I made this point during the Dark ZP review, in my signature frivolous style, but it’s an issue that stands out pretty prominently in The Bureau, too: there’s a staggeringly wide gulf between the sight of human beings in conversation and the spectacle of dialogue-tree conversation in video games. They generally have all the warmth and emotion of watching two computers on the same network pinging each other. This might seem like a small thing in the grand spectrum of dodgy video game design practices, but it’s a problem I’m noticing often enough that perhaps it’s worth trying to think of a better way.
One thing that gets my fuckgoat is when a dialogue tree is used as an information vending machine. This is what I was complaining about in the case of Dark: the old “Tell me more about X” “Blah blah blah X blah blah blah X blah blah blah Y” “Tell me more about Y” routine. This is about as ‘telling without showing’ as exposition gets. It’s a larger problem I’ve noticed with video game dialogue that whenever something needs to be established, be it story fact or gameplay mechanic, it tends to be done in the quickest, most efficient route from A to B. Dishonored in particular was lousy with it.
Conversation is your opportunity, as a writer, to make the characters engaging. No character is engaging when they’re dryly describing things, or recounting events that have happened, or recounting events that are currently happening, or recounting events that have GOT TO happen and you’re the ONLY ONE who can do it to SAVE THE DAY. We human beings are creatures of emotion, and emotion is what we respond to. Emotion is all the stuff that comes across in between the facts and figures of the situation. It’s the ums and the errs, the drifting around, the subtle implications of what subjects make the speaker tense, or cheerful, or depressed, and which other characters the speaker’s personality clashes with. If the narration of, say, Thomas Was Alone had been restricted to exposition along the lines of “This is Thomas, he is a rectangle, and he has to get to the level exit in order to SAVE THE DAY” then I doubt Danny Wallace would’ve gotten that BAFTA award for his performance.
And emotion is carried fairly effectively through movement, too, which is why Bioware Face – the name I have for two characters standing stock still, facing each other, maintaining eye contact and making occasional gestures that are completely unrelated to what they’re saying – seems so wooden and jarring. Wander around and fidget with the ornaments or something, for fuck’s sake, just stop staring at me like you’re trying to kill me with your eye beams.
The approach games like The Bureau seem to take is that the sole major function of the dialogue tree is to allow players to decide in what order they want to scarf down the exposition and to give them the option of when to stop scarfing. Fully custom-designed conversations, right? But then you get something like what the character customisation did to, say, Brink: uniform blandness with a few details changed. So in The Bureau I’d avoid the character dialogues whenever I felt I could get away with it, and then the game was stuck trying to engage me by piling adversity onto characters I knew fuck all about.
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.