At the Tokyo Game Show yesterday, Bethesda’s creative director Todd Howard told an audience that upcoming space-faring RPG Starfield will have more than 150,000 lines of dialogue. If that sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. In response to the announcement, some developers at other AAA studios expressed shock at the sheer volume of dialogue.
Wyn Rush, a senior narrative designer at Gears of War developer The Coalition, spoke to Kotaku about why she and her narrative peers were so concerned about the news. Implementing such a large script, she says, involves long hours from more than just the game’s writers.
“A huge game script isn’t just a ton of work for the writing team…It’s work for the audio department, engineers, animators, possibly even the level designers…A behemoth script means a lot of time doing VO recording, recording processing, and [script] line management.”
It’s not just the sheer bulk of work that surprised Rush. As she sees it, there are potential pitfalls for quality. She cited editing, maintaining a consistent creative direction, and accurate localisation as pain points in a large script.
“In a sea of VO lines that large, I can only fathom how much got lost, mixed up, or [improperly] quality-controlled. Even the best processes and most vigilant teams are gonna lose a few in the cracks.”
It’s not only the Starfield project itself that could be affected, but potentially the developers’ lives. According to game writer and narrative designer Anna Webster, the sheer size of the undertaking could have an effect on development labour. “Dialogue is a labour of love, and the cost of that labour increases proportionally with how much of it there is! And if you aren’t careful on the production side, this can lead to crunch.”
Crunch refers to the drawn-out overtime that is endemic to game development, which can have negative effects on employees’ health. Todd Howard acknowledged in 2019 that Bethesda had had crunch problems in the past, but said that “we’re at the point where we can really manage [crunch] …I think that’s why people stay here.”
There’s still no denying that Starfield’s script will be an immense undertaking in terms of developer labour. Robert Brookes, a narrative designer at Bungie, noted on Twitter that the amount of work in a 150,000-word script could amount to a whopping 500 voice recording sessions. Assuming that the actors were experienced, “…that’s just under a full year of non stop recording if you’re not using multiple recording studios and audio directors.”
Now iterate, polish, re-write based on feedback, adjust for pivots in the gameplay. The number of people, hours, effort there is mind-blowing. I don't think enough people really understand how much work goes into something that monumentally huge.
— Robert Spookes ???????????? (@Sphynxian) October 1, 2021
Brookes also acknowledged to Kotaku that it was entirely possible that Bethesda could succeed. “It may also not take as long as I estimated,” he said. “Someone pointed out that Disco Elysium I think recorded some 300,000 lines of voice in 8 months.”
Starfield represents the first new Bethesda IP in 25 years. The game is currently scheduled for release on November 11, 2022 for Xbox and PC.