A Game Dialogue Wish List

By , 21 December, 2011, 3 Comments

After chatting on Twitter with the wonderful Amelia Tyler about dialogue and recording, I felt inspired to write a post.  There’s a lot that needs to happen in order for great dialogue to appear in a game.  Not all of it is down to the writer, of course, so here’s a list of things writers and other development people might like to take on board as part of the delivery process.

As the title suggests, it is a wish list and I’d love all this to happen on every project on which I work, but that isn’t the case, sadly.  One day…

  • Define the Characters
    Whatever medium you write for, good dialogue always works best when you’ve defined your characters well and outlined how they relate to one-another.  When a writer knows the characters the dialogue will come much more naturally.
  • Make it True
    Writing dialogue that’s true to the characters makes it easier to see when the lines miss the mark.  There is a direct connection between making it true and clearly defined characters.  True dialogue helps reveal the characters’ real natures.
  • Make it Real
    Don’t make the characters speak in unnatural voices or a stylised manner for the sake of it.  It may be fun to write and allow you to explore your craft, but game players rarely have the time to appreciate such things and think about the richness of your lines due to the needs of the gameplay and the attention given to it.  Bear in mind, too, that actors will speak your lines and must be able to do so fluidly without fumbling over them.
  • Make it Brief
    With many hours of play time, video games have the potential for an awful lot of lines, so don’t add to the count unnecessarily by allowing characters to ramble or repeat.  Don’t let it become tedious and give players the excuse they’re looking for to skip your dialogue.
  • Make it Flow
    The best dialogue flows through a scene in a natural and enhancing way.  Unfortunately, game dialogue systems don’t always deliver the lines in the best way in spite of the writer’s best intentions.  Scripting systems and dialogue engines ought to allow for flexible delivery of speech and even enable lines to overlap for interruptions and pace.
  • Make it Game
    You’re not writing a film, a novel or a stage play.  Every line of dialogue needs to bear in mind the nature of the medium and the nature of the players.  If a question is asked of the player character, it’s usually wrong to give the player just one option from which to choose an answer.
    Dialogue should be part of the gameplay.  If you’re writing for an investigative game in particular, you should ask yourself if the style and structure of the dialogue add to the interactive experience in the best possible way.  If not, does the writer need to do more or does the game need more from the engine and mechanics.
  • Automatic is Evil
    If a scene is triggered automatically, question why that is so.  Why isn’t it being triggered by the actions of the player?  Write with this in mind at all times.
  • Avoid Dialogue Trees
    I wrote a piece for Develop on this subject.  Dialogue trees are a clunky and restrictive way to write speech.
  • No Monologues
    Conversations with other characters should never be about triggering a series of small monologues.  Admittedly, much of the problem lies in many games’ interface styles and the way dialogue responses are presented and chosen, but monologues always give an artificial feeling to dialogue that no amount of good acting will overcome.  Plead with the dev team to create a better system.  Bribe them.
  • No Door Descriptions
    We have great graphics at great resolutions – there should be no need whatsoever to use a line like, “It’s a wooden door.”  We can see the damn door.  If the graphics are good, we can also see that it’s wooden.  Such descriptions are a hangover from the old days of text adventures when everything had to be described.  Door descriptions are more than 20 years out of date.  Do any of you walk around the world describing the doors you pass?
  • Make the Player Character Work
    There is nothing worse than NPCs volunteering information at the drop of a hat, particularly if there has been no interaction.  People are naturally suspicious of strangers in the real world, why would they be any different in the game world.  The worst instance of volunteering information is when your character walks past an NPC and suddenly hears the woman say, “No one’s seen the King for two months.”  What?!  When I walk through the town centre on Market day the most I might get from a passing stranger is, “Good morning.”  Make it real.  Talk to the game designers/developers.
    If the player character is not made to work for information, there is no expectation gap within the conversation and the potential for drama is lost.  More importantly, there is no opportunity for gameplay.
  • No Generic NPCs or Automated Responses
    It may seem, at first glance, that your world is alive because every village is filled with NPCs wandering around.  However, if they’re generic characters spouting automated responses it quickly feels like we’re dealing with the Stepford Wives.  It’s far better to have quality than quantity.
  • Enough With the Cheesy Game References
    Sometimes it seems that game writers are desperate to reference pop culture, particularly other games.  Even if it’s done in a tongue-in-cheek way it’s rarely as good or as funny as the writer thinks and will often make the player cringe.  Writers, if the designers put this stuff in, try to explain why you need to re-write it.  Designers, think bigger.
  • Be Funny
    If you want to write comedy make sure it’s funny and not just some in-house jokes that no one will get.  Great comedy comes from interactions between great characters.  Don’t force jokes onto characters that conflict with their natures.
  • Use a Good Voice Director
    This isn’t just about getting someone who knows how to direct actors, it’s about finding a director who understands and plays games and who understands how game dialogue works within a game.  Find a voiceover studio that specialises in game recording and work with the director to find the best way to deliver the maximum quality.  Find a director who loves your game script.
  • Cast as Early as Possible
    The earlier the casting, the better the opportunities to establish the voices of the characters and maintain consistency, particularly if the project is large and uses multiple writers.  You can also get interesting character developments from the way that actors play the parts.
  • Use Quality Actors
    Many a game has care and attention poured into the engine, art, animation, gameplay, etc. only to have it all undermined by the use of second or third-rate actors.  Recorded dialogue is such an up-front part of a game that poor acting can have an immediate negative effect.  It will reduce review scores almost every time.
  • Rehearse Key Scenes
    A week before recording starts, spend a day with the main actors rehearsing key scenes.  This gives the actors the opportunity to explore the characters and their relationships before standing in front of the microphones and committing their performances to a final form.
  • Ensemble Recording
    The best actor performances happen when they are able to record at the same time as the other actors in the scene.  Firing off each other can deliver a spark that would never exist otherwise.  Admittedly, it takes serious scheduling to maximise everyone’s time, but the results will be so much better.
  • Ensure the Writer is Present
    It always surprises me how, even when things are going swimmingly, an actor finds a line that reads like utter gibberish even though it seemed perfectly fine on the computer screen back in my office.  No matter how good we’d like to think we are, none of us are infallible and when you work with scripts consisting of thousands of lines the occasional blunder is to be expected.  When a writer is present, they are not only able to ensure that such lines are dealt with, they also provide the valuable scene context that enables the actors to deliver the line with the right tone and feeling.  Even lines like, “It’s a wooden door.”
  • Deliver High Quality Samples
    This is obviously a post-processing task that studios are well set up to deliver, but it still happens that voice samples are inconsistent or haven’t been properly maximised.  Listen hard to the samples and have them fixed if necessary.
  • Hear the Voices In-Game
    The final test for game dialogue is when played in the game.  If the voices pick you up and carry you along with their majesty, drama, fun, excitement and tenderness, then the team has done its job.  If it didn’t quite hit the mark in one or two small areas, make a note of how to make it better next time.

There is likely to be plenty I’ve missed out and much of what I’ve written has been brief, but it’s easy to take this wish list and expand on it with the team you work with.  If you have ideas or suggestions for what could have been included, please feel free to let me know.

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  • James Killick

    This is an excellent post, Steve, and has truisms that can be applied to all writing, not just for games. Excellent experience and well shared. Really appreciate this.

  • Steve Ince

    Thanks, James.

    It wasn’t originally meant to be such a long list but as I thought about it the number of points just grew. I’m so pleased you enjoyed reading it.

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