The ups and (mostly) downs of game dialogue
Let’s face it. Despite the strides that games like Red Dead Redemption, the Fallout series, and the Mass Effect series have made in the realm of game writing, there is still a lot of stilted, stereotypical, and clichéd dialogue out there. We needn’t look far for examples.
Heavy Rain (2010). Woman with insomnia: A hot shower! That’ll create the magic of sleep!
Bayonetta (2010). Bayonetta: I’ve got a fever, and the only cure is more dead angels!
Infamous (2009). Zeke: Look, I’m being serious man, now DARPA is the mother-load of black-ops crap. If she’s in with those clowns, you better watch out, son. Cole: Yeah, yeah, yeah, and Santa Claus shot J.F.K.
Aralon: Sword and Shadow HD for iPad (2010). Elf: Leave me alone, please. Protagonist: Am I bothering you? Elf: Yes, as a matter of fact, you are. Now get lost. And don’t tell anyone you saw me here.
Resident Evil 4 (2005). [after villagers trying to kill him have all left at the sound of a bell] Leon Kennedy: Where’s everyone going? Bingo?
This might seem like a small issue in an industry that earns billions of dollars without much help from interactive dialogue. To succeed, games need to be games first, and this golden rule usually makes dialogue a secondary concern, and rightly so.
However, the standards for game dialogue change when producing games that weave intricate narrative into their design. This holds true primarily for role-playing games, but it could also apply to first-person shooters with complex campaigns like in Call of Duty: Black Ops, or real-time strategy games with substantial cut scenes and plot lines, like StarCraft II. At any rate, as Darby McDevitt (writer of Assassin’s Creed: Bloodline) has argued, if narrative is central to your game, then you must treat writing—and by extension, dialogue—as a vitally important design component. Why? Because in these types of games, bad dialogue can “more or less eject you straight out of the experience” and make you remember you’re just a player in front of a screen.
What counts as ‘good’ game dialogue?
Good dialogue, on the other hand, can strengthen a player’s identification with the characters and the overall virtual world, deepening her emotional engagement and heightening the game’s replay value. Unfortunately, we can’t find quantitative evidence of this. We can, however, point to examples of dialogue that have managed to make an impression on more than a few people in terms of a game’s level of engagement. For example, take this mash-up of Best Nathan Drake lines, which appeared in the Complex Video Game Voice-Over Awards in 2010. Furthermore, we can cite memorable lines from critically-acclaimed video games that have been recognized for excellent writing:
Dragon Age: Origins (2010). Morrigan: “And now we have a dog. And Alistair is still the stupidest member of the party.”
Red Dead Redemption (2010). [Various lines from John Marston.] (General taunt) “I’m gonna give you a chance to kill me, ’cause I’m just that nice.” (Lassoing a lawman) “America! Home of the free!”
Portal (2007). GLaDOS: “You euthanized your faithful Companion Cube more quickly than any test subject on record. Congratulations.”
Baldur’s Gate (1998): Protagonist: “Utterly amazing! You spoke so long, but you didn’t say anything.”
The difficult question, especially for game writers but also for critics, is how do we know what counts as “high quality” dialogue? Are there criteria we might apply across all video games? As a technical writer by trade, a game writer by aspiration, and a lover of RPGs, that’s a question that has nagged at me for the past year and half. So I looked into numerous books and played a lot of story-driven games, such as Mass Effect, Fallout 3, and Dragon Age: Origins. As I dug into the topic and reflected on my gaming experiences, at least four criteria kept emerging again and again:
Helpfulness: Does the dialogue meet the minimum requirement to give the player the information he or she needs to learn the rules, obtain a hint, or play the game, while not making things too obvious?
Believability: Are the characters saying things that a real human or sentient being would say?
Depth: Are the characters in the game saying their lines in interesting ways?
“Gameness”/“Interactivity”: Does the dialogue appropriately support the interactive medium of games?
Of course, these criteria are not as straightforward as they sound. Most if not all of them depend on interrelated factors such as genre, visual style, and intended audience. There is also the matter of delivery: the dialogue itself might be well written, but it could be easily hindered by poor voice acting and subpar visual effects. And the “gameness” / “interactivity” criterion is almost entirely dependent on each game’s unique characteristics, generic conventions, and technical challenges. Writers of branching dialogue in complex RPGs will have different challenges than those who are writing non-branching dialogue in relatively linear action-adventure games.
Still, I couldn’t get past the thought that if we are to seriously consider how to judge the quality of game dialogue, that we should try to establish some common analytical criteria. Or, at the very least, to get people talking about game dialogue more critically and examining instances of game dialogue that “work” or “don’t work.”
Thankfully, this isn’t new territory. Some sources that have helped me think more deeply about this topic include Wendy Despain’s Writing for Video Game Genres, Donald Freeman’s Creating Emotion in Games, a variety of blogs and academic journals, and even interviews with game writers at BioWare and Bethesda Softworks (my two favorite game companies). Most of all, though, I’ve found it helpful to pick a specific segment of gameplay (or several related segments), play them through, and analyze then from different angles—taking care, of course, to consider them in the broader context of the game’s narrative and my experience with it as a whole. After all, it’s unfair to make judgments about game dialogue by simply reading scripts or reading over memorable quotes. Game dialogue must be “experienced.” Only then can we start to critically examine whether it is good, bad, or somewhere in the gray area in between.
Conclusion: What’s next?
In sum, even if we gained widespread agreement on the criteria for evaluating game dialogue, it would remain a messy, subjective business. There are a lot of factors to account for, and it’s hard to agree upon the precise ways in which dialogue will benefit the overall immersive effect of a game. Ideally, we could focus on one game at a time, or perhaps one segment at a time, and get data and opinions from a large number of people who have experienced it.
That’s why I started Dialoguejunkie.com, where I post videos of game dialogue and ask visitors to rate and/or comment on them. This will, I hope, foster a more community-oriented sense of what works and what doesn’t in game dialogue, and ultimately promote better writing in the industry.
I invite everyone, players and practitioners alike, to visit the Dialoguejunkie.com to share your thoughts and opinions. At a minimum, I hope it will galvanize us gamers to consider not just what the state of game dialogue is at a given point in the history of the medium, but how we can fairly evaluate it after experiencing it, and what we can do to make it better.
- Darby McDevitt. “A Practical Guide to Game Writing.” October 13, 2010. Gamasutra.
- Keith Stuart. “Voicing concerns: the problem with video game acting.” March 16, 2010. Games Blog.