Developing Thoughts 14

Dialogue? What dialogue?
Part Three

That this subject had stretched itself to a third column shows the importance I feel that dialogue plays in story and character driven games. As I touched on briefly last time, if vital game information is revealed through dialogue, conversations should not be separated out from the overall gameplay. This means that because dialogue becomes an important part of the gameplay, the player should therefore have at least a modicum of control during conversations.

The player can become frustrated when it seems they are simply a passenger during long periods of exposition. However, if the player gets the opportunity to work for that exposition, the rewarding nature of the interaction increases the empathy with the player character and the involvement in the developing story.

To obtain the best possible fit, dialogue must become part of the overall game design process or the aims of the dialogue and the gameplay may be at odds with each other. In other words, a structure should be developed for the way that the dialogue scenes are triggered so that it matches the structure of the other aspects of developing gameplay.

This isn’t to say that actual lines of dialogue need to be written as part of the design process, simply that the scenes should be identified and what information is going to be discussed and passed on.

In many respects, it’s much better not to write any dialogue at first as it can have an effect on the speed of implementation and testing. Having just the bare bones of the scenes with variables being set, means exactly the same thing to the progress of the game, providing that the people implementing the game have a clear idea of what is happening in each scene. The dialogue can be written and added in at a later point and may benefit from the writer being able to see the game in progress and match the feel of the dialogue to what’s on screen.

Something that always strikes me as poor dialogue structure, when I see it in a game, is when avenues of dialogue repeat unnecessarily. Unless the dialogue structure is specifically designed so that the discussion of a subject can expand in detail – introducing new lines for example – the chance to talk about that subject again should not be available. When a scene, or part of a scene, repeats word for word, I feel it undermines the hard work that the writer has put in, reducing any drama and spoiling the professional appearance.

Some scenes, if not all, are best developed with the writer and designer working together. Scenes aren’t just about giving the player important game information, but also for developing the characters, working through sub-plots and for creating dramatic tension and conflict. Subtext, while not something that’s been particularly strong in games so far, will come increasingly into play, as character acting and facial expressions continue to improve and tools are developed that allow subtle acting to become a common part of games.

Only when a designer and writer both understand the story, character and gameplay needs of all scenes will they be able to deliver something very special.

© Steve Ince, 2004