Some 10 years ago I made the mistake of kicking off a long weekend by rooting through a bargain bin and buying the PS2 game The Bard’s Tale. A shining example of the style of shoddy action-adventures that spawned, like mildew, during the console’s height, The Bard’s Tale featured a very confused Cary Elwes and a bunch of community theatre players gamely making their way through a third-rate Monty Python ripoff of a script that insisted that its fourth-wall breaking and gentle ribbing of RPG conventions was absolutely hilarious. As a particularly sadistic touch, the game actually shuts up and lets you play for as many as 15 consecutive minutes, and then, just as you’re lulled into a false sense of security, it grabs your head and forces you to watch as its characters burst into songs–comic songs, at that, with the first one being a rousing celebration of beer and the second one being about how I took the game out of my console and promptly, deliberately misplaced it.
I could not tell you a single thing about the humor or the quality of the writing in The Bard’s Tale 4. Well, I could tell you about two early dialogues–a Hodor-style farmer who responds to every query with a list of vegetables, and a soup merchant who rambles on for a couple paragraphs about how great his soup is before deciding not to sell you the soup. If you are reading a review of Bard’s Tale 4 that praises the writing, you are reading a review by someone who has never played a well-written game, seen a good movie, or read a halfway decent book; you are reading a book by a geek with poor taste. I have skipped and skimmed my way through every single other dialogue. I have been given quests and completed them without knowing who my guest party members are or why I’m helping them. I don’t want to know these people. They’re extras from Holy Grail and Life of Brian and it is twenty-goddamn-eighteen.
One of the game’s marketing bullets is the more-than-350 characters with speaking parts. Like all voice acting in RPGs, it is utterly pointless here. As is standard, you are presented with a character’s talking head, reading the paragraph of backstory that they are spouting off, that you are supposed to politely pretend to be interested in, the voice acting redundant in the face of the text you can make your way through in half the time. Some 10 years ago, when I used to kick off long weekends by buying bad bargain bin PS2 games, I found myself working a heavy corporate job. (Neither I nor my boss had any clue what I was doing there, who hired me, what I was hired to do, but the pay was so good I showed up for three years until they finally fired me.) As part of this job, I would regularly have to sit through Powerpoint presentations which consisted of slides with dense text on them and the presenter reading, verbatim, the words on each slide. And in addition, to make sure we were all following along, the presentation would not begun until we were each handed a printout of the text of the slides. Entire hours of my week would be sucked up by this nonsense. It could have been an email. But a presentation on a screen feels more important, and a voiced character feels that much more cinematic.
But God, I mean I had the same exact problem with Pillars of Eternity 2, the presentation was about as engaging as a corporate powerpoint and the characters would not. shut. up. P2 might have even been worse–the game expects you to be able to tell the difference between several factions enough to choose one to ally with, and you get to choose between the one who goes on for paragraphs and paragraphs; the one who goes on for paragraphs and paragraphs; the one who goes on for paragraphs and paragraphs; and the one who goes on for paragraphs and paragraphs. Lord help me, I’ve become an RPG gamer who doesn’t read. I hope that BT4 doesn’t have any choices, doesn’t expect me to have paid attention in any way. Multiple endings and consequences only matter when you give a shit about the world you’re playing in.
Because as a game, Bard’s Tale 4 is pretty great! (Something which it does not have in common with Pillars 2, which was a deathless, joyless slog.) So far I’ve encountered two hubs and one proper dungeon. The hubs are large and sprawling, secrets for return trips hidden around, and they’re clearly areas you’re intended to unlock more and more of as things progress. This is Good Dungeon Crawling–where navigating the environment is itself a challenge and not simply a series of hallways where challenges (i.e. combats) happen. Different abilities and items unlock puzzles, which are liberally scattered around the environment. All dungeon crawling, these days, happens under the shadow of Legend of Grimrock, which spawned a handful of successors that all missed what, exactly, was good about it; what, exactly, Grimrock saw in the old games and recontextualized for a new generation. BT4 is the first dungeon crawler post-Grimrock that I think is remotely worth a damn.
Grimrock is not a plot-heavy series. The sequel has a bit more going on, but both confine their plot almost exclusively to notes and books. That’s not surprising, given its roots in Dungeon Master which was also uninterested in NPCs; I appreciate BT4’s attempt at giving its world more character. But I guess I’m just over NPC interaction. I don’t want to deal with keywords, or with Bioware-style conversation trees–I’m not a horny 20-year-old who wants to fuck videogame characters by picking the right options , and I’m fucking tired of developers trying to trick me into thinking a conversation is interactive just because I had to pick every beat of the conversation one-by-one instead of, you know, just sitting back and watching the conversation. I am happy to just sit back and watch a conversation.
I’m playing Dragon Quest 11, and when I’m talking to a nobody NPC in the field, their dialogue is not voiced but merely rendered as a series of very pleasant beeps–the same beeps the NPCs in the series have been making for 30 years–and when there’s a major event, the characters voice their lines, and I can gamely skip through it since I’m usually done reading by the time the character has spoken their fourth word, and they only speak a couple sentences at a time, and the conversation happens on its own without me prodding them about every element of their backstory–like I’m fucking interested–and the only choice anyone asks me to make is whether or not to help with whatever predicament we’re in, and if I answer no, they scold me and make me do it anyway, and there’s no choice and there’s no consequences and what I do in this videogame doesn’t matter and it’s not up to me and I’m just along for the ride and I’m not getting any deep phil osophical meaning out of the ludonarrative dissonance and it is fucking wonderful.
You know, like, The Bard’s Tale 4 is probably a very good game, I am enjoying it, but it will not shut up and there is something off-putting about it whenever it tries to introduce us to one of it’s 7,000 voiced characters. I’ve talked to a couple dozen people so far and I haven’t found a single character I like. That’s not BT4’s fault; but–like Pillars of Eternity–it’s not clever enough to do anything interesting with conversation so it just spouts out pointless exposition that would have been cut out of even a mediocre fantasy novel. You know, it’s just–games are so loud, and they talk so much, and they try so hard to be funny and wacky and quirky and jovial, and, like, let’s just all fucking relax, okay? Because when Bard’s Tale 4 relaxes, it’s really great, and then an NPC comes on the horizon, and it realizes with a wave of terror that it’s going to have to be social for a minute, and it says, it’s okay, I got this, I’m cool, I’m relaxed, and it opens its mouth and a fucking joke comes out, and it’s all downhill from there.