Friday, October 31, 2008

Character Interaction in Fallout 3 and the New Dragon Age Video

I found this new Dragon Age video via the always excellent Rock, Paper, Shotgun. In it we see some examples of how non-player character behavior changes based on the kind of player character you are. It's not deep by any stretch, but it certainly looks like Bioware is trying give us a sense of how important it is for NPCs to have context-sensitive reactions to the player.

One of the places where I think Bethesda could learn a lot from a company like Bioware is character interaction. Besides some pretty questionable plotting, one of the things that I think really holds Fallout 3 back is the lack of awareness of your actions by the world's NPCs. (Don't get me wrong. I love the collection of NPCs in Fallout 3. It's their lack of recognition of the events around them that irks me.)

Take the following example:

---Yes, if you haven't dealt with the atom bomb in Megaton yet, then the following is spoiler material. Ye be warned.---

When you arrive in Megaton you'll find that there are two main power players in town: the sheriff/mayor Lucas Simms and resident night spot owner Colin Moriarty. The two are not presented as feuding, but it's clear one doesn't think much of the other and it's also clear that Moriarty has his fingers in a lot of pies. (No innuendo intended.)

One of the early decisions you can make in Megaton is whether or not to disarm the old atomic bomb at the center of town. There's a guy in Moriarty's saloon that's willing to pay you to blow it up. If you tattle on him to Sheriff Simms, Simms goes to arrest the guy. A gunfight ensues and, despite reloading three times, I was never able to keep the sheriff from being killed. (My understanding is that he does not have to die, though.)

Megaton is not a big settlement. When one of the power players in town takes a dirt nap, shouldn't its residents have some awareness of this fact? At the very least, shouldn't Moriarty? His chief rival is dead. The guy now has the run of the town. Yet every character in Megaton except one (the sheriff's son) displays not one iota of awareness of the event. Hell, there were people in the saloon when the gunfight ensued and they display no awareness of the event other than running at the sound of gunfire (only to return when it was over and resume standing/sitting, blissfully unaware of the bloody bodies on the floor).

That, to me, is just lazy, lazy, lazy. Personally, I think it would've been cool if they had Moriarty move to more strongly exert his influence and then given you the option of playing the role of the town's protector and keeping him in check. After all, as long as you don't blow it up, Megaton basically becomes your home base of operations. Why not let you play a more influential role there? It wouldn't have to be deep or anything, just a fresh dialog choice or tiny quest from time to time.

And if you're not going to explore what it means for the town that their Sheriff is now gone, at least give a handful of Megaton's citizens one line of dialog expressing knowledge of the event. At the bare minimum, I think Moriarty has to have some kind of dialog that shows that at least he gets it. But there's nothing. The sheriff may as well never have existed and that's a shame.

---end spoiler material---

Two points to make before I wrap this up. 1) This kind of thing isn't chronic throughout the game. There are times when NPCs do display more awareness of how your actions have affected the world than this. This example is probably just the most egregious one. 2) This is a tough tightrope for developers to walk. You can only take it so far. But again, I still think that at minimum you've gotta throw the player a bone by giving NPCs a line or two of dialog that at least make you believe that they're aware something significant has happened around them. It's something that I think that developers like Bioware are pretty good at and that I think Bethesda needs to improve on.