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Bethesda isn’t a game developer, they’re a mad science lab. Every game they release is a crazy mix of fun ideas, terrible ideas, expansive environments, crazy bugs, fun characters, embarrassing stories, ambitious design goals, breathtaking scenery, wonderful atmosphere, and absolutely baffling design decisions. The baffling decision this time around was the choice to fully voice the main protagonist.

I get how this seemed like a good idea. Lots of people openly dislike that everyone else in the world has a voice, but their character is silent. This goes back to the longstanding tug-of-war between people who want to get to know a pre-made character (Geralt of Rivia, JC Denton) versus people who want to play a blank slate character (Doom Guy, the protagonist of KOTOR) and the inability of developers to figure out which group they’re trying to please. Bethesda probably naively thought they could add a voice to the main character and placate both groups.

But “blank slate” and “character” simply do not mix. When someone says they want their character to have a voice, they’re probably also assuming that voice will mesh with their own views on the world. But while fixed characters work well enough in linear, cutscene-driven games like Deus Ex and Tomb Raider, they don’t work nearly as well for free-form games. The problem is that a dissonant voice is worse than no voice at all, and the Fallout 4 character is relentlessly dissonant. And in a free-form game it’s difficult – bordering on impossible – to accommodate all the possible reasons players might have for doing things.

Let’s say you plunge into a ruin and (for example) wipe out a bunch of Brotherhood of Steel members. Why? Because you wanted their gear? Because from an in-character perspective you saw the Brotherhood as a threat to the nearby village, even though you know that danger isn’t real in gameplay terms? Because you were just about to ding level 30 and you just needed a few XP to push you over the limit? Because you hate, hate, HATE the Brotherhood? Because you felt like it would please the rival faction you’re working for? Because you got lost and didn’t realize you were actually supposed to be cleaning out the building next door? Or maybe you were just wandering around aimlessly and this seemed like the next logical step on your murder tour of the post-apocalypse?

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Those are all fine reasons for killing a bunch of stuff in Fallout. But then someone asks you about it in dialog and your character has to answer. There’s no way the game designer can offer you choices to reflect every possible line of thinking, so they guess at a few likely ones. So you pick the one that feels the least wrong to you. Maybe you say you don’t like the Brotherhood. But then the voiced character delivers the line with a level of outrage and bloodlust that’s completely alien to you, and they add a bunch of quasi-religious dogma that you actively disagree with. I think this disconnect between player and character is far more jarring and alienating than having the player’s lines be text-only.

And this is what’s so strange about Fallout 4. It seems to be the worst of both worlds. The character keeps emoting and acting like they have a personality, which prevents the player from filling in those blanks with the character design in their head. They can’t project themselves onto this character. But at the same time, the protagonist isn’t characterized strongly or consistently enough to be interesting. They don’t really have a personality of their own for us to discover.

And even when they do try to give your character some kind of personality, it doesn’t make any sense. Your character freaks out over the puppy-sized roaches and dried skeletons they find scattered around the vault when they wake up at the start of the game. Then half an hour later they kill twenty men and fight a Deathclaw without a hint of surprise. Their silence wouldn’t be so strange if they hadn’t made a fuss about the earlier stuff. The game designer acted like they were going to write us a character, and then they abandoned that idea and left us with this half-formed protagonist.

And then we have the problem of (lack of) choice.

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Skyrim was really frustrating when it would offer a dialog selection menu over and over again in a long conversation, and the menu usually only had one choice. At one point you get into a conversation with (spoiler) the ancient dragon Paarthurnax. I thought his lore-dump was amazingly interesting, and I’d been looking forward to it for the last couple of hours of gameplay. So it was maddening when my only dialog option was something to the effect of, “I don’t care about this boring history stuff. Just tell me who to kill.”

Bethesda seems to have listened to fan complaints, while at the same time missing the point. We didn’t like having only one option, so now they’re giving us four options… that all do the same dumb thing.

Here’s an example from the game, stripped of spoilers:

At one point in the main quest you track down a mercenary who has done some Really Bad Stuff. You blow away his mooks and make it to his lair. Then at the final room he calls to you, “Okay, you win. Let’s talk.” He’s basically inviting you to lower your weapons and walk into the open to be surrounded by him and his guards.

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Now, this offer is so face-smashingly stupid that nobody would actually do it, and he’d have to be the biggest fool in the world to even ask. If this was some kind of realistic world and the two of you really needed to talk, you could shout at each other through an open doorway without either one of you exposing yourselves to an ambush. Or you could counter his offer with, “No, how about YOU come out HERE!” Or you could agree to enter the room only if everyone threw their weapons on the floor. Whatever. It’s possible for two people to talk without one of them implicitly surrendering to the other.

But this is a video game and we understand that the dialog wheel can’t properly depict a complex standoff like this. The game designer is implicitly making a contract with the player: “Yes. This seems like a dumb move, but that’s only because this is how the conversation system works. I’m not going to use the limitations of the dialog wheel to ambush you.” The game designer then violates the crap out of that contract after just a few lines of dialog. Not only does this dialog inevitable end in combat, but your character is the one that stupidly starts the fight. The other guy is willing to make peace, but your dialog wheel will only allow you to announce your intention to murder him. So your character will:

1) Stupidly leave cover and allow themselves to be surrounded.
2) Refuse to make peace or offer the player any real choice whatsoever.
3) Give up their initiative by announcing ahead of time that they plan to attack.

Not only does the dialog wheel not offer you any choice, but it traps you into doing the most stupid thing possible.

Maybe I wanted to let this guy live? Maybe I wanted to pump him for information, pretend to leave peacefully, and then ambush him once he lets his guard down? To be fair, you don’t have to go into the room with him. You can just chuck grenades into the room if you want to skip the ambush talk. That helps, but it doesn’t fix the problem that the writer won’t allow you to converse with this guy sensibly. It also means that smooth-talking charisma-based characters – the ones least able to survive being surrounded like this – are going to be the ones most harshly punished for trying to resolve this in dialog.

The writer has taken away my freedom to roleplay as I choose, they’ve failed to create an established character that I can relate to, and then to twist the knife they oblige me to roleplay as the stupidest person in the entire wasteland. On top of it all, this was a really expensive way of doing things, since Bethesda had to hire two actors to read all these lines. And as icing on this cake of failure, making the protagonist voiced makes it that much more difficult for modders to add new content, since they can’t very well add new lines for your character to say.

This compromise is the worst of all worlds. Everyone loses. I can only hope this isn’t their plan for all games going forward.

(Have a question for the column? Ask me!.)

Shamus Young is a programmer, critic, comic, and survivor of the dot-com bubble.

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