Achilles and The Grognard: Acting!

By Bob Case Posted Saturday Mar 28, 2020

Filed under: Video Games 60 comments

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.

It also comes from the ability to push goblins off of high ledges.
It also comes from the ability to push goblins off of high ledges.

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?

*I searched my thoughts. Why was my internal monologue in past tense?*
*I searched my thoughts. Why was my internal monologue in past tense?*

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.

With environments like these, Larian may have found a way to make the 'feather fall' spell mechanically useful - the DnD equivalent of splitting the atom. Now they have become death, the destroyer of worlds.
With environments like these, Larian may have found a way to make the 'feather fall' spell mechanically useful - the DnD equivalent of splitting the atom. Now they have become death, the destroyer of worlds.

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.

 


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60 thoughts on “Achilles and The Grognard: Acting!

  1. “With environments like these, Larian may have found a way to make the ‘feather fall’ spell mechanically useful – the DnD equivalent of splitting the atom. Now they have become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

    *cough* DDO *cough*

    1. BlueHorus says:

      Wait, do you play Dungeons and Dragons Online, Jennifer? Pretty sure you’ve never mentioned that before…

      ;D

      I have no worries about the environment design or combat of Baldur’s Gate 3 – the Larian games I’ve played have been really good in terms of varied enconters, rewarding creativity, keeping battles engaging etc. Larian rarely seem to forget that they’re making a game, and that game should have fun, varied gameplay (something that people making ‘cinematic’ games seem to forget).
      If anyone CAN make Featherfall mechanically useful, it’s them.

      Regarding the tone, I’m a lot more worried. The first Divinity: OS game had a story and tone that jumped between ‘self-consciously quirky’, ‘irritatingly self-consciously quirky’ and ‘FOR GOD’S SAKE SHUT UP’.
      To steal (and misuse) a phrase from Yahtzee Crowshaw, Divinity: OS 1 was very ‘Monty Python does Westeros’; though not nearly as funny or clever as that phrase implies (or that game seemed to think it was).
      They’re also grotesque, serial perpertrators of the crime known as ‘Endlessly Repeating Barks*’.

      The second game was better – as in ‘wait, was this game even written by the same people?’ better – but still, hearing that they might be going back to old habits does worry me.

      * ‘NOT IN THE MOOD FOR CHEESE!? NO ONE HAS AS MANY FRIENDS AS THE MAN WITH MANY CHEESES!’

      1. Divinity Original Sin 2 was okay, but they do whiplash on the tone from “hur hur jokes!” (and their jokes are always stupid and juvenile) to cthulhu-style horror without much warning and it feels really weird.

        That and they’ll do some really good emotional writing moments *out of nowhere* and . . . nothing ever comes of it. There’s a great scene rather early on in the first game where you find an enemy who has been blinded and you can talk to him and potentially save his life, it is some of the best writing in the game and when the encounter is over boom he’s gone and you never hear from him again. This random guy gets more of an introduction than ANY OF THE PARTY NPC’S.

        One of Larian’s biggest problems is that they have no sense of priority for their writing -they’ll lavish incredible attention on a one-encounter throwaway scene and then major stuff of huge significance that needs serious examination you zoom past at 80 miles an hour. So it all becomes incredibly disjointed. Add to this that many scenes are tediously overwritten and overdramatized and the game tends to push you toward excess use of the skip button, which means that you wind up skipping through critical stuff because it’s not apparent that it’s critical stuff.

        A lot of their tonal problems are caused by their inability to communicate effectively to the PLAYER what is critical vs. what is fluff.

        1. BlueHorus says:

          This random guy gets more of an introduction than ANY OF THE PARTY NPC’S.

          What do you mean? If you let her, Bairdotr will talk your damned ears off about how she was raised by bears.
          I agree about the ‘tediously overwritten’ thing, though – one of the very first things this ‘savage woman raised in the forest’ does is quote poetry at you. And then just talk, forever, using overblown language.
          What, were they Dictionary Bears or something?

          1. John says:

            The bears presumably did not have dictionaries, but the druid she lived with and for whom, as she will also tell you at some length, certainly did.

