As Corvus Elrod likes to say, compelling stories arise primarily from the relationships between characters. Although these relationships can be generated or expressed in different ways, I think it’s fair to say that conversation is probably the most obvious and frequently used method in games. Yet it’s interesting to note that conversation systems in games are fairly rudimentary and, in many cases, pretty unsatisfying.
There are many reasons for that, of course; human conversation can be horrifically complicated to deconstruct, and dynamically generating realistic and meaningful conversation with computer-controlled characters is still years away, especially when you factor audio into the equation. As a result, most conversation systems in games are simplistic representations that often follow tight scripts and leave little room for exploration, which is probably fine with most developers; it’s difficult and time-consuming to create sophisticated interactive conversation, particularly without forcing players to use text-based input, and most text entry in mainstream games was abandoned some time ago. In the end, conversation is typically an insignificant component of gameplay, demanding barely more thought from players than a cutscene might.
I don’t have nearly the range of experience with games that many other people have, but I would venture to say that the conversation systems in most graphical, mainstream games fall under one of two general classes:
1. Click to speak. The simplest system, where you just click on an NPC or hit a single key to trigger conversation. The player typically has no control over the topic of conversation or what the player character says, generally or specifically.
2. Multiple choice dialog trees. Players select from a limited list of speech options, which helps direct the conversation to some extent.
I’m sure there are mainstream games with variations on these that I’ve missed or forgotten, but they are less common. Nevertheless, I have yet to see a conversation system in a graphical, mainstream game that is particularly satisfying. Most games that use #1 generally are just using conversation as a means of advancing a storyline, without really incorporating conversation into gameplay in any significant way. Systems related to #2 do at least involve some thoughtful input on the part of the player, and because the choices presented are often specific player quotations, the resulting conversation can seem much more natural while also providing some degree of characterization for the player character. On the other hand, this type of system also encourages a “lawnmower” approach of trying all options, even if it requires re-initiating the conversation or using the save/restore approaches. There is thus little consequence to making those choices, especially if the different conversation branches just lead to the same end point anyway, as is often the case.
It’s probably clear to readers here that I think interactive fiction has a leg up on other game genres in many areas, and conversation is one of those areas. But why is that? Is it because the medium has more conversation tools at its disposal? Is it because text-based input (and output) allows a greater range of conversation possibilities?
I don’t necessarily think so.
A while back Emily Short created what is essentially the seminal piece on conversation systems in IF, and there’s little reason to rehash what she so comprehensively covered. For those not as familiar with IF or her essay, I’ll just summarize the most common IF conversation systems, which mirror those mentioned above in graphical games. The three most common are:
1. TALK. Players just type TALK TO
2. Topic-based conversation. The most common form is the ASK/TELL system, where players type ASK
3. Multiple choice dialog trees. Same as mentioned earlier. Unlike with the ASK/TELL and TALK systems, players have a pretty good idea what specifically they will be saying or asking with the NPC, rather than generally. Particularly in a text game, this can provide a better degree of characterization. On the other hand, all potential choices are patent, leaving little challenge for the player, particularly if the conversation branches all lead eventually to the same end point. Also, as mentioned above, the UNDO or SAVE/RESTORE commands encourage the lawnmower approach, which can lessen player involvement and remove much of any challenge that is present.
These basic systems are not all that fundamentally different than those used in most mainstream graphical games, and within the IF realm they have their advantages and disadvantages. To me, though, there are three main reasons why I think conversation in IF generally works better than in other game genres: skill, creativity, and patience.
As I’ve suggested before, I think that perhaps it is a consequence of these games being created largely by writers rather than teams of programmers, designers, and artists, and I’m guessing it also has to do with the fact that most IF games are not commercial and lack the associated deadlines and budget constraints. It takes a lot of skill and time to write good conversation that creates depth for characters and their relationships, and even more to write it within a system where it is often pieced together at different points in time based on player actions. That takes a lot of planning, design, and testing. In some cases it demands some creative modification of the conversation system being used, but for the most part good, meaningful, and challenging conversation in games can be created with the tools and systems that are already out there. The more I play different IF games that have well-crafted conversation, the more I have come to realize this, and the more I believe that mainstream, graphical games can learn a lot from these implementations — if only the developers would have any interest in it, which is to say, if only they thought that players would have any interest in it.
I also think the nature of the medium and the IF community is to encourage experimentation with different types of systems, and the result is that there have been some pretty creative solutions to what is (still) a complicated and mystifying issue. Sometimes that involves systems that combine different elements; Vespers, for instance, combines the TALK system with the ASK/TELL system, while a game like Short’s Pytho’s Mask combines topic-based conversation with multiple choice dialog trees. But often there is more that is designed under the hood, so to speak, in order to generate conversations that flow smoothly and are consistent with the events of the game regardless of the player’s prior actions.
Over time, I’ll try to review some of the games that I think do well at implementing conversation, with a focus on the mechanics, but also with a focus on the question of whether conversation systems like these could have a role in the more mainstream, graphical games industry. In the meantime, I’d be interested to hear if there are any mainstream games that people have encountered in the past that they felt utilized an effective conversation system.
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