Monday, 26 November 2012

It's Not What You Say: GW2

Syp and The Nosy Gamer both posted some interesting observations today on voice acting and how it affects storytelling in MMOs. I'd had it in mind to write something on this for a while but it's a complicated topic to do justice. You'd think it would be easy to tell good voice acting from bad but my emotional reaction begs to differ. Here's an example:

In Blazeridge Steps, just next to the Expanse Waypoint, live a peaceful tribe of Ogres. Peaceful is putting it mildly. Clinically depressed is more like it. These eight-foot-tall musclebound hulks have severe issues with both self-esteem and basic life-skills. They can't train their pets, cook edible food or keep their chickens from running loose. They are routinely bullied by a nearby tribe of bigger ogres, who have clearly benefited from modern counselling techniques (or at least read a self-help book).

Their local lake is infested with harpies so that even getting water is beyond them. About all they can do is slump in their cave and hope for a passing adventurer to take pity on them, train their pets, cage their chickens, guard them while they fetch water and finally see off the nasty ogres next-door.

That's put the cat among the chickens!
If it's a dismal existence for them it's an almost disturbingly emotional experience to play through for me. I've helped them out many times now and I've had plenty of opportunity to study just why their story works so well.

The writing itself is solid. Simple, declarative sentences describe their bleak existence with just enough self-knowledge to make it painful. These guys are beaten and they know it. The outside world is too much for them, they've done the best they know how to do and it just wasn't good enough. It never will be. You want to shake them.

Life lessons from an Ogre
The event and Heart plotlines are woven together in a very satisfying way. An ogre is only as impressive as his pet and much of the action revolves around this heartwarming theme. The chief is pathetically loyal to the undersized pig he's known since it was "just a little bump". He won't betray him even though Max doesn't do much to impress the girls. The other ogres just want pets that will stay by their sides and make them whole. Any pets would do. And of course everyone needs water, pets and ogres both.

Just fill the barrels and run, can't you?
So, the dialog is affecting and effective, the story is believable and coherent. What about the voice acting? The first time I went into Degun Shun I thought something must have gone wrong with my ears. There's one ogress who calls instructions loudly to the recalcitrant, untrainable pets. She has the flattest, least-inflected delivery I have ever heard. I couldn't believe it had been authorised for use in a major game release. It was, I thought, almost parodically incompetent.

With hindsight, I have come to revise my opinion. It is weird and discomfiting, but this is an alien species, behaving in a way that is alien to that species. At the same time it reflects a deeply depressed, hopeless mental state. As I tried to help the ogres and learned more about their miserable lives, her droning, desolate cadence really began to make sense.

Will the harpies come back?
The chief, on the other hand, is pathetically hopeful. There is a yearning in his voice as he persuades you to help him, literally and metaphorically, to big up his pig that's both endearing and painful to listen to. The would-be water gatherers, who appear to be what passes for an old married couple in ogre society, have a Beckettian narrative for a life so it's perhaps understandable that they sound like they're auditioning for Godot.

All the voice acting is understated, almost thrown away. Coming to it without engagement with the characters, it sounds not just flat but dead. Once you become involved emotionally, though, it begins to press all the buttons.
They always do.

I have yet to succeed in driving off the Ogre bully attack. I don't even like to do that part any more. Seeing the pets I helped my ogre friends acquire and tame stolen by a bunch of thugs, pets that would have been loved and cherished, is too upsetting. As the peaceful ogres sink further into despair I realize that all I've done is made promises I couldn't keep, shown them a better life only so they could see it snatched away.

Rewarded for failure :(
My ranger and engineer at least managed to clear the lake of harpies and get the water back safely. My warrior last night couldn't even do that. The wail of existential despair from the ogress as she and her partner fled my incompetence, condemned to another thirsty day hiding in the cave, was so disturbing I had to go back again this morning and try again. And fail once more. I was actually at the point of logging in my engineer to waypoint over and get them some damn water before I finally came to my senses.

They always do...
Guild Wars 2 is an odd game in many ways, its approach to narrative foremost among them. Because I failed the water-fetching event and was brooding on a rock above the lake, I got to see something I'd never noticed in my successful runs. After the ogres flee, the thirsty animals, which we had tried and failed to drive off, continue to arrive. More and more of them come down to drink and wallow. For a while all is quiet and then the wretched harpies flock down, screeching and kill them all.

The personal storyline, while it has its moments, is a great big, clunking, linear, nose-leading nuisance. The voice-overs that accompany the stick-puppet cut-scenes range from risible to infuriating. Out in the world, though, there is story aplenty, accretive, naturalistic, unemphasized, all around. It's a patchy approach, yes, and it pales when compared to the complexity and sophistication of technique in The Secret World, but there's much to be admired all the same. I do think we are, slowly, heading in the right direction.

4 comments:

  1. Now that's something I have to look forward to, so speak. I have encountered a few similar—though not quite so poignant—stories as I finally settled down and really paid attention to the DEs and incidental conversations; like the woman in the fishing village in Kessex telling her beau she wants to move to Divinity's Reach because the village is "no place to raise our family." Followed by his "Wait. What?!"

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    1. I'm beginning to wonder if ANet have been adding incidental dialog post-launch. There are places in Tyria where I've spent literally scores of hours because I leave GW2 idling while I write blog posts and I have the sound bleeding through. If I've heard "kittens got claws" once I must have heard it a thousand times now. And yet recently, in areas where I'd been hearing the same thing for weeks, I've heard scraps of new dialog.

      Maybe there is some stuff that just has a very low chance to come up, or maybe changing dynamics of the event chains as player population varies causes new incidents to occur. Whatever it is, the world is feeling more alive now than it ever has.

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  2. Nice write up. I have found the GW2 stories quite compelling in a way I haven't in other games since WoW and SWG. The voices add a great deal to that.

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  3. Gods, those ogres. Love your description of them as clinically depressed.

    My thief got trounced repeatedly trying to help them get water. Trying to stay my usual low aggro stealthy self resulted in watching them get gored by wild animals.

    Trying to bravely plow in, attract attention, do damage and act like a guardian on a thief also did not yield very satisfactory results.

    Was quite relieved when I finally got the balance right and got them home and watched them pour water in the troughs.

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