        2. Sleeping Dragon says:

          Huh, I was all ready to go down into the comments being all dismissive of the concerns voiced in the post but… you’re kinda right. For the record I’m playing the game in co-op with a friend for about 2-3 hours about 2-3 days a week all of which doesn’t exactly help the tone come through but particularly with the level of freedom the player has to explore there is absolutely no telling what you’re going to stumble upon next. On the other hand it seems perfectly suited to that kind of handling where the scenes can be taken in individually, and I wouldn’t necessarily go so far as to say all their jokes are stupid and juvenile although I am a bit defensive about it because, on the gripping hand, they were also not particularly memorable.

    2. Asdasd says:

      Who needs featherfall when you can just block the ground?

  2. tmtvl says:

    Is this the part where I am allowed to complain about the main character having a voice and mono- and dialogue that I don’t want for my CHARNAME, and I’m worried that the protagonist will end up more like Shepard or Ryder than Top Hat guy?

    Because I bounced hard off giving the writer control of my character after the absolutely horrid trainwreck that was Mass Effect 2. That may have been a Bioware game, and Larian hasn’t proven themselves that bad yet… but they may; and that worries me beyond gameplay.

    1. Thomas says:

      Is this going to work Divinity style where you choose your character out of a selection the NPC party? So the voice dialogue for your character is the same dialogue that you would see that character using as an NPCs speaking if you chose a different character.

      1. Mattias42 says:

        You’re going to have the same option as in Divinity 2, where you have a premade character with some extra story bells & whistles, but you can also make your own original character if you prefer. Don’t have a ling right now, but I think one of the vids in Shamus last BG article talked about it.

        Happy medium I think. Think I’m going to do that myself my first time through, since I adore Warlocks, but the pre-generated one is of the Fiend patron, and they’re second last only to Fey in my personal listing of Patrons.

        1. Lino says:

          I think one of the vids in Shamus last BG article talked about it.

          The Baldur’s Gate articles are written by Bob Case. You can see it in the “by” line at the top left of the article, and by the faint blue background the article has. Shamus’ articles have a white background.

          1. Mattias42 says:

            Ah, sorry, my bad. I’m horrible at reading that sort of stuff. My eyes just glaze over it.

            (I blame decades of ignoring side-adds and hyperlinks online.)

            Hope Mr. Case wasn’t too annoyed slash/or insulted.

            1. BlueHorus says:

              Don’t worry too much. Someone calls Bob ‘Shamus’ roughly once every article he writes here.

              Maybe we should add it to the drinking game…

              1. eaglewingz says:

                *hic*

                Who shez we havnt?

                1. Mattias42 says:

                  Just don’t combine it with the ‘Whole Article The Front Again, Boss’ drinking game.

                  *Sniff.* We’ve lost some good ones that way.

        2. tmtvl says:

          Premade character? In Divinity 2? I think you’re mistaken, in Divinity 2 there is no premade character with anything special story-wise. Aside from, y’know, “you’re a Dragon Slayer, so you’re going to slay dragons and are not and definitely will not become in this game, a dragon.”

          Man, Ego Draconis was such a weird game in terms of quality. It fell right in between the “indy level of not enough polish” and “AAA level of not giving a hoot”, so you had half a polished hoot. Weird.

          1. I think people are confusing Larian’s games with each other. They’ve made several sets of games:

            Divine Divinity (2002)
            Beyond Divinity (2004)
            Divinity 2 (2009)
            Divinity: Dragon Commander (2013)
            Divinity: Original Sin (2014)
            Divinity: Original Sin 2 (2017)

            I’ve played the first and last one in the list.

            AAAAND now Divinity doesn’t even look like an actual word to me any more.

            1. Mattias42 says:

              Yeah~

              Neat series, but man, keeping that Divinely Divine word salad of Divinity straight is a mind twister and a half at times.

              Think you can take for granted that people above (me included) are speaking of Original SIn 2, since it’s the latest, and most direct comparison point with BG3.

  3. John says:

    What’s the problem with ham? Are we arguing that ham is intrinsically bad, that Larian does ham badly, that Baldur’s Gate isn’t supposed to be hammy, or just that one of Bob Case’s multiple personalities doesn’t care much for it? I’m struggling to find a clear thesis here. Personally, I think ham is fine, as long as there isn’t too much of it and it doesn’t repeat itself too often. The tone of Original Sin didn’t bother me at all, except in instances where I had to hear the same set of barks too often. (The Cyseal marketplace and that one fight in the cathedral–you know the one I mean–have much to answer for.)

