Dialogue and Player Choice

2019-07-31 · by Bruno Dias
tagged Columns / Non-Fiction

There’s a lot to say about writing compelling dialogue in an interactive format, but for this month’s column I want to drill down to the question of player intentionality as it relates to dialogue.

Intentionality, of course, is the player’s ability to not only have goals within the fiction of the game, but to knowingly take actions that meaningfully advance their those. It can be a slippery idea when it comes to dialogue. A lot of dialogue in interactive media, particularly when stories are not themselves dialogue-driven, is very expository. Traditional RPG “dialogue trees” play out as a simple question-and-answer session. This isn’t deep enough to hang an entire game on, even if it is a common and useful pattern in games that are not primarily focused on dialogue.

When writing dialogue scenes for static fiction, we’re usually driven by the idea of character goals and subtext: What are those characters superficially talking about; what do those characters want; how do their wants and their relationship emerge in this conversation even when they’re not being explicitly discussed. Adult drama, realist fiction, and some YA fiction runs on this idea of subtext; characters are always talking about quotidian things as a way of evincing deeper or more complex feelings that are usually not discussed explicitly.

Making this work in an interactive format is challenging. For one thing, the way we present dialogue as choices tends to flatten. Choice text has to be concise and easy to apprehend, whereas rich dialogue often relies on a character talking superficially about one thing when they mean another. Here’s the problem: “These eggs are overcooked, Martha” is a perfectly adequate line of dialogue in a play about a marriage falling apart. As choice text, however, it’s overlong and not expressive of what the character actually wants to convey by talking about the overcooked eggs. Dialogue is often best when it asks the reader to make an interpretive leap in understanding what a character is really talking about, but that interpretive leap can become a stumbling block when a player has to do it for every dialogue choice they’re presented with.

This kind of dialogue choice also does a poor job of expressing character intent beyond the immediate moment of the choice. Even if it signals to the player what the subtext of a given line is, it doesn’t necessarily get across what the direction of the conversation is. What does your player character want to get out of a conversation? Are your conversation choices about what the player character wants, or about how they go about getting it? How does the player direct the conversation to express that intent?

A common solution to all those problems is to use more explicit choice prompts or some kind of abstraction to help the player make choices. This is very common in dialogue-driven games that feature some kind of systemic mechanic in their dialogue. Of course, this means that if your choice prompts within dialogue are abstracted in some way, it can suggest to players that your game has some kind of underlying dialogue system, which might not be true at all. Turning dialogue into an abstracted game mechanic will not suit every game or every story.

Even when using a traditional branching-dialogue design, there are things that can be done to make conversation a more engaging part of interaction. Going in with an understanding of what conversations in your story are about and how the player exerts agency over them can guide many small but significant decisions, such as where to put dialogue branching points and where to allow the conversation to flow without player input.

Traditional branching dialogue can be satisfying, both narratively and interactively, but that requires real attention to how your material is written and what it’s trying to accomplish. Of course, systemic or abstract approaches have their own pitfalls and are not going to fit with every project.

As a very general rule of thumb, the more consistent the conversations in your story are, the more suited your game may be to a systemic dialog mechanic. If they’re all interrogations, or negotiations, or flirting, that makes it easier to build out a dialogue model than a game where a character engages in all kinds of conversations. Branching dialogue is a generalist tool that can be used successfully for a myriad of scenes. Its familiarity and versatility keeps that structure in widespread use.

Even if we can’t find the One True Prescriptive Way of writing dialogue in interactive media, we can ask ourselves these questions to inform our projects, and avoid “auto piloting” through the process of writing dialogue-driven material.

Bruno Dias is a writer and narrative designer based in São Paulo. His work has appeared in video game publications (Waypoint, PC Gamer), games (Where the Water Tastes Like Wine) and interactive fiction on Sub-Q and elsewhere.

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One comment

  1. Great column.

    I frequently find RPGs where the dialog choices don’t always match the outcome. Maybe it’s the designer trying to evoke a sense of mystery or exploration, or even just cause multiple playthroughs, but I find it can get annoying some times if not done with care.

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