Tools and approaches for engaging dialogue
Many games rely on a simple system of dialogue cutscenes as their main story-delivery method. The most recent game I worked on, ChronoBlade, also used this device and my direction was it should deliver the information as succinctly as possible, as players can quickly grow tired of it, while still including a great deal of the uniqueness of each character. Now you might be saying, “Conflicting goals! Noooooooo!” Well read on.
I should acknowledge my fellow narrative folks on the team: Mel O’Connor was the main narrative designer, and did the bulk of the writing, while Jordan Patz and I did some of the writing, but mainly made directorial and editorial contributions. A rule of thumb is if you like any of the writing samples below, you should assume I did them, and if you don’t, it was one or both of my colleagues.
OK, now remember when I said my direction contained conflicting goals? Well, guess what? These are almost always the same conflicting goals that exist for any writing for video games. Interactivity is the core of the medium, and dialogue is almost necessarily less interactive. Players want to play, so we need to give them the basic information and let them get back to it, or they’ll just skip the dialogue altogether, and if we try to force them to read, they’ll probably quit. This was my reasoning for how quests and dialogue worked in Diablo II—the story was there if you wanted it, but you could also skip it and easily access the information later.
And then there’s the other side of my direction; if the dialogue is not engaging, it doesn’t matter how short it is, players still will be uninterested and annoyed at its intrusion. If, on the other hand, you can get players to care about the characters, the world and the narrative, then they can come to see these cutscenes as a reward rather than an annoyance.
And on this last topic, at least somewhat resisting the temptation to be snarky, there is what I would call the standard fantasy role-playing game voice (SFRPGV) you can find examples of in many games, and particularly ones that use this type of dialogue cutscenes. It is a formal, sometimes vaguely ye-olde-tea-shoppe voice. Dungeon Runners won me over with a hermit character who sounded like Oscar the Grouch, appearing early in the game, mocking it thus:¹
You know that town where they all pretend they’re in the Renaissance? Yeah, those guys suck.
When SFRPGV is used ubiquitously, it leads to characters feeling very generic and one-dimensional. This is ultimately what we were trying to avoid.
Dungeon Runners also reminds me I should note there are other ways to create engaging dialogue, one of which is the use of humor—it’s very easy to overuse it. If everything is always jokey, it’s hard to arrive at a sense of any sense of depth or realism, and Dungeon Runners ultimately succumbed to this. Dave Sim, creator of the Cerebus comics, noted great, deep humor is ultimately based on developing strong characters:²
Once you catch the rhythm of [your characters’] speech, you’re halfway home to the kind of interaction that sells comic books. Someday I’m going to do a story with Cerebus, Elrod and Lord Julius locked in a closet. It’ll write itself.
In a later issue of the comic, “Exodus”, Sim actually did much as he describes here, but in a ship’s hold and with more characters.³ There was also an episode of Frasier where the writers seemed to have run across the same idea and taken up the challenge: the entire episode took place in a café with the various characters coming and going, and was awesome.⁴
So we created distinctive characters with well-defined backgrounds and tried to keep those in mind when writing their dialogue. The results, however, were hit and miss—sometimes there would be bits of dialogue that would showcase one or another aspect of a character, but there was still a muddy sameness to the voices. What I was striving for was a level of characterization so strong players would be able to identify the speaker just by reading a line—even a fairly bland line should at least allow players to narrow down the speaker. Obviously, more extreme measures were needed.
I decided what was needed was a tool that broke down the most essential elements of how character comes through in voice. Looking back at the SFRPGV, I already identified some distinctive elements: a Register: formal, and what I’d call a Quirk, as it differentiates it strongly from normal speech: archaism. I went on to identify two more elements generally missing from SFRPGV: Attitude and Topics. I defined these four elements thus:
Register refers to a scale of formality in speech. This is a real linguistics term I borrowed, but I defined a nonstandard scale better suited to the purposes of the game:
- Formal/ Grand
- Semi-Formal/ Grand
- Colloquial/ Informal
Attitude means a character’s outlook, which tends to find expression in speech. This is a major element of their personality.
Topics means the subject matter characters tend to care about and therefore mention with some regularity.
Quirks are distinctive elements of speech or personality. These elements are probably the most varied of all.
Another intent in choosing these is they work as separate axes and, therefore, are able to be combined in a variety of ways. Characters can share a register, for example, but if the other elements are different, their voices will still be quite distinctive. I created a matrix using these elements, and we filled it in to yield the following:
When writing dialogue lines, this was a great reminder of the elements that make up each character’s voice; we could essentially use it as a checklist and try to tick as many boxes as possible while still delivering the information and keeping things brief. The desired differences in character voices began to emerge:
Portia: We’ve got a strong lock on that signal, Aurok. It’s proximal to you up ahead.
Aurok: Then I shall proceed in the search for those left untainted among the Laxmenni survivors.
Conflicts also would arise between characters based on some of these traits:
Lucas: Come now, old man. You’ve obviously heard of Draugar; they can’t be that uncommon.
Launstig: They are things of lore, little else. An honored warrior becoming one is unheard of.
Wattsworth: Most interesting! I shall create an entry in my databank. We should attempt to gain a live specimen for additional study—
Launstig: These are our hallowed fallen, ripped from the glory of Valhalla—to do so would be a great offense!
Lucas: Then I suppose I ought not mention our intent to spirit one away to sell?
And finally, Huld, an Odio boss, threatens Lophi and Knot, who roundly ignore the creature in this bit of magnificent nonsense:
Huld: Toi et tous friends are but insects in nostra vis. You will make keinen Unterschied.
Knot: Lophi, doesn’t he remind you of that one big Khul’ngal?
Lophi: Ha, yeah, we sent that guy’s smoking soul to K’ik’allak’alla quick!
Knot: And he had that hilarious look on his face, and he was like, ‘Tukkatstsakin khekatskaaaaaaats!’ Hahaha!
If nothing else, we definitely took a big step away from the SFRPGV.
- Dungeon Runners, 2007.
- Dave Sim, Introduction, Swords of Cerebus, Volume 1, January 1982.
- Dave Sim, Cerberus #51: “Exodus”, June 1983.
- Season 1, Episode 24, “My Coffee with Niles”, Frasier, May 1994.