Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Game talk

There's an interesting thread over on the Adventure Game Studio forum about how to handle large dialogs in adventure games.  The question is whether conversations that give lots of background detail on a character or event is important enough to include, even if it's optional.  Does it bloat the game?  Or does it enrich the game?

Dialog is something I have always struggled with.  Writing it comes easy enough for me, but should I?  I've found myself growing incessantly impatient with long dialogs in games, and unless the characters are engaging enough I simply skip through it.

Adventure games have it tough, especially indie ones.  If a company like Bioware wants to have a longish conversation in one of their games, they can usually get away with it.  They have production values, so we get all sorts of funky camera angles while the characters talk.  We get wide shots, close-ups, even pans and zooms.  The characters move. They gesture.  We can see their eyes and expressions, and so we get drawn deeper into what they are saying.  The fact that the conversations are usually well-written and engaging are just a bonus. 

Alas, little games like mine don't have this luxury.  Usually you have one screen and two characters standing there.  They talk.  And that's all you see.  The camera doesn't move.  The characters barely move.  Nothing happens, except the dialog.  Even if the conversation is an interesting one, it is bound to get boring for many players.

As I've written more games, I've found myself writing less and less dialog.  Or rather, each individual dialog exchange has gotten shorter and shorter.  It's very tempting to give your character gobs of words to say, especially if you think they are interesting.  And since the characters are interesting, obviously the player will want to spend some time listening to them talk and get to know them, right?

Meh... sort of.  It's taken me several games to learn this, but less is definitely more.  Games are all about interacting with the world.  Yes, you want to talk to the characters, but you also want to explore  and get on with the game (and meet more characters).   Yes, allow the player to chat with your characters, but try and keep it short. 

I am very guilty of this sin.  Inspired by the Adventure Game Studio thread, I went and skimmed through the dialog of The Blackwell Legacy.  And man, can those characters talk.  Here's a particularly evil example of what I'm talking about.  It's a long section of dialog which is made worse by the fact that Rosa is on the screen by herself.  She's on the phone talking to her boss:

Boss: Rosangelina. Hi.
Rosa: Hi Bob.
Boss: Thanks SO much for submitting your last review on time. For once.
Rosa: Yeah.
Boss: I got a little assignment for you today.
Rosa: Assignment?
Rosa: I just review books, Bob.
Boss: Well, today you're not.
Boss: Human interest, Blackwell. And it's RIGHT in your neighborhood.
Rosa: Human interest?
Boss: Yep. College girl. Suicide.
Rosa: Someone killed herself?
Boss: Yep. Some girl named... JoAnn.
Rosa: That's-
Boss: You know the Britany House? The NYU dorm?
Rosa: Yes, but-
Boss: Great! Head over to the dorm and get a few statements.
Rosa: But-
Boss: Speak to some people on her floor. Get a word in with the roommate.
Rosa: Listen-
Boss: Speak to the R.A., too. And hey, if you can score a picture of the girl, that would be a real coup.
Rosa: But I don't do that stuff!
Boss: Like I said, today you ARE.
Boss: Jared's over at city hall covering that strike.
Boss: So you're it.
Rosa: Today is not the best-
Boss: Not hearing you.
Boss: Write it up for tomorrow's edition.
Boss: Pressures of college life, etc.
Boss: It practically writes itself.
Rosa: Wait-
Boss: I'm SO looking forward to reading it, Blackwell.
Boss: Ciao!

(hangs up)

Rosa: I hate him so much.
Rosa: Is freelancing for that stupid paper even worth it?
Rosa: I guess it keeps me writing, but...
Rosa: Oh, whatever.
Rosa: I'll just go over there and get it done.
Rosa: It's not like I don't have enough death in my life right now.
So hm.  Let's count those lines, shall we?  1..2...3... 41 lines!  41 lines to tell the player they need to go to a location and ask some questions about a girl, and to grab a picture while there.  41 lines of zero player interactivity.  41 lines of Rosa standing there on the screen with a phone to her ear. 

