When I think of the first instance of a truly cinematic game, I think of Mass Effect. Sure, there were others that set up environments to maximize the narrative impact of a given scene, but Mass Effect managed to incorporate a more cinematic approach to in-game conversations. Its impact on this aspect of games has been mostly positive, but there have also been some negative consequences.
As I said, Mass Effect did wonders for storytelling via character interactions. In the past, you mostly had these conversations in a mostly static fashion, where the world literally pauses, and you and the character you’re talking to stand there awkwardly as the lines are delivered.
As this clip from Elder Scrolls: Oblivion demonstrates, the transition to the conversation was abrupt, the talking character is boringly positioned in the center of the frame, and they stand fully facing you, which makes this interaction a little unnatural and off-putting. Other games, like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KotOR), had a little variety in their camera set ups, but it still felt cold to watch. It was as if we were watching meeples talking to one another instead of people. I mention KotOR because its maker, BioWare, changed everything with the release of their other, more original IP, Mass Effect.
With the introduction of Mass Effect, care was taken to make conversations as movie-like as possible. Characters are positioned in visually appealing ways, they sometimes walk into frame when they start talking, and the camera changes positions depending on the context of the scene.
The lean in from Wrex, the varied shots from different angles, even the C-SEC officer in the background towards the end of the clip who’s checking their weapon: it combines to make this scene so much more dynamic and interesting. Obviously, having excellent actors giving excellent voiceover work using excellently written dialogue (save for that “my people have a saying” line, which is a minor buzzkill for me) allows for an excellent scene to happen. If this was done in the more traditional style, however, it would’ve felt sterile and static, lacking an organic element that keeps the audience invested in the narrative.
By focusing on the cinematic aspects of dialogue, BioWare made a game that bridged the divide between video games and films. This made it and its sequels extremely engaging for their audiences, but it did come at a cost. In other RPGs, the dialogue choices are often fully written out and can sometimes be a collection of sentences for a single available option.
Mass Effect, in its attempt to streamline its interface, designed a dialogue wheel. A seemingly simple tool, the dialogue wheel contained short phrases that could be selected and were further expanded upon with the associated voiceover audio.
Since this was introduced in the first Mass Effect game, so it did not radically alter that series’ dialogue display style as it was its default style. The same cannot be said of other games that followed. One example that comes to mind is what happened in Fallout 4. The Fallout series is well-known for its storytelling via the choices you make, both in combat and in what you say to the NPCs.
This has been a major aspect of the series, but with the addition of Fallout 4, there was a turn away from this conversation mechanic. It opted to use a more Mass Effect-styled dialogue, adding a group of options that had greater brevity, but at the cost of colorful writing.
This lack of explanation of what your character will actually say could lead to unintended consequences, like accidentally saying something more antagonizing than what you had hoped for. It also has a certain “press F to pay respects” feel to it since it reduces your interaction with the game. For me, it feels like Fallout lost a bit of its character when it went for this approach. Sure, it freed up more of the screen for the camera to use and the world around you still runs normally while you’re talking, but it’s a jarring change in its presentation style for the series.
A silent protagonist may be the better option for Fallout as it allows players to choose complete sentences and ideas as opposed to short commands that get spun out into longer dialogue. The voice of the silent protagonist is your own voice whereas Bethesda had to hire someone else to talk for the main character. Instead of being the main character of your own story, it is almost as if you are merely controlling a separate entity that has their own motivations and desires, which hurts the illusion of immersion.
This may just be the ramblings of an old man who just wants new games in his favorite series to act like their predecessors, but it just didn’t feel right to me, and based off of several other reviews from other players, I’m not alone in my opinion. Mass Effect revolutionized the way players interacted during in-game conversations, and while it was a breath of fresh air, it also had unforeseen consequences.