Voice Acting is Killing the RPG

Using Fallout and Planescape: Torment as examples of RPGs that truly present players with choice and Fallout 3 and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion as examples of those that do not, The Escapist's Shamus Young blames the advent of fully voiced characters as the primary reason behind the loss of freedom in modern role-playing games.
Maybe the two routes will have a good /evil bent to them, and maybe you'll sometimes get a third option, but in general the days of inventing our own solutions to freeform quests are gone. Usually the game world will be "hardened" against the player by making certain NPCs (like Bob and Nancy) invincible. Some doors, no matter how flimsy, will be indestructible and have an unpickable lock. And Nancy won't appear in the prison cell until Bob tells you to rescue her. Now the game is less about inventing your own solutions to problems and more about just doing what you're told.

While the newer games supposedly evolved from the older ones, they have very little in common at this point. Usually when a genre changes radically fans will blame it on the designers "dumbing down" the game for a wider audience. But in this case I think the culprit is technological advance: I think games have been simplified because of voice acting. If the game is all in text, then King Bob can have dozens - maybe even hundreds - of different lines of dialog to respond to all of the possible player actions. If the game is fully voice acted, then this is completely infeasible. Voice acting might not be the only reason games are offering less freedom, but I think it's a major culprit. Going back twelve years or so you can see the trend: The more voices we get the more linear games get, because having both at once is too danged expensive.


During testing, someone will discover that if you steal the knickknack, rescue Nancy, and then talk to Bob, his response won't make any sense. The designer who scripted this quest didn't allow for this outcome, and now the quest needs some extra dialog. If this was a text-driven game, then fixing this is a matter of writing a few new lines and dropping them in. If this is a voice-acted game, you need to call the voice actor and get him to come back and reprise his role. Hint: Actors aren't going to want to make that trip if you're only offering to pay them for ten minutes of work. Do we want to pay the actor for another whole day to record one line of dialog that less than 5% of all players are likely to encounter? No? Then screw it. Just wall things off and make it impossible for the player to do that.

His take on the problem has spurred Jay Barnson to offer his own opinion:
Y'know, for a brief, glowing moment in the history of our hobby pretty much the late 90's it seemed like we almost had it right. The text was supplemented by voice, but it was limited - enough to help visualize characters. But after saying the first line or two of dialog, they were silent, and you just read the text. It worked. Minsc, Morte, and Imoen would not have been as popular without the life and character given to them by their actors.

For me, as a gaming experience, it was far superior to what I've got now. When I was playing Fallout 3, I found that I was either slowing down my reading to match the rate of speaking, or forcing myself to tune out the speaking to read the text at a more comfortable rate. It was an annoying experience.

I'm in full agreement with both of these guys. The Infinity Engine games had it right. An actor voicing a couple of introductory lines or retorts definitely helps to breathe life into the character, but fully voiced characters are far more detrimental to our hobby than they are a boon.

Personally, I prefer to read through dialogue choices myself rather than have them read to me. It kickstarts my imagination and it's a hell of a lot quicker, too.