Dialogue Depth in Video Games

Story-driven video games can be as engaging as a novel or film. But unlike those other mediums, games require some level of interaction with the player. The point of a game isn’t to watch but to participate. But achieving the right balance can be difficult.

Giving the player a choice of what to say during characters’ conversation is one of the most basic ways to involve the player. But different games handle this in different ways. A game like Final Fantasy XIII pretty much bars players from having any role in the conversation, forcing them to sit back and watch. (Arguably, even FFXIII’s gameplay forces the player to sit back and watch, but that’s for another article.)

Other games occasionally pause the conversation to give players an option of what to say. In Fallout 3, players are presented with options that are fully written sentences. In other words, you say what you see. This is an approach that has been used in countless RPGs. It’s a proven winner, but not the most interesting.  The biggest downside is that it pretty much forces players to think before every little thing they say. I hope this doesn’t sound cynical, but people don’t do that in real life.

Fallout 3: What you see is what you say

To address that weakness, Mass Effect goes for a more emotion-based approach. Like Fallout, this sci-fi RPG presents players with a choice of responses. But the replies only give a vague idea of what the protagonist will say.  If you select “You’re crazy,” Shepard (the hero) won’t say those words exactly (he has a little more tact than that), but he certainly will get the message across.

Mass Effect provides the gist of what Shepard will say

L.A. Noire takes the concept a step further, and perhaps too far.  When you are interviewing a person of interest in connection to a crime, you are always presented with the same three choices after the POI gives an answer:  You can guess he is telling the truth, you can doubt the veracity of his response, or you can accuse him of lying. This simplified approach sounds good on paper, but in practice isn’t always intuitive. What do you do, for example, when the suspect seems to be telling you only half the truth?  Sometimes selecting truth encourages the POI to tell you more.  Other people need a little threatening, and “Doubt” is the right way to get him talking.

L.A. Noire: Truth, Doubt or Lie?

Maybe it’s just because I’m a reporter, but interviewing isn’t so black and white.  When I’m talking to a source, it’s not like my only three options are to agree with her answers, tell her that I don’t believe her or outright accuse her of lying. What about asking the question again but in a different, more roundabout way? Why can’t I “doubt” an answer without accusing the person of wasting my time (a quick way to end a conversation)? Perhaps if L.A. Noire gave a little better idea of what hero cop Cole Phelps was going to say next, I might choose the right response more often. Game critic Chris Kohler seems to agree in his review for Wired.com’s Game|Life column.

If you were to ask me, the Mass Effect method to conversation is the winner. It engages players in conversation and encourages gut-level responses so that players to make choices based on their own personalities rather than what they think the game wants them to say.

Agree or disagree? Let me know what you think in the comments section!

One Reply to “Dialogue Depth in Video Games”

  1. Not having actually played L.A. Noire, I would still agree that Mass Effect handles the dialogue options well. I remember playing through ME1 and being acutely aware that what Shepard was saying was not verbatim from the options. I found it pretty refreshing to choose the tone of the response without having the dialogue revealed by reading the options before I selected one, which would have ruined it, I think.

    Dialogue is, and probably will be for decades, one of the trickiest things in games because we’re still limited by what options the developers have coded. It’ll be very exciting indeed when processing power and AI advance to the point that the user can input literally any response s/he wants (within the bounds of proper spelling/grammar/syntax/etc.) and have that register in the game. But I imagine I’ll be either an old fart or a corpse before we get to that point. Oh well. Happy gaming for my grandkids I guess!

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