Note: This post contains spoilers for Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Fallout 3.
For all of their ability to create absorbing worlds, Bethesda can't write a decent character to save themselves. Skyrim may be an amazing game world - with a deep, though decidedly uninteresting lore, and peppered with stunning landscapes and vistas - but the people that occupy its many townships and settlements have so far proven less than memorable.
This issue isn't unique to Skyrim, mind you. With the possible exceptions of Uriel and Martin Septim - voiced by Patrick Stewart and Sean Bean respectively - Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Fallout 3 lacked notable cast members. It's arguable that the worlds that featured in these games were the true stars: with each decision that players made having consequences of - at times - unimaginable scope. You may choose to save Megaton in Fallout 3 and interact with its dead-eyed inhabitants, or set off the bomb that was the town's namesake; killing everyone and sparing you from unconvincing voice acting and multiple repetitive fetch quests. You may choose to rise through the ranks of every guild in Oblivion as well, but can you honestly name five characters from the game without consulting a wiki?
One more person speaks to me in a monotone voice and BOOM!
With that being said, it's hard to assemble a strong cast with a soulless mute playing the lead role. Meaningful conversation is a dance that requires at least two active participants. It's also difficult to develop chemistry between characters when one doesn't emote or employ the subtleties of tone, pace and pitch.
You don't need moving lips and the batting of eyelids for a relationship to develop in a believable way either, as evidenced by the banter between protagonist, Adam Jensen and sarcastic tech-head Francis Pritchard in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Conversations between these two can play out in both first and third person, but you feel a connection develop regardless of the perspective. In Oblivion, moments like Martin Septim's transformation and ultimate sacrifice fall flat, because short of retrieving a whole bunch of items for this bastard child, there's no back and forth between the two of you. In Fallout 3, your father's demise doesn't end up meaning too much because apart from the implied father-son relationship (and the amusingly-awkward death scene), you and dear-old-Dad didn't do too much together. If Bethesda wants to develop meaningful relationships between characters, they each need to be able to communicate in a way that is both apparent and believable.
Sound design plays a big part too. Using Deus Ex: Human Revolution as an example once again: you would hear peripheral chatter from the denizens of Detroit and Heng Sha, but the speech of quest givers and the central cast took priority. On my way to my first encounter with a dragon in Skyrim, Irileth's speech to the Whiterun guards was consistently interrupted by the idle chatter of minor NPCs. I had to strafe continuously, or else the (what I imagined to be a) stirring oration would be lost in a sea of musings about the weather and stranger danger. In this instance, the world needed to take a backseat to the scene that was unfolding; instead the people of Skyrim ensured that no one person could steal the spotlight.
With characters unable to assert themselves, there's only one thing you can do to make these games amazing: get lost. Forgive the unconvincing, droll tones of every NPC. Pick a fight with a giant and lose... badly. Loot every corpse and container that you come across. Immerse yourself in a perfect world filled with imperfect characters.
Once more, with feeling!
Don't get me wrong: I'm loving Skyrim, I consider Oblivion to be one of the best games on this generation of hardware, and I found Fallout 3 to be somewhat enjoyable. That said, I found the ability to wander - both aimlessly, and with purpose - in each game's vast, untamed and unpredictable environments to be the most compelling aspect of each title.
Can you name five characters from Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion or Fallout 3 without consulting a wiki? Who are your favourite characters from Bethesda's open wold opuses? Why are you enjoying/loathing Skyrim?