    Also, isn’t Baldur’s Gate the series with the deranged barbarian and his miniature giant space hamster? Has any of the promotional material for Baldur’s Gate III shown anything even approaching that level of goofiness?

    1. tmtvl says:

      The ranger who is sworn to protect a witch, who gets killed by the monstrous antagonist of BG2, and eventually ends up redeeming himself by adopting a winged elf who lost her wings as new witch? Yes, he is in BG1 and 2, why?

      1. The Puzzler says:

        It’s hard to take a redemption arc seriously when there’s a miniature giant space hamster involved.

      2. John says:

        So I could write the same exact sort of tragic backstory blurb for any of the companions in Original Sin, but that doesn’t change the fact that Bairdottir and Madora are still hammy comedy characters. The deranged barbarian with the hamster would fit right in. He could very easily be a Larian character. The point is that is that ham isn’t exactly alien to Baldur’s Gate.

    2. Asdasd says:

      I assumed that the point of using multiple voices is to signal that the author is feeling conflicted, and trying to resolve (or at least clarify) that ambivalence through them. A thesis isn’t always required.

      1. Mattias42 says:

        I personally like using different tones—or voices if you prefer, in my writing to add some measure of realism.

        If you stick the 20 Billion Dollars worth CEO slowly killing himself for all that money, in the same elevator as the street-urchin utterly elated she found a whole ten dollars today, their worldviews logically should clash, and you can wring some potent moments out of that ‘friction’ between characters genuinely seeing the same world with completely different eyes.

        It’s an approach with weakness, though. Some people are hyper sensitive to that sort of ‘mood whiplash’ as I’ve heard it called, and it can genuinely ruin an otherwise good story for them. It also very easy to be a bit too human about it, and lean yourself towards one of the character being right, being the one the whole rest of the world is backing up—turning a small but interesting character moment/moral dilemma with no genuine right answer into you dragging out your soap-box for a good polish instead.

        So… yeah. Sometimes that sort of stuff can be fully intentional, but it’s a tricky tool. Kinda like adding nutmeg to a dish—use too much, and the whole dish goes in the bin because now it ONLY tastes of nutmeg.

        1. The overall tone of a work is not the same thing as the individual tones of every character within the work–of course you’re going to have variety between characters, otherwise you couldn’t tell them apart.

          You can have tons of humorous characters in an overall dark work, but there’s a sense that they have underlying demons just like anyone else and there’s strain involved in their worldview.

          Likewise in an overall lighthearted work the Only Sane Man can be highly amusing just by playing everything 100% straight.

          Inconsistencies in overall tone happen when characters are screaming in anguish and ripping their own eyeballs out in unendurable horror one minute and then the next minute they’re trying to chase down Pixie, the Rainbow Sparkle Fairy Cat–and this isn’t an exaggeration at all of Larian’s whiplash tone. In the same area in Divinity: Original Sin 2 you can spend time tracking down a highly comical (YMMV) lost chicken OR you can go to the demonic island lost in death fog that was bombed into oblivion by the Divine and visit the tortured souls in thrall to the demons there. Twenty feet down the beach from the guard who was source-drained and turned into a ghoul is a talking crab that thinks it’s the ruler of the universe.

          They need to dial ONE of those things WAY THE HECK DOWN.

          1. Mattias42 says:

            Mean that type of stuff too, myself.

            Because… well, the real world is big, complex, scary and wonderful. All at once, in an ever shifting hodge-podge. It’s perfectly possible to go from newlyweds kissing in ecstasy, to a car wreck with body parts drizzling like confetti in the same day. Outright to the same poor slobs, even. Sometimes people do win that 20 Billion lottery the same day their grandma dies. And so on.

            Again, it’s a dang fine line to walk between that vibe of ‘the world is big and complicated with a lot of different things in it’ and… well, as you’re talking about, people feeling overwhelmed by the tone shifting so fast.

            Guess what I’m trying to say is that hackneyed line about ‘truth being stranger then fiction.’ Just… less cliche, I guess?

            Have to admit, though, I’m fumbling explaining what I mean a bit.

    3. BlueHorus says:

      What’s the problem with ham?

      Tone.
      (Which, as Bob said, is subjective, and open to interpretation)
      While I’ve never played Baldur’s Gate, the way people talk about Minsc and Boo online implies he was one good joke in a game that mostly took itself and its story seriously. Which – for my money at least – Divinity: OS 1 did not.
      Between the near-constant bad jokes, the goofy accents, the emphasis on gameplay mechanics and the dialogue style that we might call ‘Attack Of The Thesaurus’, I never felt invested in what was going on (even though I really liked the combat).
      Oh, and the art style!

