As for dialogue trees, it depends how they're done. The Bioware standard of having the characters stand woodenly across from each other running down a shopping list of options one by one like a job interview, I always find that slightly tortuous. I liked how Alpha Protocol did it, with a little timer and an analog stick selector to keep the discussion ticking along, I just wish it could be worked more organically into gameplay.
I'd like an NPC to start talking to me as soon as I come close to them, rather than staring mutely at me until I hit the context-sensitive prompt flashing over their heads. I'd then like to still be in control of my character throughout the conversation, walking around, fiddling with ornaments, hunting through drawers, shooting arrows at bunny rabbits, etc, with dialogue options being selected with some quick on-screen prompt using a button or control that is otherwise unoccupied. I don't know if you guys saw the Plinkett review of Revenge of the Sith, but he makes a good point that all the dialogue scenes are just two people standing (or sitting) and gabbing at each other, and it's incredibly dull. People do other things while they talk; it makes for more dynamic discourse and an opportunity for characterization.
This is where games like the new Fallouts (which I otherwise love) and Mass Effect take me out of the game because I'm always worried about what I might be unknowingly screwing up by selecting one dialogue choice over another. Like yourself, gaming is my job as well as my hobby, and I don't have time for unlimited playthroughs of a game, so I want the one play I DO get to be good. But I find myself afraid to pick dialogue options as I please, and instead scrutinize a walkthrough for fear that if I choose poorly then NPC 1 will die later, or Quest-Line X will lock down... all because I said "Yes" to someone who seemed nice at the time.
I think this segues nicely into why sandbox games are a horrible medium for real storytelling. Now, I loves me some GTA (particularly San Andreas), and I'm a massive Fallout nerd, but if you ask me my favorite sandbox game, it's Saints Row. I know Yahtzee will back me up on this. Fallout 3 tried to tell a (frankly quite touching) story about fatherhood, and GTA 4 tried to weave an epic tale of an immigrant working his way up the New York crime ladder, but they both failed because of all the other stuff they crammed in the game.
That isn't to say it all that cramming was ill-advised. I don't play Fallout for the story, I play it for the atmosphere and the setting. I don't play GTA for the pathos, I play it for the stealing cars and the running down elderly pedestrians. But in a sandbox game the story, and the everything else, are at odds, and pull the player's attention in different directions. Whereas Saints Row's "story" was "Be Better at Crime" and it was the most entertaining game I'd played in ages. I guess what I'm saying, in roundabout fashion, is that I agree with Yahtzee when he says that a game having a story is not necessarily a good thing.
Shamus, I don't think gaming's stories WERE better in the past. I think they're the exact same now, but more of it is laid bare for us with useless cutscenes and wooden acting, and because we're not having to use our imagination to fill in the gaps, we're realizing how lame the stories really are.
Be sure to come back next week for more of this discussion.
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