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There's a gameplay mechanic that's as old as the hills, that goes all the way back to the early 90s PC adventure gaming dominance, and which has remained unchanged for most of its existence, despite the fact that change is very much what it needs. I speak of nothing less than dialogue menus: The practice of letting players navigate conversations with NPCs by selecting from a list of pregenerated responses. And it bears about as much resemblance to real-life conversations as a Fuzzy Felt picture of a bemused dog does to an actual bemused dog.

I'm not saying games have to mimic reality at all times. If, say, Modern Warfare 2 adhered to reality, the player would spend eight months jerking off in a military training facility before getting their legs blown off by an IED and invalided straight back to their parents' house. But I'm so sick of the dull, wooden backing-and-forthing that takes up a huge percentage of games like Dragon Age. You say something. They say something in reply. Rinse, repeat. It's like watching a televised debate between puppets of Lord of the Rings characters.

At their worst, dialogue menus are used to put an interactive spin on an exposition dump, and I know this because that's generally what I've used them for in my own adventure games. When the player needs to learn a big pile of information from an NPC, all they have to do is just go down the list of questions. They might as well just have all the dialogues play out one after the other and flash up a caption reading: "Why not make a cup of tea?"

The other thing dialogue menus provide is the sort of thing Dragon Age showcases; where you have a bunch of different responses to an NPCs comments, each reflecting a different attitude. But it doesn't usually make any difference to the conversation except determine what their very next reply will be, and you get haunted by the knowledge that you'll never know what they would have said if you'd tried a different track.

And NPCs are always ridiculously keen to ramble on to a complete stranger about topics they've brought up out of nowhere, like they're being interviewed for a documentary vox pop. And when they run out of topics and you try to talk to them again, you're often forced into a very bizarre exchange like this one:

PC: Excuse me, could I ask you something else?
NPC: Of course you can.
PC: That's all I wanted to know.
NPC: Good luck with everything!

It does sound a little bit insane, doesn't it? It's like overhearing a conversation between two malfunctioning Stepford wives and it breaks immersion a little bit.

I really feel that an opportunity for some innovative gameplay is being missed here. After all, conversing with someone in real life is practically a game in itself. Dodging awkward questions, filling silences, hurling back quips and rebuttals like Cupid's shurikens to impress and amaze your chatty chum. Conversation should flow like a river, not like a big clunky lever that clamps one character's jaw shut while the other gives his prepared statement. So, since you'll remember I'm also occasionally a games designer as well as a games assassin, here's another in my occasional series of Gameplay Ideas That Will Never Be Used Because They're Too Excellent.

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