I'm not knocking the dialog.  I like the dialog.  But hey, I'm a bit biased.  However, I can't deny that it could have been much shorter.  So as a little writing exercise, I decided to see if I could edit it down:
Boss: Rosangelina. Hi.
Rosa: Hi Bob.
Boss: I got a little assignment for you today.
Rosa: Assignment?
Boss: Human interest, Blackwell. Suicide. A college girl named JoAnn Sherman.
Rosa: That's awful, but-
Boss: You know the Britany House? The NYU dorm?
Rosa: Yes, but-
Boss: Great! Head over to the dorm and get a few statements.
Rosa: But-
Boss: Speak to some people on her floor. Get a word in with the roommate.
Rosa: Listen-
Boss: Speak to the R.A., too. And hey, see if you can score a picture of the girl.
Rosa: But I don't do that stuff! I write book reviews.
Boss: Versatility, Blackwell. That's you make it in this biz.
Boss: Get cracking.

(hangs up)
Rosa: I hate him so much.

Count 'em.  It's now 17 lines instead of the previous 41. It's shorter, snappier, and gives you the exact same information.  I probably could have cut it down further by removing all of Rosa's interjections of "But!" and "Listen!", but they show Rosa's reluctance nicely and made the dialog flow a lot more naturally. This is how I probably would've written this exchange today. 

I have no plans on releasing a "cut down dialog" edition of Blackwell Legacy, but it begs the question.  How do you feel about long dialogs in games?  Do you enjoy them?  Skip through them?  Did you play Blackwell Legacy and ever cry out "God, do these people ever shut up?"  Please comment and let me know.



  1. Hate it. Hate it. Oh my... hate. Every time the game takes control from me and makes me read or listen to pages and pages of dialog... that's not why I play games. I play games to PLAY games. Let me get to finding random stuff and rubbing them together.

  2. As a gamer, I don't like long dialogs and pages of topics in adventure games. I feel myself obligated to read all the possible dialogs (and especially what we can choose to say), long dialogs can become a torment especially if English is your foreign language. Sometimes less is more.

    The best solution to keep the player interested is putting images on the screen, in my opinion. Are they talking about a murder now? Why don't we see an artwork that describes the incident?


  3. Depends if the dialog is interesting or if I like the character. I'd listen with my full attention if the conversation was interesting or revealed something important to the game but if it was nothing important then I'd skim through it or would be like 'ugh! when is it gonna end.
    I find the way characters talk reveals alot about them, so alot of dialog is not so bad to me, as long as there's also equivalent stuff for the player to do to balance the long dialogs ^^

  4. I would say I'm against it. I would be tempted to say that if there's that much backstory/information then to make it optional, but then I'm reminded of all the games that provide extra backstory that I don't read because I just want to get to the gameplay. I'd prefer finding out information through a character's actions or through details in the game environment.

  5. Nice article, Dave. I liked that thing about Bioware and pan, zoom, moving and emotions. If lengthy conversations in adventure games were like that, I wouldn't mind them, I'd just relax and enjoy the show, but when all you got is 2 static sprites, with no portrait, no animation and no emotion shown, you better make it quick or snappy or funny, otherwise I'll get bored.

    >>> The best solution to keep the player interested is putting images on the screen, in my opinion.

    Images or cutscenes, or animating your characters, or having them visually show their emotions instead of using text/speech for that and further increasing your line count.

    Pushing even further, you could use playable flashback for important backstory exposition. If they're talking about murder, why have them narrate the whole thing? Why not give the player the control of the victim and have him play the scene?

  6. What part of "adventure" or "game" implies lengthy noninteractive dialogue? I'd definitely lean towards less, in this day and age.

    Two things to note:

    1) Dialogue doesn't have to be non-interactive. Can you not have branching dialogue, where the player selects one of several options and the NPC responds, possibly changing the game state in the process? I don't know about AGS specifically, but I've seen this in other adventure games, and certainly if you're using your own engine this is not very difficult on a technical level.

    2) Dialogue is not the only way to tell a story. The environment can tell a graphical story (even a low-res one) without any text at all. A red blotch on the wall of a murder scene doesn't really need a character saying "wow, look at all the blood on the walls" -- the player can see it for themselves. Show, don't tell, right?

  7. I like it, even love it. But you have to do it right. ALWAYS make it skippable, ALWAYS have subtitles for those who'd rather read (much more quick) than listen, and NEVER (the written part anyway) have it advance on its own, unless its also pausable.

    If something comes up and I have to leave the game, I don't want to miss anything. I also don't want to miss anything because it auto-advances right after I clicked the button for it to advance, and miss a whole line of dialogue. Or have it advance

    Making the dialogue replayable could help, so I can

    But I want to be able to not have to wait through it again if I've already listened to / read it. Skippability.

