Dialogue in Games

June 8, 2009 § Leave a comment

Many developers seem to have taken the fact that actions speak louder than words, to mean that they should ignore the strength of dialogue altogether. The intricate weaving together of tonality as well as factual information that not only develops a game’s story, but also its characters, its settings, and its structure as a whole is pivotal to most movies but has been largely ignored in the interactive portion of most games. You may be able to learn much about a character from their actions alone, but when complemented by stunning vocal work, their personality is so much more pronounced and defined. Unfortunately for gamers, dialogue isn’t conducted in the spirit of the medium at all in most titles, it is predefined, and offers little in the way of choice for the player to sculpt to make his own.

This almost certainly stems from the inability of current day technology to simulate human speech. Whilst visually we’ve gone from strength to strength, and have reached a stage where a character can be given lifelike animation without the presence of an actor, speech still needs such an individual to produce it in the first place, and as such become impossible to edit on the fly, as is the opposite with animations which can be blended into each other to give the player complete control. Part of me thinks that if companies invested in new sound technology with the amount of gusto they do into graphics, then sound and the vocal work contained within it, could be miles ahead of where it is today. Whatever the cause the result is the same, it’s very hard for developers to allow the player to control a character vocally.

Some games will opt to have a completely mute protagonist. The player will control everything the character does on-screen, and so there’s no disconnection between the two. Half Life is the most famous example of this, but we must also remember that Claude from GTA3 never spoke at all. These games were much more immersive than others with a speaking protagonist, you don’t play as Gordon Freeman, you are him, and this pays off in dividends for the game’s narrative.

Some games relegate dialogue entirely to cutscenes, the wholly un-interactive leaning post for old school game design narrative. When I’m playing Metal Gear Solid, I don’t have an active role in it’s story, I’m just watching events as they happen, and in between these events I’m simply guiding Snake along. I’m not playing his role in any sense, because he does far too much without me. Uncharted does the same thing, it’s narrative is passive, and seeing as that’s clearly what Naughty Dog were going for, they get full marks from me.

Interestingly some games have tried to give the user power over dialogue, the most recent example that comes to mind being Mass Effect, with its use of dialogue trees. Whilst this is definitely the best way of allowing the player to completely assume the role of the lead protagonist, (hence role-playing game I presume) containing any part of a game within its own minigame can make it seem much less important than it actually is. It’s not a central part of the experience as other actions such as shooting are, but in the best works of fiction dialogue is always hugely important.

To my mind dialogue is as important as any other action you can perform as a character. You could even say it’s more important than your trigger, depending of course on what kind of character you’re playing as. It therefore follows that dialogue needs its own corresponding buttons to control on the gamepad. You could as an example use the d-pad for such a task, having the up button illicit a positive response, the down negative, the right could cause some sort of query to be asked, perhaps if the player needs something repeated, and the left could be a simple ‘Hello’ button, to initiate conversation with an NPC. Yes it’s a basic system, but it’s a start, and would hopefully leave most players much more connected to their lead character than many games today.

The more we examine such a system the more we realise how difficult it would be to pull off. A huge amount of voice samples would need to be recorded, to avoid the repetition that would kill the believability of your character, and all the dialogue needs to make sense as a conversation at the end of the day. If such a system were to be successfully implemented however, just imagine its possibilities, walking into a town and having a natural conversation with an NPC before heading out on a quest, actually getting to control the confrontation with a final boss before ripping it a new one.

Yes it’s impossible, and yes it’ll almost certainly not happen in our lifetime, but it’s a nice idea isn’t it?

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