Developing Thoughts 12

I’m going to blast them all onto the blog in one go. You have been warned! 🙂

Dialogue? What dialogue?
Part One

Not a simple subject even at the best of times, I realised as I was writing this that what I wanted to touch on could only be done by spreading it over two columns.

I’ve worked almost exclusively on games where the dialogue between characters is developed to a high degree to maximise the relevance to the game, staying true to the characters and laced with high interest and humour. This often affects the way that I respond to dialogue in other games. While there are many games that handle dialogue very well, others contain character speeches that really don’t fit the true meaning of the word dialogue.

Many game developers choose not to have the main character speak for numerous valid reasons. For instance, the player may create their own character from a choice of templates and having the character speak would mean having to record a huge number of line variations to make the dialogue fit the character. The downside to this non-speaking player character is that, because conversations with other characters are often one-sided, it can give the impression that the player is simply listening to a series of mini monologues.

Sometimes these monologues are triggered by proximity of the player character, which can in itself create an artificial feeling because suddenly, this character you’ve never met before, is giving you plot-relevant information without being asked. Even in games where conversations are triggered and controlled by the player, because the player character doesn’t speak, the other character’s lines are often structured in a way that gives more information than you’d normally expect. In a film or a novel, the main character would only get the information they need by a dynamic exchange of dialogue. When characters are not reacting to anything the other character is saying, the speech always comes across as a little surreal and this in turn strains at the immersion the player gets from playing the game.

It may well be that monologue conversations are a necessary part of certain types of games, though I find that hard to imagine. If this were the case, however, writing monologues would need to look towards doing so in a way that will give the maximum dramatic effect and may lead to an expansion of existing writing vocabulary. Not an insignificant task.

The main burden of the monologue approach is that the character speaking is effectively doing the work of two characters by second-guessing what the player character wants and providing detailed answers. This actually has a knock-on effect of weakening the main character because they simply listen to the monologues in a very passive way. What’s the point of developing a dynamic character that fights for his life while trying to save the world, if he shows no reaction to important revelations from the other characters?

When games are becoming increasingly realistic in their rendering of characters, adversaries and locations, it often feels that elements of the game that don’t match this approach are things that can destroy the suspension of disbelief and prevent the player from achieving a fully immersive experience.

Because two-way conversations – dialogue are such an important part of our everyday lives, monologues will always come across as artificial because they do not represent the way we talk. As games continue to become increasingly sophisticated the artificial feel will only increase.

© Steve Ince, 2004