      A bit like a common complain about Joss Whedon TV shows or some Marvel movies – if everything’s gilb and witty*, it falls flat when it tries to be serious.

      *Sadly, I really don’t think Divinity OS 1 is as witty as wants to be.

      1. John says:

        I’m not going to defend the tone in Original Sin. It more or less is all the things that you and others have said that it is. I’m not even particularly enthusiastic about it myself. Original Sin is, I think, going more for “fantasy theme park”–consider the map design–than it is for “immersive fantasy world”, however, so in that sense at least the tone worked for the game that Larian was trying to make even if it wasn’t to everybody’s taste.

        I haven’t played Baldur’s Gate either, but I have played quite a bit of Neverwinter Nights. Neverwinter Nights has exactly the kind of voice acting that Bob doesn’t seem to like. Aribeth and Maugrim may have American or Canadian accents rather than British accents, but they are very clearly playing to the cheap seats. Tomi Undergallows does have a British accent and is exactly as annoying as the average Original Sin NPC. Since Baldur’s Gate is from the same team as Neverwinter Nights, it’s hard for me to imagine that the acting in Baldur’s Gate, however much there may have been of it, being in some other, more naturalistic style.

        1. SupahEwok says:

          It was.

          Neverwinter Nights’ writing was functional at the best of times, and terrible and hackneyed at its worst. The BG writing has started to age, but it was great for the turn of the millenium and remains at least alright or good in large parts today.

          1. SupahEwok says:

            I did some digging, out of curiosity.

            Neither BG2 nor NN have credits for “writers”. Internet scuttlebutt says that the designers handled the writing for their areas, so I proceeded on the assumption that we could call the design team the writing team (although even that may not be the full story; said scuttlebutt claimed that one of the designers who wasn’t the lead was responsible for the main story of BG2, so who knows?)

            Just going off of the Designer lists, only about half of the NN design team worked on BG2. Of those, David Gaider and Drew Karpyshyn are said to have not contributed very much to BG2 (late hires), so you can kind of whittle that down some more.

            Furthermore, BG2 and NN had different Voice Over directors and casters. NN and BG1 are credited with the VO work being contracted with different outside studios, while no such disntinction is made in the BG2 credits list I’m looking at.

            Still, even with all this, there’s not a lot of point in squabbling over who did what. Who knows? Maybe the same people worked under different pressure and deadlines. Maybe a big producer ran the show for one and not the other. There’s all sorts of things that can happen to affect writing quality besides the quality of the writers, and that’s even if they’re given good ideas to work off of in the first place.

            I don’t like all the naysaying of Larian on this project. Original Sin 1 was the pits of RPG writing, yeah. Then OS2 was an incredible improvement (by the very low bar set by OS1). Not perfect, with some writing foibles, but yes, a great improvement. They’ve shown the ability and willingness to change their writing method, and something that nobody’s brought up is that they did so without sacrificing the theatricality and bombasity that the original writing aimed for and is their intended tone of their setting. That shows some deftness and deliberate approach to their intended tone, which is what this article’s speculation is all about. That gives me enough faith that they have enough talent and willingness to have a different approach to tone for BG3 for me to wait until we actually get a decent demonstration of the writing before throwing stones.

            1. Sleeping Dragon says:

              This is exactly why the idea of Larian doing BG3 was immediately problematic for me. Not because I think the first two BG games were that great storywise, in fact personally I think they didn’t age super well. Not because I’m not happy for another Larian game, quite the opposite actually. Even me agreeing with Jennifer Snow above that the tone of the Original Sin games was inconsistent is not that much of an issue that worries me.

              No, my problem is that whatever they do with BG3 they’re going to be held to a ridiculously high nostalgia filtered standard. I mean, the game isn’t even out but look at how people are dissecting every single thing that Larian shows, and what I mostly want is another game with functional writing and their cool combat.

              1. Supah Ewok says:

                Same boat, man. There’s incredibly few lovingly produced turn-based RPGs produced a year at this AA level. My take boils down to, who cares if it’s a “worthy” successor to a storyline that wrapped up 20 years ago? Just make it good enough and gimme. I don’t give a toss what it’s decided to call itself as long as we get a good game at high fidelity in a very niche genre that’s among my favorites.

