Let’s look at how dialogue can make or break our immersion in a video game’s world, with some examples on hand.
When it comes to organic gameplay, video games usually struggle to include narrative without it seeming too jarring or token. Story wasn’t a huge priority in the NES days, I suppose. I honestly didn’t need much motivation to jump on a turtle. This week, I want to talk about another narrative related topic: Dialogue. More specifically, how dialogue is presented to the player, rather than how the dialog is written.
My first example goes back to games from my childhood. PlayStation era Final Fantasy games usually presented dialogue in text boxes. You read a box, press “X” and then read the next one. Sometimes the characters will move around according to the situation, but these scenes are mostly static, and sometimes they can go on a long time. They also function like a cutscene, except without all the pre-rendered flashing lights.
It makes the player feel like their watching a game and not participating in an interactive experience. Scrolling text boxes have been the standard in the majority of games I’ve played for a long time, and I’ve grown to become used to them. If the dialogue moves the story forward, and develops the characters, I usually don’t mind; however, there are games that treat dialogue a bit differently in an attempt to make it a more engaging experience.
It would be erroneous to say that text boxes have always been the standard, those were just the games I grew up playing. One of the staples of older PC adventure games is the dialogue tree. The dialogue tree attempts to simulate a conversation with an NPC. The player picks a topic and the NPC responds. There are usually several different choices, and you can always go back to the root of the conversation to explore other branches. This is equivalent to letting the player read text boxes in the order they want, but more importantly, they try to simulate an actual conversation. The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion uses a similar system to talk with NPCs, but they go a step further.
In Oblivion, and other RPGs, sometimes the choices and text that can be unlocked in conversation depends on the player character’s stats and conversations skills. If you have a high enough skill relating to speech, the non-playable character will trust you enough to tell you more information. This is a way dialogue is directly linked to gameplay. Another game that does this well is Bioware’s Mass Effect series.
Mass Effect drives conversation through the use of a conversation wheel. Commander Shepard, the game’s protagonist, can convince people into doing what he wants or he can charm them. The decision depends on how you’ve been developing him/her throughout the game. Interactions with Shepard’s team mates are also driven by conversation as your are given opportunities to talk to them about their backgrounds and opinions on the current situation. The more you talk to them, the more influence you gain with them to win their loyalty.
Using this mode of interaction can unlock unique abilities for the character. This not only encourages you to talk to the vast cast of characters, giving you more motivation to flesh out the world – one of the main purposes of dialog – but it also makes you stronger. Even though the gameplay of Mass Effect isn’t considered as engaging as the story, this is a good example how to marry both aspects. Players need a reason to flesh out the world other than to increase their encyclopedic knowledge on the game’s inhabitable space. However, having a intriguing world – see Dark Souls – to begin with helps a great deal.
Why is this important? Like I said at the start of this article, when I was playing my Nintendo, I didn’t really need much motivation to stomp on turtles or beat eight robots. The game was the story and had to be the story in the eight bit days. Yes, there were plenty of RPG with the text boxes, but sometimes you have to tell the story with the world. Dark Souls does that now, but not every game is Dark Souls, nor should they be. There’s always room for dialogue and it can be treated as an organic component of gameplay. Mass Effect and The Elder Scrolls series are not the only ones that do it well, but those are the first couple of examples I think of that meld dialogue and gameplay together effectively.
Games are getting bigger and more complex and so are the worlds and the stories developers aim to tell us. With traditional cutscenes and seemingly endless text boxes, it can seem like hitting a brick wall when the story starts. A game can effectively tell a good story without dialogue, but that doesn’t mean dialogue can’t be used.