ron, Aug-17 2008

On Oblivion: episode 2

Part deux of le multi-part rant extraordinaire du Oblivion (and back). Last time it was all about the skill system, which is, was and continues to be an all-out disaster. In good symphonic tradition I'll dial it down a couple of notches for this episode and talk about an issue that is just as fundamental, but takes a longer time to burn its way through to the surface: Oblivion's NPCs.

The clone wars

Morrowind's NPCs were quite the simpletons, all standing in their designated spot in their homes all day long, soliciting business and conversation about the tribunal, the eastern provinces and ash cancer. As a plausible simulation of human life, they were clearly inadequate, but on the upside they were dependable. No matter what time of day, no matter how far out in the countryside, if you knew which person would talk to you about dwemer cogs or buy those fifty pounds of rat meat, you could be sure they'd be standing right in their designated little alcove whenever you arrived.
Functionally this was fine. NPCs would spout all the lore one could want, they'd wave you through your quests, buy your swag, or attack you on the spot if need be. As a player, I don't need them to live plausible lives. How could that be convincing anyway? Freedom is the privilege of the player [character] and optional for all others.
But this was clearly not up to Bethesda's vision of a "next-gen" [sic] experience.

If two Oblivion NPCs stand beside each other, but there is no player there to watch them, do they make a sound?

So the goal was a more plausible simulation of society, of persons interacting with each other, eating, sleeping, chatting about various matters of importance to them. Not a bad plan per se. You just have to write and record a lot of voice clips with many different nuances, delivered by many different voice actors. And that's precisely what Bethesda didn't do.
You see, the Oblivion NPCs' idea of "rumors" is to speak about recent accomplishments of the player. Usually they will take note that a mysterious someone has just solved a quest, or that your armorer skill, like every character's, is really high. And every single one of them will say it in the exact same way, because they all read the exact same single sentence provided for each of these chatter points. You may in fact just have quick-traveled a hundred miles, only to meet the argonian beggar who will greet you with the exact same sentence you just heard from the count's assistant on the other end of the province.
In an attempt to simulate a more plausible, alive, engaged community that takes interest in the events caused by the player, Bethesda has somehow managed to make NPCs feel even more like the dumb state machines they are.

Most everything related to Oblivion's NPCs is flamboyantly contrived, but the persuasion mini-game takes the cake. Requiring not an ounce of skill, we can intimidate this orc just a little and then tell him a big joke, alternating roughly thirty times in rapid succession, to become his best friend ever.

Patrick Stewart's four-sentence performance for the game is well known. It seems as if 92% of the related budget boiled and evaporated in awe of his contribution, and for the rest of the NPCs one writer and three voice actors were locked into a room for a couple of weeks.
The most obvious result isn't even the universal repetition of one-liners directed at the player. Far more jarring is it when two NPCs pair up to have a conversation about one of the random topics, and both NPCs just happen to be voiced by the same actor. And if that's not obviously contrived enough, you can always just walk a few streets across town and overhear two entirely different NPCs having the exact same conversation, to the letter, with the same voices yet again.
With the addition of this idle chatter, coupled with the obviously limited effort spent on its associated production, the game is now more accurately simulating one kind of society: one that takes pride in its own insanity.
The idea to put more life into the game, as reasonable as that may have seemed at one point or another, has produced the opposite. These NPCs do not feel alive in the slightest. When I hear the first two words of any given sentence, I already know what is being said because I've heard the exact same sentence hundreds of times before.

You'll be used to blending out the constant repetition of phrases and entire dialogs so much that the few unique pieces of text, such as this quest closure, will almost come as a shock. Good day!!

Oblivion would have needed a welcoming, pleasant societal simulation more than most other software products. The game lacks any functioning mechanical reward structures, so your own sense of doing something good, even if you don't receive immediate, tangible benefits from it, would have gone a long way. Even when players can't help anymore but notice that the awesome RPG experience they had hoped the game would build up to never comes, some of them would still continue just to feel good about themselves cleansing the realm, being a champion of the people. But these people may well deserve to be sucked into the void. It's a trap of course. Ugly and malformed as they may be, these actors look human enough to at first make you want to behave politely. That'll pass soon enough. The most positive emotional response these clone soldiers can evoke in me now is cynicism.

The other major change in NPC behavior beyond Morrowind is that actors now follow a daily routine. Doors open and get locked at set times during the day, NPCs move from their homes to work, to the pub and back home again to sleep. That aspect of it is certainly welcome in most cases, because it injects some new possibilities into the quest system. On the other hand it's mildly annoying to not know where an actor is at the current time, or to not be able to shop, heal or peruse a trainer's services at night. Even though realism took precedence over allowing the player to be efficient here, it is overall a good change that is just poorly supported by the rest of the NPCs' behaviour.

Sometimes the greater attempt is itself the setup for greater failure, or at least the more obvious shortcoming. It's not as if Bethesda didn't try to progress with their NPCs, they certainly did, but it seems the vision didn't match what could be produced, on budget, on schedule. The mismatch is painful and hurts the player's attachment to the world.
They ended up in what might be described as the uncanny valley of communication. Not only are these NPCs too simple to appear life-like; they'd be more acceptable if they were made to be less talkative.

Now to spin it into a positive, you might say desperate flight from the insanity that has consumed all settlements is what drives players into all those ruins, forts, caves, mines, gates and the Imperial City sewers – please note that I have just listed all of Oblivion's dungeon tilesets; every single one. Overwhelming action RPGish gameplay experiences unfold there, surely? Of course this question will be answered, but it will have to wait until another time.

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