            2. tmtvl says:

              D:OS2 may have had better writing than D:OS, but how does it compare to DD? BD? D2:ED? Especially with ED we can see that they just aren’t good writers.

              Baldur’s Gate 1 may not have had terribly good writing, but after Baldur’s Gate 2 and ToB, I fear that whatever Larian will pull out of their hat will pale in comparison. I feel like it’ll probably be on the level of SoD. Not actually bad, but a thorough letdown nevertheless.

  4. Thanospantserofworlds says:

    I want to know if the Halflings have bobbleheads. I sincerely hope not.

  5. Chad Miller says:

    There’s a neat GDC talk I saw recently about what the presenter calls cursed problems. For those who don’t want to watch an hour long talk, the elevator pitch is that a cursed problem is a problem that sets inherently contradictory expectations. Not contradictory in the sense that “expectation A and expectation B in tandem make the game prohibitively expensive to develop” but in the sense that “meeting expectation A by definition means subverting expectation B.” They’re especially common in competitive multiplayer games because meeting the need of playerbase segment A often has to come at the expense of playerbase segment B particularly since W/L is zero-sum.

    The reason I bring this up is because I think WRPG dialogue has fallen into a cursed problem that developers are still trying to figure out. The design goals look like:

    Goal 1: We want voice-acted dialogue
    Goal 2: We want strong player agency in dialogue
    Goal 3: We don’t want a voice actor just reading lines the player literally just read

    I didn’t even realize 3 was a goal until I tried Fallout 4 with a dialogue mod and was shocked at how much it annoyed me. I’ve been told the developers of Mass Effect discovered this same issue in development although whoever told me that didn’t cite a source.

    Of course any game above a certain age was able to just skip Goal 1. More recently, The Outer Worlds just skipped player-character voice acting and it worked just as well as it did in the likes of Fallout 3/NV.

    Some games have tried to thread the needle and paraphrase dialogue to meet Goal 3 while hoping the paraphrases would be enough to avoid giving up Goal 2 entirely. They’ve met with varying degrees of success. Others, I suspect, didn’t consider Goal 2 to be a goal in the first place and gave up on it without even trying (including, I suspect, Fallout 4)

    I believe the new Deus Ex got around this by having lines paraphrased but allowing you to hover to see the full line, essentially giving individual players the ability to opt out of Goal 3.

    The new Baldur’s Gate solution is an interesting way around the problem; the idea being that past tense means they can make the descriptions as elaborate as they want, yet the different tense means the VA will never just be repeating what the player just read. Everyone is suspicious about it, and for good reason, but I think that’s in part because it’s still very unclear what the way forward is.

    1. I think there’s actually a way around this by making dialog more of a gameplay system–it actually worked fairly well in the Quest for Glory games (the early ones where you typed in all of your commands).

      Having to TYPE in what you want your character to do brings a phenomenal sense of agency even if the game only reacts to a slender list of potential options. For controllers, they could get around the inevitable annoyance by letting you develop a list of keywords that you can select from.

      They can still have a voiced protagonist (or, more than voiced! an actual EMOTING protagonist!) by having it that you only speak when you hit a specific combo of keywords.

      I realized how powerful this was back when I played Quest for Glory 2 and I realized that “BOW Character Name” was a command that the game recognized, so I went around the city Bowing at people . . . and got some very positive and interesting interactions because they were pleased that I was so polite.

      Building your dialog system this way gets around all of the problems simultaneously. 1.) you can have a voiced protagonist 2.) you have TONS of agency (because the player is literally assembling questions and comments from keywords or typing them in) and 3.) you’re never hearing a line that you just typed in.

      The cost is that you have to put significant effort into creating LOTS of potential NPC reactions to players saying weird crap (you want as many possible reactions as you can stand to build). It also means that you need to back off a bit on the cinema-style dialog and go back to using a lot more canned emotes and reactions, which is fine, these are more emergent anyway and generally make the world more immersive instead of less! And when you really do want to do a big cinematic set-piece you can just hard-script the whole thing. Save these for moments when the PC really doesn’t have much say in how things play out, because it’s all action stuff, (or for your Meanwhile In Denerim asides).

      I personally think building a game with this kind of ethos would solve a LOT of the problems of the modern “dialog wheel” style of doing things. It’d force more interactivity and drive immersion. It would simultaneously add to design freedom AND channel design methodology.

