in less ambitious projects than this one – if the core gameplay loop isn’t strong, shenanigans won’t save it.
Achilles: First: you promised. Every time you use the phrase “core gameplay loop,” you have to put a coin in the jar. Second, we know what we’ll be doing. Killing monsters, retrieving macguffins from caves, turning in sidequests, resting, then doing it again.
The Grognard: But within that theme there are variations. One of them is the dreaded time limit, which we’ll discuss next time.
WAY back in 2005, I wrote about a D&D campaign I was running. The campaign is still there, in the bottom-most strata of the archives.
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