There were plenty of Fallout 4 surprises for Bethesda to show off during last week’s E3 2015. There was the reveal that the game would open before the bombs dropped. There was the extensive crafting system that will allow players to customize weapons and armor, and even to build entire settlements. And then there was the fact that Fallout 4‘s protagonist — also extensively customizable — would finally have a voice of his or her own.
Fallout 3, of course, featured a silent protagonist, with the hero’s dialogue chosen by players from a list of possible topics and responses but never actually heard spoken aloud. That’s a long-standing tradition in many RPGs that originally came down to the fact that audio takes up disc space that early games simply couldn’t afford.
But even though having a fully voiced main character — or characters — has been done well by games such as BioWare’s Mass Effect and Dragon Age franchises, it can still be a controversial change. So why did Bethesda decide now was the right time to give Fallout 4‘s main characters some pipes?
As reported by GamesRadar, Fallout 4 lead designer Emil Pagliarulo addressed the subject during a floor presentation at E3 2015 last week. The bottom line, says Pagliarulo, is that letting the game’s protagonist speak for themselves creates a better, more emotional story experience than leaving the hero mute. He explained:
“If you play Fallout 3, you know, Liam Neeson is the voice of your dad, and there are some good emotional beats there, but there’s only so much you can do when you’re clicking on a line of dialog and there’s no spoken response. So the emotional depth that we got by having a voiced protagonist has actually [made the story] way more tense than I ever expected.”
Fallout 4 producer Todd Howard conceded that the decision to add voiced protagonists “sacrificed some great storytelling [by allowing] the player to do whatever they want.” Many gamers will have fond memories of just how much character variety Fallout 3‘s dialogue options allowed for. Beyond tweaking stats and gameplay choices, the dialogue options let players create wildly different versions of the game’s “Lone Wanderer,” from a noble hero to a callous psychopath to a dumb brute. He could be mean or funny or flirty or a stick-in-the-mud, all depending on the player. There’s definitely something to be said for that level of player freedom and control, but it also makes for an experience that feels weirdly distancing when compared to many other modern RPGs.
BioWare’s Dragon Age franchise made the switch to a voiced protagonist with the second game, and then executed it far more effectively in Dragon Age: Inquisition. The original Dragon Age is still a stellar game, but going back and playing it today, the “silent protagonist” feels jarring when surrounded by such vibrant characters, all brought to life with top-notch voice acting. Adding a voice might more narrowly define the protagonist than the player otherwise would have done in their imagination, but it also feels a lot more natural alongside the cinematic presentation of today’s AAA games. At any rate, Bethesda clearly thinks the increased emotional depth a speaking main character provides is worth the trade-off.
In execution, Fallout 4‘s dialogue system (seen in the video above) looks to be a simplified version of the dialogue wheel used in BioWare’s games. As has become typical, the player is given several options representing the “short version” of what they would like the protagonist to say or ask. In Fallout 4, it looks like those choices are made using the face buttons on the controller, rather than choosing from a deeper dialogue tree, but it’s entirely possible the dialogue was simplified for purposes of the E3 presentation. There’s no way tell if there will be a “show me more options” option in the final game or not. However, given the richness and depth of the Fallout world, it would be surprising if there isn’t.
Fallout 4 will release November 10, 2015, on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.