      It also makes dialog more interesting because instead of trying to read the mind of the writer from what THEY wrote to figure out how your character is going to act, you’re already in this mind state where you know you’re giving commands and you’re not sure how they’re going to turn out, so you’re *always* trying to intuit how to word things.

      It sounds bizarre and counter-intuitive. You’d think it would be WORS to be trying to guess what commands would work than to guess how a pre-written line gets acted, but it’s not, it’s actually a lot BETTER.

      1. Bubble181 says:

        It’ll be better for some players, and a massive annoyance for others. For a lot of players it’s mean a lot of switching forward and back to wiki’s to figure out the “right” commands to give, having unskippable typing exercises instead of just quick click-through in between their fighting game, etc.
        Like making crafting into a mini-game, you’ll please some people, but annoy a whole lot of others.
        That said, I’d play it.

        1. Like all gameplay mechanics (and you’d have to treat it as a full blown gameplay mechanic), it really only works if you follow through on it completely and communicate the functionality to the player. The system would be a failure if you had “use toothpaste on frog” moments and “gotcha” commands. The ideal would be to have a list of commands that the player can use from a utilitarian standpoint OR that they can get creative with *if they want to*. The proper reward for creative usage should be more complex character interactions, NOT “good endings” or solutions to *problems*. That’s where you put the jokes and the emoting and being a jackass and maybe a few really stupid game over moments. The “utility level” should all be VERY straightforward and get the job done.

          The benefit of this is that you can do something that you really can’t with “pick from this static list”, in that the player character can *be surprising* and it actually feels genuine. When you have a static list and you pick the “be a jackass” option which is ALWAYS there in slot #4, the NPC reactions are increasingly going to feel canned, especially if their reaction is a strong one. And it feels MORE canned if it DOESN’T elicit much of a response. With a broader list of commands, there is no “jackass option” or “nice option” or “funny option” or “straightforward option”. You create all of those organically. NPC reactions can be more dramatic, the action/response chains aren’t all linked together, so it can feel more organic.

          Not that shifting from one to the other won’t entail some mental gear-grinding. I could probably sit here for a few hours just listing things that would need to be re-considered or re-designed for the different approach.

      2. Hal says:

        Ah, another aficionado of the QfG games. Those were my jam back in the 90s, even if I never played past #3.

        FWIW, the text parser didn’t last past the second game; by the third game (and the subsequent remake of the first game) they went to the new/standard point-and-click adventure game format. I actually didn’t think that the dialog choices were too bad in this format. It let you suss out all the important points of info a character might know, or what you were interested in, and the format for telling them something was reasonable. Perfect, no, but functional.

        1. I don’t think the text-based-adventure-game thing is ideal, I’m just using it as an *example* of a way around the “pick one of these lines of dialog” style that I think is starting to hold RPG’s back. I mean, there haven’t been any INNOVATIONS to this style in two decades.

          I honestly think if anyone is going to make a serious attack on it, they’re going to have to design a game where the conversation parser basically IS the game, show that it can be done, and then RPG’s will gradually start to copy that system.

          1. Chad Miller says:

            I actually came to a similar idea from a different direction; I was reading someone talking about how it’s “unrealistic” that your character’s voice never appears in the game, and I thought “It’s equally unrealistic that I don’t know what someone else’s voice is going to say using ‘my’ mouth! If you really want realism you’ll need to talk into a mic and have the game react to that!” And then I started dreaming of voice recognition stapled to AI Dungeon 2. Or that Kinect ME2 demonstration, but if the technology actually worked.

    2. tmtvl says:

      Hm, if we have three options but can only pick two, which one should we let fall to the wayside?

      The one that will cost us a lot of money and time?
      The one that players love?
      The one that prevents players being very annoyed?

      And yet it seems like nobody has learned anything from SirTech’s capsizing.

    3. Thomas says:

      I wish more followed the Deus Ex Mankind line. It felt very functional

      EDIT: And some did the New Vegas route. Sometimes I want voiced protagonists and sometimes I don’t

  6. ivan says:

    “Why was my internal monologue in past tense?”

    Well, that one may have an easy answer. I’d say they’re going with a Sands of Time style unreliable narrator style presentation. Or, at least, a narrated style of presentation, that SoT bit may just be my wishful thinking.