    The great dialogues are one of the things I like most about your games, David.

  8. Half my favorite games are among the biggest offenders of this excessive dialogue problem (Xenogears, Longest Journey games), so I have to say on the whole, I don't usually mind. In fact, I would take great pleasure in being responsible for my own unrepentantly plot-heavy read-o-thons, and if they turned away some potential audience members, so be it.

    But then there are those times when the scene in question just isn't worth the forty five minutes it takes to sit through it, or maybe you'd like to head out and you just need to save your game without skipping something, but no, some chump villain isn't finished with his autobiography, yet, and would you please just bear with him another second or 5000 more. (Adventure games are especially bad here, because most of them have automatically progressing text and no pause button.)

    After taking part in the above mentioned AGS thread, it occurred to me that optional dialogue is actually worse than the mandetory stuff. Story specific dialogue is usually relevant, at least, but optional dialogues force the player to wade through a bunch of trivia, just to make sure they aren't missing any important hints or insights. But whether you are exhausting the dialogue tree of a new NPC in an Adventure Game, or reading the one to four lines of every random townsperson in the new location you just came to in a JRPG, what you are really doing is a chore. You are accumulating information, a fraction of which will be genuinely useful, informative, or entertaining, and the rest of which will be pointless world trivia and rewording of things you already knew.

    I think the real point is to take optional dialogue into account when you are considering the pacing of your story, and not treat it like it is that special place to dump all the information you didn't want to bog down the plot with.

    On Blackwell: On reading both scenes, the first one does feel a little drawn out, but I didn't notice in the game itself when I played. I actually thought that exchange worked pretty well. There were a couple points where I thought dialogue dragged on a little, though. I can't remember which, though. In general I was fine with the dialogue.

  9. The second version of the phone exchange felt a little rushed, but that may be only because I had just red the first version. I will say it set off a red flag for me at the end, because I heard once from someone reviewing webcomics that "I hate you" was a bad punch line, which I guess I must have internalized. I think things really are lost in abridgment, long dialogues are certainly something to be conscious of.


    Trying this on. I think long, involved dialogues in games are really like your more wordy, involved novels. It isn't that they are bad, per se, and they DO add depth. But just like you would sometimes rather read some lightweight sci fi than try to force your way through Moby Dick, sometimes you just don't want to play a game with a lot of dialogue, no matter how much it adds to the story and world, when you could be playing something engaging and fast paced. And just like some people are never going to sit through Moby Dick, some people are never going to sit through Dreamfall (which has NOTHING on Moby Dick--I mean, God damn), and if your artistic vision demands that your playerbase have both free time AND attention spans, then you had better be prepared for a smaller audience, but if you need a broad audience to stay afloat, financially, then you had better be prepared to write the sort of bite-sized dialogues that won't turn people away.

    I guess I think we limit ourselves when we frame game design choices in terms of right and wrong, even when certain features are widely despised for perfectly understandable reasons. Because what really matters when you set out on a game (or any other artistic endeavor) isn't how many people like it, or how much money it makes, or whether it has good artistic or literary or technical qualities. It isn't even how fun it is. It is whether you accomplished what you wanted to accomplish, and if not, whether you accomplished something else that you or anyone else finds worthwhile.

  10. MI2-style character gestures mitigate this somewhat. And optional "Tell me about yourself ..." dialogue choices are fine, making further exposition a matter of player preference.

  11. Great insight into how to structure dialogue for an adventure game - It's so true about Bioware games... I spent most of "Mass Effect" listening and watching the dialogue, absorbing the "experience."

    I spent most of "Runaway" and other recent adventures clicking past the dialogue to get to the next puzzle.

  12. I would describe myself as someone who doesn't have too much patience for long dialogs and lots of extraneous information thrown at him. Nevertheless, when I think it really through, it's not as simple as that.

    I don't remember having any problems with the length of dialogs in Blackwell Legacy, in fact for some reason it's my favorite game in the series and I was really interested in hearing Rosa's reactions to all sorts events and things around her. I found the whole lead-in to Rosa discovering Joey particularly great and involving.

