Bark! Bark! Bark!

I have a confession to make. Ready? Here it is: I own two small dogs some might call yippy. They wear clothes. They sleep on my bed. It’s true.

I don’t personally think they bark to excess, but certain neighbors disagree. And I will admit my two black and tan miniature pinschers do a remarkably good job of impersonating big, burly guard dogs as they jump up trying to nip the knees of passing strangers. But barks are a complicated subject – and I don’t just mean in neighborhood relations. They hit home in videogames too, which is where my diatribe comes in. This is something I’m passionate about.

I’ve spent a lot of time with these dogs, and I know them well. I can tell from the other end of the house which dog is barking and at what they are barking. I can tell the difference between the full-chested alarm bark and the chuff of naming normal things out the window. “There’s a bird. There’s a bug. OMFG, THERE’S A BIKE! LET ME AT IT!”

The neighbors? They just hear “Bark! Bark! Bark!” no matter what the dogs are actually saying. And I can see how that might get annoying, if all you heard for hours at a time was the same identical noise drilled into your eardrum over and over again. I know how it feels. You see, I play videogames.

I’ve spent hours listening to characters repeat their lame catch-phrases a million times in a row as I mow down enemies and fall off cliffs repeatedly. (I’m as much a klutz in games as I am in real life.) All games do this to a certain extent when novices have to repeat the same section of the game over and over until they get it right. But the worst offenders bombard you with filler dialogue even when you’re moving along at a respectable pace.

Appropriately enough, behind the scenes in videogame development circles these short, repetitive bits of dialogue are even called “barks.” Basically anything you pay the voice actors to say that isn’t part of the story is a bark. And some games bark even more than my overexcited miniature pinschers.

One of the most recent, egregious examples is Mercenaries 2. You take a lot of bullets in the game, and each time you hear exactly the same delivery of “That stings a little,” over and over, ad nauseum. Even worse, male and female playable characters have exactly the same lines to bark. And I hear that a co-op play session makes you listen to, “Tell Solano I’m coming for him,” every 30 seconds in two different voices – even after Solano is dead. Unforgiveable!

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Nothing irritates me more than a glaring problem that could easily be fixed, but hasn’t been. And ambient dialogue definitely fits into that category. But it’s not really much fun to sit in a corner paralyzed with rage, so during my time there I’ve given some thought as to why developers have left the problem largely unaddressed. I’ve come to the conclusion that, just like the dog situation at my house, there are two very different points of view contributing to this problem.

Point of View No. 1 – the Player
There’s one thing you can say about a good videogame – it’s immersive. The guy with the controller in his hand is so engrossed in the experience, so focused on the challenge he’s facing on the screen that the house could be burning down around him and he wouldn’t notice – let alone realize that some in-game noises might be annoying his roommates. If you haven’t been on the receiving end of this, trust me: You’ve been on the giving end. Your girlfriend isn’t just annoyed because you’re paying more attention to the game than to her. That constant, repetitive, monotonous dialogue makes people who aren’t immersed in the game want to throttle you.

Don’t think I’m just in this for the sake of the innocent bystanders. Monotonous barks annoy players, too – just not to quite the same degree. And what’s worse, those monotonous barks have become a tradition, a convention in videogames. Confront a gamer about it, and he’ll usually respond with something like, “Sure it’s annoying, but all videogames do it.”

Players, I’m here to tell you not all traditions are worth holding on to – and to beg you to please, please, for the sake of the women and children, let this one go.

Sure, we all have fond memories of Breakout using bleeps and bloops to let you know when you hit a brick, but most videogames today are not made by a single programmer in his garage. We have the technology. We can make our characters feel more intelligent than a brick. Trust me players – it’s possible. You don’t have to sit there and take this kind of treatment just because this is the way it’s always been. When you’ve got your own customized avatar running around a gorgeously rendered forest killing rats, surely it would be better if that avatar had more than one kind of grunt.

Are you with me? Can you feel the indignation swelling within you? Then let your own unique voices be heard. Developers can fix this; they just don’t know how worn that one spot on your tympanic membrane really is. So tell them. You’ve been suffering in silence too long.

