I was recently interviewed by Xalavier Nelson Jr. for an article in the May 2018 issue of PC Gamer magazine, as you may have heard already if you’ve been following me on Twitter and Facebook. (Hey look! I’m on the cover!) The article in question is titled “The evolving art of dialogue in games” and is pretty much what it says on the tin, coming from a number of indie game devs including yours truly. Definitely worth checking out if you are interested in the nuts and bolts of story-making for games.
Due to limited space on the physical page, they couldn’t include all of my ponderings on the subject, but Xalavier has graciously allowed me to publish them here for the curious. Enjoy!
How would you describe the function of a dialogue system for a player unfamiliar with the nuts and bolts of making a game? Do you see the role of a good dialogue system as being substantial in a game’s overall quality?
Dialogue systems, as you might guess, are systems developed to deliver dialogue to the player. Optimally, they would allow players to navigate conversations in a way that best communicates the story and characters in harmony with gameplay. Although they are primarily concerned with narrative, they can also serve as a device to help the player achieve gameplay goals as well. For example, convincing a guard to unlock a gate to the next level through persuasive dialogue.
A good dialogue system isn’t necessary to make a quality game, of course. There are plenty of games don’t use dialogue at all and are still considered great games. But for games that are narrative-focused and feature a lot of spoken interaction between characters, a good dialogue system is vital.
Why is it somewhat complex to simply put text into a game? How much does your workload increase when you’re attempting to display text in a pleasing or emotive arrangement?
The one thing that I’ve come to realize as a game designer is that dialogue text in a game tends to occupy a space somewhere in-between dialogue text in a novel and spoken words in a film or audio recording. And depending on your game, it may be closer to one side or the other. Your methods for displaying text will have to reflect where on the spectrum your particular game lands. If your game has the capability for showing varied and nuanced animations of your character’s expressions, you won’t have to worry as much about representing the non-verbal or subtle part of their responses in text. Though you should still consider it, especially if you want your game to appeal to the part of your audience that has difficulty interpreting visual cues such as the visually-impaired or those on the autism spectrum, for instance.
How do fonts tie into a ‘good’ dialogue system?
When it comes to fonts, I often find that you know you’ve got it right when the player doesn’t notice them. You have to pick something that feels natural amidst the rest of the design. If the player notices the font at all, it means that either you’ve picked something that annoys them or that they are font-aficionados. Unfortunately, it’s usually the first one.
What considerations do you balance for when you’re putting dialogue in your own games? How do you look at dialogue in terms of the overall work’s pacing?
A big consideration is screen size. You don’t want to jam a whole bunch of words on a small screen. Even if you dole out the dialogue in bite-sized chunks, it’ll still take forever for the player to read them all. Of course, the type of game would also make a difference. If you’re creating a work of interactive fiction, then lots of text can be what your audience is expecting. It often really comes down to managing the expectations of your audience. Personally, I tend to make games where (I hope) the audience is expecting a fair amount of dialogue text. Even then you need to be frugal with your words and treat them like a precious commodity.
I try to vary the style of the dialogue in my games based on the current situation in the game. For more relaxed conversations between characters that are familiar and friendly I tend to let the dialogue be looser and more jokey. For intense scenes between characters in conflict the lines tend to be shorter and more punctuated. When the player follows the main story arc I adopt a driving pace that increases as they get further to their goal. Side conversations may have a more relaxed pace to let the player feel like they can explore the environment. Of course, this all can go out the window in an “open world” environment where it’s hard to control the order that the player will do things, but you do the best you can to keep a feeling of flow from one event to another.
How much did you have to bend dialogue conventions to convey the unique choice and investigation mechanics of Mandatory Upgrade? Did you find any deviations from the norm in terms of interface difficult to teach to players?
With Mandatory Upgrade, I stuck fairly close to standard branching dialogue conventions, but I included a few things tailored to the style of investigative mystery games. I was fortunate to work with a game engine that was designed in part for mystery games. Story Stylus is an engine made by One More Story Games with mechanics in place to, among other things, allow for the unlocking of conversation topics as you speak to the various characters in the game and present those topics on a selectable list in the conversation window. Having a separate selectable topic list was a little unusual, although not without precedent in some point-and-click adventure games and RPGs (Wizardry 8 comes to mind). Fortunately, players were generally able to figure it out quickly so it didn’t become too much of an issue.
This is a huge topic with a loooot of potential ground to cover, but briefly: when you’re not only implementing dialogue, but CHOICE in a game, how does this work behind the scenes? What concerns are you balancing? How does allowing for choice in a game affect its scope or wider overall design? Is the technical cost to build and display effective decision-making interfaces significant?
I think player choice is one of the things that makes games so interesting and engaging as a medium. After the introduction in Mandatory Upgrade I tried to make the game as “open world” as possible, allowing the player to go wherever and talk to whoever they wanted. This meant that behind the scenes I had to keep track of several things: who they met, who they talked to, what clues they found, whether they found enough evidence to solve the case, that sort of thing. I also allowed for some choices in how they acted towards the characters they met. As the player, will you choose to be sympathetic to other characters or be a hard-ass to get the answers your looking for?
The main issue with giving plenty and varied choices to the player is the sheer amount of work that it takes to not only write the multiple branches of dialogue but to keep track of the player’s choices and provide meaningful consequences as a result of those choices. Not to mention the fact that if you want any new systems to interact significantly with existing systems, the complexity will also rise accordingly. I actually had to cut back on my original plans to allow the player to develop different potential relationships with different characters because the technical and creative costs would have added months of development time that I couldn’t afford. I’d love the opportunity to play around with those systems in the future.
Can you detail a time when your dialogue system broke down, or otherwise impeded other goals you had for a title? If so, how and why did this occur?
When working on Mandatory Upgrade I ran into a few small things with the dialogue system that gave me trouble implementing my design goals. One issue was that the topic conversations didn’t allow for different initial responses based on current conditions, for example having a different conversation around the “Weather” topic based on whether it was raining or snowing. The developers hadn’t thought of using topics in that way before but were happy to add that functionality to accommodate me, so it didn’t turn out to be an issue. One thing you learn in making games is that the user, be it game designer or player, is going to use your product in ways you don’t expect and can’t predict, so it pays to be flexible.
Can you detail a specific time when you used a choice or branching system to evoke a reaction in players? Did this attempt succeed?
At one point in Mandatory Upgrade, the player is faced with confronting another character that they hold in high esteem with information about something kind of seedy that they may have done. It’s an uncomfortable moment and one of the dialogue options I offer appears to let the player escape from the situation. It’s a false hope though. They don’t get off that easily and are forced to continue the awkward conversation.
My plan was to evoke a reaction in the player by subverting their expectation that the choice they picked would give them the result they wanted. I wanted them to realize that nothing was 100% guaranteed in the game and hopefully make them feel slightly uneasy about that. I haven’t received any feedback about that dialogue specifically, but I’m hopeful that it had the effect I was shooting for.