Fallout 3 provided me with one of the most immersive video game environments I’ve ever played. I remember wanting to explore every single nook and cranny of the world just to find out what the game held for me, what stories I could come across, or what items and events I may have missed.
Despite my obsession with Fallout 3’s environmental design and stories, there continued to be one thing that stuck out to me throughout the entirety of my experience with the game, and something that continues to bother me now as I reflect on it. This is the interactions of the NPCs with the protagonist. Let me first provide you with this image:
The image shown, as I imagine most of you already know, is a representation of the typical interaction with NPCs in Fallout 3 (as well as New Vegas). The aesthetics involved within each conversation consists of the onscreen character idly staring at the screen throughout. Shortly after the camera slowly glides into place, the awkwardness escalates as the onscreen character demonstrates very little animation even when emotion is prominently displayed through the voice-acting and dialogue. The NPCs often subtly move their eyebrows or mouth to emphasize expression to match emotional tone. Although this animation is beneficial, it’s incredibly flawed.
There’s a sharp dissonance that I frequently found myself noting throughout Fallout 3. As I read each line of text and debated the appropriate or desired response, the onscreen NPCs’ faces were stuck with an expression that reflected their previous proclamation. Although my view of the conversation was fluid, as is a typical perception of an interaction between individuals, the NPC would often be stuck in an animation that I felt would sometimes contradict the gradually shifting tone within the conversation.
Personally, just looking at the above image puts a bad taste in my mouth and I think it may have to do with the fact that every single interaction in the game consisted of the exact same aesthetic. That cold, expressionless, emotionless, empty stare, coupled with one stiff animation after another. This element almost ruined the incredible atmosphere of the game for me. This resulted in feeling a huge disconnect from my emotional attachment to the story and characters as a result. The lifelessness broke the immersion created by the rest of the game. Luckily, the writing in Fallout 3 is great and dialogue often provided the appropriate amount of context to a situation but, despite this, each experience was jarring.
It also didn’t help that each conversation felt as though it existed just outside of the world in which the characters existed. Although the world carried on around the conversation, due to the fact that the camera was fixed, it often felt as though the conversation was taking place within a confined context or area. This concept fractured the game’s world by giving the player the option to go anywhere and interact with anyone at a given time, yet severely restricted them within the context of a conversation.
Although Skyrim improved upon the flaws of these interactions, Fallout 4 has taken things a step further by making the interactions more cinematic. Conversations now feature multiple camera angles that switch throughout. Characters are more lively, animated, and overall realistic. It seems Bethesda carefully considered the intention of the majority of comments or questions from each NPC as their facial animations attempt to showcase emotions the character experiences. Although these are subtle, there’s a level of depth added to the conversation when someone’s eyebrows lower in anger, lips curl in sadness, or eyes widen from surprise. The level of emotion expressed helps initiate empathy and understanding.
Although it’s not necessarily easy to comprehend, witnessing physiological animation in another individual, such as facial expressions, can have a direct impact on humans subconsciously. According to research, it has been shown that “emotional face-to-face communication can occur on an unconscious level.” Also, “distinctive positive and negative facial emotional response patterns can be spontaneously evoked without awareness of the positive and negative eliciting stimuli.” Witnessing facial expressions has an unconscious impact on humans and results in emotional reactions, such as mimicry.
Accompanying the updated facial animations in Fallout 4 is the upgrade to the overall movement animations as well. Characters move with more fluidity and no longer appear as rigid. They shift from side to side as though they are getting tired of putting weight on one foot. Their heads nod up and down to accompany emotional expression. Their bodies raise and lower as they breathe in and out. They raise and lower their hands to emphasize parts of the conversation. These are all nuances that not only help decrease the awkward stares from past Bethesda games, but heavily contribute to the immersion and atmosphere of Fallout 4. It does this by implementing subtleties within conversations that we experience in real life. This added level of detail and consideration makes a big difference concerning communication with NPCs.
The new camera angles also help show what is happening in the environment around the characters. It prevents the feeling of detachment from the surrounding world during conversations previously discussed in this article. This level of detail goes a long way and Bethesda has done well to implement changes to interactions between characters. It seems to make the experience of entering dialogue with characters, as well as playing the game, that much more enjoyable.
With each subsequent iteration, Bethesda seems to consider the importance of player engagement in relation to character interaction. It’s an important aspect within their RPGs as communication is heavily implemented. This is perhaps why I felt as though dialogue negatively impacted my experience with Fallout 3 so dramatically, despite being well-written. The amount of subtlety within the character animations of Fallout 4 lends credit to the consideration that was put forth during development. It’s exciting to think about what Bethesda may have in store for fans with future entries and how this could positively impact immersion.
Keep coming back to Power Up Gaming for additional articles on Fallout 4.