Extra Punctuation

Extra Punctuation
The Dangers of Dialogue

Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw | 10 Sep 2013 12:00
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Yeah, it's an interactive medium, so they can't just have dialogue scenes playing out like a conversation in a film, that's what the overproduced pre-rendered cutscenes are for. But you can put a damn sight more effort into it than a topic checklist exchanged by two lampposts with eyes. Something maybe a little bit more organic, like real conversations, not just making a statement and awaiting a rebuttal.

I've considered alternatives in this column before, but I think what attracts game writers to the back-and-forth exposition checklist is the fact that it's easy to do, and any attempt to create a truly organic dialogue in a video game is going to be a nightmare to chart out, to say nothing of getting it voice acted. So I've been trying to think of as simple a way as possible to make a conversation feel more like a flow, with which you're constantly involved, not just being prompted for a choice every now and again.

And what I'm thinking is something along the lines of a railroad, in which each dialogue on a given topic is divided up into switch points throughout the discussion of the topic, with a stop point at the end. During each dialogue section in between the branch points the speaker might mention a tangental topic, with some kind of icon and button prompt appearing to indicate it, and if the player selects it, then at the next logical switch point, their character says something that diverts the conversation onto that topic.

So basically there're several tracks, representing topics, and there are points on each track where you can switch to another, related track. And when a track runs out, the discussion of a topic reaches its natural conclusion, and you find yourself at Awkward Pause Station. At which point you can either break off and stop talking or launch onto a whole different topic (or track) of which you are also aware.

Now, so far there's a similar problem to the current system in that, if the player just wants to hear everything about every topic, to get the full experience available, they'll just let each track reach the end of the line and then move onto the next one. So I would suggest the additional feature that maybe when there's a potential topic track switch coming up, the player isn't the only one who can make the switch. Maybe the NPC will do so spontaneously, depending on their whims and personality traits, and it will fall to the player to firmly divert the conversation back on topic if it's the one that interests them. So it becomes an organic skill game where you have to slap things back into line when they start drifting.

I can think of more problems with it. Maybe the problem of dull exposition checklists is an insurmountable one. Maybe games should stop trying to make interactive conversation scenes altogether, 'cos it's never going to end well. Maybe concentrate on the strengths of interactive gameplay, like jetpacks.

Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn't talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.

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