So, I spent some time finishing up Shadow Hearts: Covenant, and something that struck me about that game was something that you wouldn’t think was all that important managed to change how I view the whole game. In the original game, you were able to rename all the characters in your party — with one hilarious exception. In Covenant, you didn’t get a chance to even attempt to rename any character — with one hilarious exception. I’d really liked that in Shadow Hearts because it let me personalize the game a bit. Sure, you still had similar personalities for all the characters, but you could in some sense make the main character be you, or a friend, or a favourite fictional character. It was an intermediate state between Icewind Dale’s “create an entire party but have that personality really not mean much in the world” and the standard “we’ll give you your character and you play as that character, not as who you want to be”. And it didn’t seem to take too much work to program, either.
That changed in Covenant, because of two seemingly unrelated changes. The first — and least important — was that they went gung-ho on cutscenes, and particularly FMV cutscenes. Now, the original had a number of them as well, so that, in and of itself, didn’t mean much. But expanding cutscenes meant expanding the voice work, and so there was a lot more voice work in the game than there was in Covenant. And this, of course, could be seen as a good thing. But it has a price, which is that there are only so many ways you can credibly avoid saying the names of characters in voiceovers without it seeming awkward (and the Personas did, in fact, come across as awkward in that at times). So, either you try really hard to do voice work that doesn’t say the name of the main character or any of the party in a way that doesn’t seem forced, or you drop the ability to change the names of party members. Covenant went with the latter.
The moves to increase voice work and provide better graphics seem to be no-brainers. They can only improve the game. But they have had a lot of unintended effects on games. Customization is harder if you have to render all different outfits and facial expressions. It’s hard to allow for different views and party configurations and really anything customized if it might affect a cutscene that you have to not only fully animate but also fully voice. Bringing in famous voice actors limits the ability to customize voices unless you don’t let the MC talk or you don’t use a well-known voice for the MC. All of this improvement is also expensive to develop and you add on more costs when you have to hire well-known actors to do your voices, which means that you need to make more revenue from your game to make a profit — which means you’re less likely to take chances.
Improvements have a cost. Sometimes there isn’t a cost worth mentioning, but sometimes there is … and sometimes you don’t see the cost until everyone’s decided to go along with that improvement. Where are today’s improvements going to take us? Could there be, for example, a cost associated with The Old Republic’s and Guild Wars 2’s new personalization and story-based approach, if it takes off? How about more action-oriented combat in MMOs and other games? What impacts could these have on gaming as a whole?
We must always be careful that in our rush to improve games that we don’t lose things that we actually like better than those improvements in the process.