Developing Thoughts 13

Dialogue? What dialogue?
Part Two

There are many games where dialogue is an important part of the gameplay experience, yet it’s often handled in a way that strikes me as being far too convenient. Supporting characters almost fall over themselves in their eagerness to give the player the information he needs to progress. The following lines illustrate a simplified version of a common structure.

“Hello, we’ve never met before.”
“That’s okay. If you get me Madonna’s autograph I’ll tell you the secret password.”

What just happened, here? As a player I was given game information too suddenly and I was taken aback – I feel cheated that it happened too easily. How on earth did this character know I wanted the secret password? Was I aware that I wanted this information?

There are two problems that arise from an exchange as short as that – the structure of the conversation itself and the imparting of game information.

We all know how conversations work from experience, even if we cannot write. This knowledge comes from interacting with other people on a day to day basis, over-hearing conversations on the bus, and from the wealth of TV and film we’re all exposed to, as well as many other examples. When we experience a conversation that falls outside of what we expect, it immediately puts a strain on our suspension of disbelief. The following lines approach the interaction in a more convincing way.

“Hi, I’m Brad Green.”
“I understand you know the password to the Kitty Klub.”
“You understand wrong.”
“Tommy Smith told me -”
“Tommy Smith talks out of his backside. Now get lost.”

Admittedly, the player didn’t find out about the autograph, but we believe the structure because it fits with our experiences. We have also created dramatic conflict because the player character (and the player) has not achieved what he expected to. This failure to get the information suddenly throws up the need for more gameplay in order that the player character can finally convince this person to give him the password. Or to find out why Tommy Smith was lying. Or something else entirely. The actual gameplay and the route to the information will take different forms depending on the genre of the game involved.

Dialogue must not only serve the needs of drama and gameplay, it must also be written in a way that’s in keeping with the nature of the characters involved. What if the holder of the password was incredibly chatty, but only ever talked about himself? The conflict could be made humorous rather than sinister. What if they were sad, or drunk, or in fear for their life? What if they were in the pay of someone who wants you to have the information, but they’ve got to make it seem like you’re forcing it out of them? The potential for variety is endless.

The key to building good dialogue structure is to start by understanding what the agendas of the characters are so that you have two points of view when writing each scene. It might be something simple like the other character not wanting to talk with anyone. If it’s one of the major characters in the story, though, it’s likely that the agenda the character has will relate to the plot and may well change depending on how far along the plot the player has progressed.

Even with the best structure in the world, dialogue can often fail if it’s written in a way that sounds clumsy when spoken aloud. The only solution here is to speak the lines out loud, act them out, and any weaknesses will quickly be evident.

Of course, that introduces a different type of problem. When you’re in the middle of a gritty dramatic conversation with yourself and your partner walks into the room, having her fall about laughing makes you wish you’d rented office space away from home.

© Steve Ince, 2004