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On Dialogue Wheels

By: Miak

Here’s a quick and dirty question for you. No tomfoolery, I swear.

Do YOU hate newspapers? No, I don’t mean a general distaste. I mean, really, really hate. A hatred so deep that you cannot put it into intelligible words. A hate so vile, so substantive in anger and frustration that it courses through each of your 387 million miles of bloody veins that it is in no way dissimilar of the vengeful supercomputer AM’s own hate. A hate so universal in disgust that regardless of public radio, cable news, or even the dying printed page, you despise them all equally, or at the very least think they could do with better EditIng departmants.

No, of course you don’t. I don’t either. That would be silly. And that’s why this dialogue option in Fallout 4 is completely bonkers.

 

Newspapers in a desolate wasteland? Where do they get the paper?

 

Now, as a foreword, I think Fallout 4 is a legitimately good game. Lord knows that isn’t a common opinion these days, or at least an opinion that is hard to defend without proper concessions to some of its obvious flaws. The freeform building system is laughingly half-baked. The questing is oftentimes dull and burdened with random filler. There is a distinct lack of role-playing opportunities in a game that’s supposed to be an RPG. And, finally, the dialogue system is undeniably worse across the board, compared to New Vegas or the original games, or even Fallout 3 if you want to be generous about your standards. The game has some issues, but we’re not here to discuss those. Only the dialogue wheel, and how hating newspapers isn’t, well, good writing for any kind of RPG.

In Fallout 4’s case, the dialogue wheel replaces the more loose system of the previous games in advent of the game’s new voiced protagonist. The differences between the two are glaringly obvious and immediate in execution: You’re given four choices, always regardless of the topic at hand, usually representing YES, NO, SARCASTIC, and QUESTION type of options. As you can imagine, and you will quickly a few hours into the game, this system isn’t particularly bright, and often leads to confusion in even the simplest of conversations. From first glance, it is inherently dumbed down from its predecessors, and even I wondered why they would possibly choose it over a more traditional method. Even Mass Effect, which has nearly the same dialogue wheel in theory, at least has more meaningful responses.

So, that brings up the topic at hand: Is there any actual situation, given a discussion about journalism, that O: HATE NEWSPAPERS is a good sum-up of your opinion, if ever? Imagine how real life would work if you had to synthesize your entire viewpoint down to two damn words transcribed straight in Big Brother’s own Newspeak phrasebook. Ungood, I would say. The line is such blatant hyperbole suffering from oversimplification that it ceases to be intelligible, especially for a roleplaying game and especially during what is supposed to be serious dialogue during the main quest-line. It’s completely ridiculous and borders on parody.

 

…Glass him? Am I buying the guy a drink?

But of course, at the end of it all, it is completely unintentional. It’s just a quirk of a dumbed down system, but why? Why even program a gameplay mechanic that cannot fulfill its own job? The easy answer (And one that is not wrong, of course) is that Bethesda has been continuously streamlining their games since the golden days of Morrowind. I don’t personally see anything incorrect with that assumption. However, the dialogue wheel, and in extension voiced protagonists that accompany it, are common in many games and Fallout 4 suffers more from trying to follow the leader than attempting something truly innovative. Mass Effect, which is pretty much the direct origin of the dialogue wheel just as Gears of War fathered cover shooters, has more than its weight in share of bad dialogue options, though more subtle than O: HATE NEWSPAPERS could ever be.

It is important to note the standard way of doing pick-and-choose dialogue, which is almost always unvoiced for a reason I will look into later. Simply put, you have multiple options in most situations that are clearly spelt out. ‘What you see is what you get’ might as well be the motto for it, in stark contrast of the opaque dialogue wheel which can barely string together a coherent sentence.

KOTOR, as a direct ancestor to Mass Effect and practically the inspiration for all RPGs since, is the best example: You can have any amount of choices for any kind of discussion and you are clearly given the exact context of what your protagonist will say. You aren’t limited purely to YES or NOs or redundant queries. If the plot demands a complex argument between two characters, you damn well are going to have it, and your voice on the matter has just as much weight as the NPCs you will talk too – because there is no economical limit: When you include a voiced protagonist into an overreaching narrative, it suddenly becomes impractical to have complex discussions because of how much voice acting is required. Suddenly, the needed amount of lines doubles. Games like KOTOR never suffer from this problem, and is how the game can offer so much to the story and the characters inside of it where other games like Fallout 4 cannot.

Less is more, I suppose.

 

Pictured: Commander Pathfinder Shepard Ryder

 

With Mass Effect: Andromeda’s release, I cannot help but think that there is a regressive quality when it comes to dialogue wheels. Streamlining, of course, is not always a bad thing and often leads to improvements, but dialogue wheels seem to fight against you and prevent you from immersing yourself in the character you’re playing. Commander Shepard, despite hundreds of hours playing him or her, still feels as opaque and faceless of a protagonist no better than Steve from Minecraft or hell, even Doomguy. Because dialogue wheels are inherently simplified, they often fail to evolve meaningful conversations that would otherwise provide character development. I can count on my fingers just how many times your player-chosen past (Either colonial, earthborn, or spacer) as Commander Shepard is ever brought up in narrative. Exactly zero times is it ever plot relevant. If your psychological profile dictated you were the sole survivor of thresher maw attack that killed every one around you, guess what, not only is that never important, but it is also something that never shows up subconsciously in Shepard’s thought processes or actions. His or her’s inflections and body language is all tossed in the air in favor of cold, often neutral disposition, because anything else would simply take too much time and effort to record.

That is not to say that the dialogue wheel or voiced protagonists is the sole cause of these issues, but I do believe it is a deciding factor. It restricts so much of what you are capable of doing in an RPG. It fundamentally railroads you into a specific persona or a kind of thinking. The concept of immersion, something so crucial to roleplaying and RPGs in general, is constantly violated and broken. It reeks of bad design.

All-in-all, my favorite experiences in roleplaying games have always been ones with a sort of minimalist appeal. Text isn’t as fancy as voice acting, yeah, but like reading a good book, being able to get into the headspace of a character seamlessly is what can turn a good RPG into a great one. And that simply isn’t possible when you limit the discussion to four measly options.

But really, come on, let’s be honest.

Hating newspapers? Really, Bethesda?

 

Now THIS dialogue wheel I can get behind!

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