    The only Blackwell that seemed a bit talky to me was Convergence. It probably has something to do with the fact that in Legacy and Unbound the player is able to manually create new (and vital) conversation topics, which makes him feel much more in control during the dialogs. Also, the player listens to some of the dialogs with the immediate satisfaction of cracking a puzzle and moving further in Rosa's investigations - in Convergence the conversations are mostly hunts for clues that you use outside them later.

  13. I never skip anything in a game, particularly dialog. I read (or listen to) every word. I love them. I'm all about text-heavy adventures, like The Longest Journey. Right now I'm playing Gabriel Knight and bathing in a sea of dialog.

    As I study more and grow as a designer, though, I've been learning the same lesson you're learning -- nobody wants to read your words. One of the major, and most difficult, things I have to learn is how to keep it under my hat and cut myself off. Twittering has actually been a wonderful exercise for me, teaching economy. You have to say more with less.

  14. @igor
    It's interesting that you say Convergence felt more talky, since the overall line count in Convergence was much less than Legacy (around 4000 for Legacy versus around 2750 for Convergence). I'll have to look into that. Any more thoughts on the matter, though?

    Hah! I wonder if Twitter is a contributing factor in the lack of patience for long dialogs. Even film and television is significantly quicker and snapper than it used to be. Heck, look at Doctor Who. As for Gabriel Knight, oh yes those games can really pour on the dialog. But the characters are so cool and the story is so interesting you don't care. Who wouldn't want to listen to Michael Dorn for a few hours? It's been years since I've played them. I wonder if I'd still have the patience.

  15. I think there are more than one issue that you are trying to touch on at the same time, Dave, and I'm wondering if it might perhaps be better to separate them.

    First of all, you really cannot forget the time factor involved. Certainly time has passed since the original example was written, and your skills would have been subsequently shaped over time.

    Secondly, is the factor of editing. Certainly you must do mostly self-editing, but editing is a skill that is often just as important as the writing. (I wonder if it may be an under-represented skill in game development.) Perhaps a good external editor would have helped you cut the original script down, paring things closer to the new version.

    As for "long sequences of dialog" with little interactivity, I think that the simple answer is usually "more interactivity". That said, I'm not adverse to strong "monologues" (in the lengthy bursts of exposition or emotion from a character) if done well (and fitting with the story and pacing). That said, there is one revelation that I had...

    I was working towards the speed run achievement for Secret of Monkey Island (Special Edition), and it became clear that the dialog with The Voodoo Lady was entirely optional in SMI. That conversations seems so important to establishing the "feel" of the game, that I remember playing the game just to replay that dialog. Yet, there isn't a puzzle-solving reason to ever talk to The Voodoo Lady (and I bet there are even players that might never have bumped into her in SMI).

    I think one of the (great) challenges of interactive writing is not giving up those long dialogs that you sometimes love to write, but definitely giving up the assumption that all of your players will see it. More importantly, don't feel that you have to gate all of your players through all of your content, particularly when the only excuse is that you like that content and want to make sure players see it.

    I think its actually something of an ancient tenet of adventure game design that wasn't so much lost as just never written down in neon letters and emblazoned onto people's retinas. In so many cases the long dialogs are just the sort of reward the people that find them are looking for. (You can even make players literally beg for it, if you wish. Such is the power of interactivity.)

    (Also, just a small nit, but it seems more typical to compare the length of dialog/text using word counts rather than line counts (because a line length is rarely standard). Do you have any word count comparisons?)

  16. @Dave I'd never guess Convergence had less lines than Legacy, especially as the game seems to be longer in general. I can only guess why it felt to me like it did. It could be just as well an impression from the number of different characters and conversation topics. Or maybe for some reason I did repeat same conversations a lot in search for clues.

  17. Hi,

    I have no problems with long dialogs but it depends on how they are done. For example the voice cast of the blackwell series are good so I like to listen to dialogs there. There was only one thing I did not like too well: Repeating the same dialog over and over again as it appeared in Convergence (Actor, "I´d now you would come...", Artist).

  18. It annoys me when you have to "wait" for dialog or click through it chunk by chunk. Your 17 line version was fine and I could read it quickly. But when it appears a few words at a time above a little cartoon character it gets annoying. It's doubly irritating when you miss a detail and have to provoke the whole conversation again.

    There must be a better way to present dialogs in adventure games than that. Showing the full script on screen, like you have in your post, would enable readers to get through the dialog much faster.