Experienced Points

A Little Less (dumb) Conversation


We’ve been shooting stuff in videogames for a long, long time. In fact, the very first videogame was all about two players trying to shoot each other. We’ve mostly got the shooting figured out, but conversations are still a bit wobbly as a gameplay mechanic. They’re getting better, but there’s still room for improvement.

For example …

It shouldn’t be possible to accidentally say something.

Here is how it always goes: At some point, I’ll miss out on what a character is saying because of mumbling / thick accents / in-game sound effects / ambient noise in the room where I’m playing. So I turn on subtitles. Like most people, I can read faster than people can talk, and so with subtitles on I end up reading the text and then waiting for the character to finish speaking. This gets annoying after a while, so I start hitting the “skip” button when I’m done reading. However, if I happen to finish reading just as the character is done with their line, then the response selector appears just in time for me to accidentally select a response.

A simple solution here is to have different buttons for “skip dialog” and “select response”. Another option is to have the conversation wheel default to a neutral position with no default response, so that I must make a deliberate selection before the button will do anything.

It should always be clear what I’m about to say.

I don’t know if it was BioWare that pioneered the “summary” style dialog wheel, but I first encountered it in the original Mass Effect. I can completely understand the thinking behind this feature. It’s annoying to read all of the possible responses in full, select one, and then have your own character read it back to you. It really breaks the flow of the exchange.

On the other hand, sometimes the summary text can be confusing, ambiguous, or completely misleading. It leads to conversations where you end up saying the opposite of what you want:

JERK CHARACTER: Ha ha! I have kicked half the puppies in the city!

Hm. I don’t like this puppy-kicking business, so I’ll choose ‘outraged’.

MY CHARACTER: What? Only half the puppies have been kicked? Now I’m going to have to go out and kick the rest of them myself!

In BioWare games this is bad because the paragon / renegade system punishes you for “moral” inconsistency. In Alpha Protocol this was bad because the game always auto-saved just after every conversation, thus making the goof canonical.

My suggestion is to sit down with a group of people – you don’t even have to be playing the game – and read your playtesters each option and ask what they think would happen if they chose it. Keep working at it until the choices are clear. There is nothing more annoying than having to reload my game because muddled dialogs just screwed up my character.

I should be able to leave the conversation whenever I want.

I didn’t even know this was feasible until I played Skyrim and saw how perfectly awesome it was, and now I never want to play a game without this feature.

It doesn’t seem to be that hard, either. If the NPC I’m talking to is boring me, or taking too long to get to the point, or if I’ve accidentally entered conversation with the wrong person, or if they’re pissing me off and I’ve decided I’d rather murder them, then I just hit exit to walk away from the conversation.


For plot-centric characters, this might mean the conversation will have to pick up where we left off, or it might mean starting over. But for regular peons it means I can get the quest info and be on my merry way without being obliged to listen to them blather on for another minute. The game even has reaction lines for this, where NPCs will realize you’ve just walked away and they’ll comment in indignation, or shame. Perfect!

More developers should be doing this.

“Attack” should never, ever mean “more talking”.

If you ever find you want to piss me off, here is a sure-fire way to do it:

Give me a dialog option that says “Attack”. When I select it, my character will announce their intention to attack. Then the bad guy gets to throw in a couple of barbs while I do nothing. Then they all run into cover while I do nothing. Then the dialog ends with me standing in the open and the bad guys shooting at me, effectively making me the person who got ambushed.

Look, when I press “attack” it means I want to perform a murder, right now. I know you’re worried that I might “skip” some combat, or that you want to punish me for trying to skip all the dialog you wrote for this villain, but griefing the player with dialog mechanics is not the answer. Remember at the end of the Firefly pilot when the bad guy takes a hostage? And then you’re thinking, “Oh no! We’re going to have a long, tense negotiation, followed by a gunfight.” And then Captain Mal walks into the room and kills the guy without breaking stride? That was a memorable moment, far more memorable than any of the other gunfights in the show.

All I’m saying is let players have a moment like that once in a while. Even if we only get to kill one of the five or six foes in front of us, it’s still nice to have the freedom to act and to have the game respond appropriately.

Yes, the renegade interrupts in Mass Effect 2 are a great step in the right direction, but we could do with more of these. And we could also do with some clarity. When I see a “renegade” prompt, it would be nice if the icon could tell me if I was about to punch someone, murder them, or say something rude. And it would be nice to be able to choose from among these options.

I should be able to access the codex / quest log during conversation.

It’s a bit frustrating when I get yanked into a dialog and the NPC begins talking to me about the job I’m on, but I can’t remember what he asked me to do, why I agreed to do it, or if I actually did it. If he asks me how I feel about the Batarians, I’d like a way to open the in-game codex and remind myself if the Batarians are the guys who like science, or the guys who like slavery.

If we can bring up the menu during a gunfight, then it seems reasonable that we can do the same when we’re just standing talking to someone. And before you complain that it’s “unrealistic” to have the main character run off and look something up in the middle of a conversation, let me point out that I’m just trying to avoid having to put the controller down so I can go look it up on the wiki. My immersion is already broken, I’m just asking for some convenience. Commander Shepard lives in this world, but I don’t. And sometimes I set aside a game for a couple of weeks to participate in Real Life stuff. Shepard talked to this guy just ten minutes ago, but for me it’s been ages.

Shamus Young left behind the glamorous world of programming to become a writer. So this could all come back to haunt him soon.

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