Extra Punctuation

Extra Punctuation
The Dangers of Dialogue

Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw | 10 Sep 2013 12:00
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I made this point during the Dark ZP review, in my signature frivolous style, but it's an issue that stands out pretty prominently in The Bureau, too: there's a staggeringly wide gulf between the sight of human beings in conversation and the spectacle of dialogue-tree conversation in video games. They generally have all the warmth and emotion of watching two computers on the same network pinging each other. This might seem like a small thing in the grand spectrum of dodgy video game design practices, but it's a problem I'm noticing often enough that perhaps it's worth trying to think of a better way.

One thing that gets my fuckgoat is when a dialogue tree is used as an information vending machine. This is what I was complaining about in the case of Dark: the old "Tell me more about X" "Blah blah blah X blah blah blah X blah blah blah Y" "Tell me more about Y" routine. This is about as 'telling without showing' as exposition gets. It's a larger problem I've noticed with video game dialogue that whenever something needs to be established, be it story fact or gameplay mechanic, it tends to be done in the quickest, most efficient route from A to B. Dishonored in particular was lousy with it.

Conversation is your opportunity, as a writer, to make the characters engaging. No character is engaging when they're dryly describing things, or recounting events that have happened, or recounting events that are currently happening, or recounting events that have GOT TO happen and you're the ONLY ONE who can do it to SAVE THE DAY. We human beings are creatures of emotion, and emotion is what we respond to. Emotion is all the stuff that comes across in between the facts and figures of the situation. It's the ums and the errs, the drifting around, the subtle implications of what subjects make the speaker tense, or cheerful, or depressed, and which other characters the speaker's personality clashes with. If the narration of, say, Thomas Was Alone had been restricted to exposition along the lines of "This is Thomas, he is a rectangle, and he has to get to the level exit in order to SAVE THE DAY" then I doubt Danny Wallace would've gotten that BAFTA award for his performance.

And emotion is carried fairly effectively through movement, too, which is why Bioware Face - the name I have for two characters standing stock still, facing each other, maintaining eye contact and making occasional gestures that are completely unrelated to what they're saying - seems so wooden and jarring. Wander around and fidget with the ornaments or something, for fuck's sake, just stop staring at me like you're trying to kill me with your eye beams.

The approach games like The Bureau seem to take is that the sole major function of the dialogue tree is to allow players to decide in what order they want to scarf down the exposition and to give them the option of when to stop scarfing. Fully custom-designed conversations, right? But then you get something like what the character customisation did to, say, Brink: uniform blandness with a few details changed. So in The Bureau I'd avoid the character dialogues whenever I felt I could get away with it, and then the game was stuck trying to engage me by piling adversity onto characters I knew fuck all about.

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