Trust me. Until I got into the videogame industry myself, I had no idea how easy this is to fix. They have no excuse!

Except that they do…

Point of View No. 2 – The Developer
There’s a misconception among people who don’t make videogames that the job is a ton of fun, and just a matter of sitting around playing games all day. Those who do make videogames will tell you there are bits of fun surrounded by seas – yea, oceans – of tedium and frustration. The sheer volume of tiny details involved in making one of these immersive, interactive entertainment experiences is mind-boggling. And every one of those details can be tweaked and balanced into infinity.

If you’re going to be successful in this business, you need to build up – or be born with – a huge tolerance for repetition. This is a good thing. It’s what gives us the marvels of modern technological entertainment we all enjoy today.

It also means videogame developers have a love for the journey. They find fulfillment in tackling problems in a new way. They get excited about inventing a new combat system or pushing the limits of animation. They don’t get excited about easy things – except in the “Yay! I just have to spend a couple hours writing all the barks for the game and then I get to go home for the day!” sort of excitement.

It’s not that developers are intentionally ignoring easy things like implementing barks. They just don’t capture the imagination the way inventing a whole new dialogue system would. It’s like facing just another skeleton in a dungeon versus fighting the big boss demon at the end of the tunnel. One gets your blood pumping. The other is a checkbox to check off.

And have I mentioned the insane deadlines? The sheer volume of written material required to produce an RPG is shocking, and the fact that it has to be written and rewritten constantly to reflect the emerging realities of the game – well, it’s almost a superhuman feat.

So this explains why barks don’t get much time or attention from game developers. Even my fellow game writers seem to have no respect for the humble bark. They will spend hours debating the exact phrasing of a big pay-off story moment in a cut scene the player will see once, maybe twice if the game has enough replay value. Yet these same writers spend only five seconds thinking about the lines – the barks – the players will hear thousands of times in one play-through.

It makes sense from the developer’s standpoint – you can’t fumble the ball when you’re standing on the goal line – but the focus isn’t on the big-picture player experience. And the players can tell. They’re just so beaten down by it they can’t even express their misery.

The truth is that the game developers themselves aren’t nearly as annoyed by monotonous barks as the players, who don’t know the gritty reality of what it takes to make a game. Part of this comes from their tolerance for tedium, and part of it comes from finding out what actually goes into making the sausage.

Filmmakers watch films differently from their audiences. Experienced magicians see something different when they watch street-corner sleight-of-hand. Once you know the intimate details of how a particular work of art or entertainment is made, you’re suddenly thinking about camera angles at the movie theater, you’re noticing the card up the magician’s sleeve and you’re thinking about programming techniques when you’re playing a videogame.

From this point of view, barks don’t have anything to do with people talking. They’re status and error messages. Your sword connected with the enemy. You lost the minigame. The fall took away all your hitpoints. Every programmer knows it’s a bad idea to have three different error messages conveying the same game state. So we end up with “Ungh,” for doing damage to an enemy, “Aww,” for losing a minigame and “Oof!” for losing hitpoints. Where’s the problem?

Game developers need to take off their magnifying glasses, take a step back and think about the big picture. The average player is going to lose a minigame a few times in a row before they get the hang of it. They’re going to lose their hitpoints in rapid succession through falls and fights. And they’re definitely going to dish out a lot of damage to their enemies, repeatedly and with great vigor.

They aren’t going to hear simple, clear state changes. They’re going to hear “Bark! Bark! Bark! OMFG BARK!”

Anytime a character on the screen opens their mouth, it’s a golden opportunity to communicate with the player – but you have to speak their language. Use these opportunities to convey real emotion. Use it to add depth to the story. Use it to connect on a gut level. You have the technology. Changing the system would put an end to a lot of grief for a lot of people. Just ask my neighbors.

Wendy Despain writes for and about videogames. She’s chair of the IGDA Writing Special Interest Group, and was told by her doctor to buy a dog to help with stress and anger management.

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