Todd Howard is pretty good at making games. After Oblivion, Skyrim, and two Fallout games, that’s a huge understatement. Each game has been well-received by fans and critics alike in addition to being hugely successful for his studio, Bethesda Softworks, and publisher ZeniMax. So when he says something, we tend to sit up and listen.
Speaking to Polygon in an interview alongside his induction into the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame, Howard put the future of big games squarely on characters and how we interact with them.
“I think we have a very long way to go in how other characters act and react to you. That’s the big issue we’re trying to solve. We’re pretty good at technology and world-building. We have a good handle on game flow, the rate you get new things, how you’re rewarded over time. But we need to be innovating on [characters],” he said.
Tough moral decisions offered to the player are a big part of that, and Howard feels that Bethesda’s games have been “pretty good at asking those questions,” but Howard adds that they need to get better at “letting the player deliver the answers to them.”
The Clash of Technology and Magic
The conversation system in Fallout 4 had plenty of detractors. It was derided as overly simplistic and lacking in meaningful options for the player. It’s been joked that the next game in the series would just let you pick a happy face of a sad face, and I get where that concern comes from.
Before we had video games, we had stories, and the first video games were just that – interactive stories. We wandered through pages of text with detailed literary descriptions of everything. Technology got better, and we started to add visual content to those games. Somewhere in the middle, we got games like Fallout 2 and Planescape: Torment. these were games that were, at the time, lavishly illustrated games, but they still offered deep description and a variety of ways to respond to any number of situations.
Back then, voice acting was just starting to make its way into games. If there was any at all, it was in short cut scenes, and that was it. Text was still the order of the day, and the only limit to the amount of text and number of options was how much time the writer had and how much they could output.
Divinity: Original Sin
Then 2D became 3D and sprites became polygons. Game development became infinitely more complex as the industry stretched and pushed technology to make games more visually impressive. Simply animating a character took far longer, let alone detailing how they would interact with their environment and everything else. But having a character do all this moving and acting with just text below them started to feel weird. Cut scenes became longer and more complex. Voice acting went from a sometimes thing to an all-the-time thing (thanks, Metal Gear).
The same way that RPG elements bleed over into action games these days, with complex leveling systems, crafting, and upgrades, the aesthetics of action games bled into RPGs. A space formerly reserved for text, turns, and isometric perspectives dropped down into the third- and first-person perspectives and voice acting crept in.
Taking the single character approach again, we used to have a single character that was a 2D sprite. It required some comparatively simple one-size-fits-all animation and art and plenty of writing, along with the usual programming and quality assurance. Now the character requires a modeler, a texture artist, an animator. Any change to the character sends it back through all of these. Then there’s writing, voice acting for every single line, all of which has to be figured out while the game is still being built.
So what Howard is talking about is something we had in years past. We had that detail and interaction. But it was through an interface that was impenetrable by many potential players. Now, we have the sort of interface and visual fidelity that appeals to more players, but the amount of work and time – and thusly, money – required makes it significantly more difficult to offer the kind of choice we saw before.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
If anyone has the budget to dig in and offer that kind of choice, it’s Bethesda. CD Projekt Red showed us that you can offer players interesting, meaningful choices and ways to handle dialogue, but even then, we had a game about a single character with a pretty specific moral compass. They tackled the problem in a specific way and did a good job, but it’s not the wide net of options Howard is talking about nor the wide net older games were able to cast thanks to their limitations.
We do see games attempting to capture the old magic. Obisidian’s Pillars of Eternity, Larian’s Divinity:Original Sin, and the upcoming Torment: Tides of Numanera from InXile offer the old-school overhead perspective and the wide-ranging choices those classic games offered. But they do it for a specific audience. A deserving and appreciative one, but a specific one.
The next Elder Scrolls and Fallout games are years away. Howard knows what he needs to do – find a way to bring the new closer to the old. To give us modern presentation with classic choice.
“There’s a long way to go,” Howard told Polygon. “We have so many ideas that we didn’t think we were ready for. But given our size now and how the tech is coming together, we can do some of the things we’ve talked about for a very long time. Now they are within our grasp.”
The temptation will likely be there to go bigger, wider, and more visual, but I’m hoping Howard hues close to what he’s talking about. If he and his team can, we’re in for a treat that’ll be well worth the wait.
The next game to come out of Bethesda’s cadre of studios is Prey on May 5. Bethesda’s also hard at work on Skyrim for Switch and Falllout 4 for VR, and it has five unannounced games on the way. Howard’s got a full plate and a worthy mission.
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