  7. Grimwear says:

    Well today I learned that ME1 had a film grain effect. Did anyone actually use it? As to Baldur’s Gate 3 wow that dialogue is a right turn off. And as for all the action verbs I can see it as being a constant annoyance in which case I get to ignore it and never use it, or it’s essential and I get pissed and just hotkey it to something else so I’m not constantly trying to maneuvre my mouse to a small corner of my screen constantly.

    1. Thomas says:

      Mass Effect 2 had it too I think. They’re on by default, so if you didn’t switch it off that’s what you had.

      Mass Effect 1 did it really badly though. It was like a parody of film grain rather than film grain. It does cover the dated graphics a little bit, but I normally turned it off.

      MW3 was either way more subtle or removed it altogether. But they replaced it with a desaturated grey filter, which was worse.

  8. Asdasd says:

    Every time you use the phrase “core gameplay loop,” you have to put a coin in the jar.

    Oh, thank God. I was beginning to think there wasn’t anybody else in the universe who was bothered by this asinine phrase.

  9. Thomas says:

    Divinity games are great, but they’re deliberately artificial. They constantly remind you you’re playing a game instead of playing in the world of that game.

    I don’t really know if I want that in a Baldurs Gate game.

    1. ivan says:

      Well that’d be true to my roleplaying experience, anyway.

      1. Thomas says:

        But the Baldurs Gate games aren’t exactly replicating the experience of roleplaying. Whereas BG3 really is. That D&D action selection only works if you know how DM’d roleplaying games work. The metaphor doesn’t work within videogames.

        That’s not bad in itself. Hitman GO uses miniatures as a metaphor, and the Civ style games are based on a ‘board’ metaphor, but it deliberately breaks immersion when video RPGe are all about creating that immersion (at least as one pillar). It’s an odd fit for the genre and a very very odd fit for the franchise.

  10. Rolo says:

    Will the game get proper coverage at some point? This awful format is killing me.

    1. Gargamel Le Noir says:

      I like the format, I just wish the two characters were more different. Right now they’re just slightly different Mr BTongue.

    2. Asdasd says:

      What does ‘proper coverage’ even mean? Asking Shamus to play a Baldur’s Gate is punishable by death, so anything you get here is going to be from Bob Case. He could drop the conceit (although I like it and I don’t see why he should) but it’s not like that’s going to change his take on the game.

    3. tmtvl says:

      I love this format and I hope we see more articles in this style in the future.

    4. Rolo says:

      You won, I take it back. It’s appropriate for BG3 coverage to be nuBioware-tier writing.

      1. Asdasd says:

        Aww, don’t be mad. Or do; I don’t think anybody actually cares.

        1. Rolo says:

          Covering BioWare releases is arguably why the blog is as popular as it is (including its magnus opus the Mass Effect marathon) and BG3 is going to get a lot of indirect attention from BW fans as the sequel to the studio’s big breakthrough, even if Shamus doesn’t do it personally.

          But hey, “u mad bro”, lmao gottem

  11. Gargamel Le Noir says:

    It’s tricky because I feel the same as Mr BTongue and many others about the tone problem in Larian’s writing, but it’s so hard to explain why… It’s like their writing and acting is great on the surface but lacks some depth. I love the style, delivery and backstory of Loshe and Fane, but I rarely like their actual lines. They’re not… impactful? They don’t feel real enough. Jaheira feels more real than them by far, and I don’t even like her that much as a person.
    @MrBTongue : If you manage to crack that mystery, that might make for a fantastic video.

    1. Sartharina says:

      I think Rutskarn identified it in his epic Battlespire playthrough, as a common problem among fantasy writers – It’s a lack of confidence in what they’re trying to present. Instead of fully committing to a theme/tone, they get afraid that instead of being dramatic, it’s merely melodramatic. Or if it’s a common trope, everyone’s gonna think of parodies, so they back off with a comical subversion or lampshade on the goings-on.

      Writing a cave guarded by a terrifying beast? You can already hear the audience snickering about its “sharp, pointy teeth”. So rather than have the scene get ruined by everyone thinking rabbits and holy hand grenades, So you have to throw in a twist or joke to preempt the audience-induced tonal derailment.

  12. C.J.Geringer says:

    I look forward to the action bar, because in this context, with the whole simulationist approach favoured by Larian int heir recent games, It reminds me mroe of Roguelikes with their miriad comands than Adventure Games.

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