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The Dialogue Interview

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The Dialogue Interview

Interview - posted by Vault Dweller on Fri 18 May 2007, 02:56:49

Tags: Brian Mitsoda; David Gaider; Josh Sawyer; Scott Bennie

I've decided to explore the concept of dialogues in RPGs a bit by asking Brian Mitsoda, JE Sawyer, Scott Bennie, and David Gaider a few questions about this delicate subject. I also asked Chris Avellone, but he's busy watching the Aliens movies for ...uh... research purposes. I tried to play dirty and threw "think of teh kidz!" line at him. His chilling "The kids must suffer" reply provided a rare glimpse into his dark soul and, coincidentally, answered question #10: "What's evil and how do you show these traits in your characters?". Anyway, the interview:

6. What games/characters would you use as outstanding examples of great writing in games and why? What influenced you as a game writer?

Brian Mitsoda: Fallout was the game that made me transition from a career in film and apply at Interplay. I enjoyed that the story could be different to each player and I saw potential in reactive storytelling and the possibilities of game narratives. I was a bit naive in thinking it wouldn't sink into the same formulaic trappings of the film industry, but I look at games like Planescape, Psychonauts, and System Shock as examples of how interesting stories and gameplay can be intertwined in a way that can't easily be duplicated by other forms of entertainment. Planescape, I probably don't have to explain the sense of brilliant weirdness and fantastic exploration to readers of this site and Chris (Avellone, my boss) really hates it when people get fanboy on him (but you should probably dress up like Falls-From-Grace and wait for him in his car, he loves that.) The mind voyeurism/exploration aspects of Psychonauts and the smoothness with which they were blended into the game design, wow... more games should have that kind of story integration (and be that funny). For System Shock, I not only enjoyed the terrifying exploration of Citadel Station, but I don't think I've ever hated a "bad guy" in any game, movie, or book more than Shodan because she actively taunted and harassed me in a way that traditional written medium bad guys can't replicate.​

1. Since we have several developers here, please introduce yourself and give us an overview of your dialogue-related work: games, memorable characters you were responsible for, and anything else you feel is relevant.

I'm Brian Mitsoda, probably the least known of the bunch because I have never had a biopic optioned about me (for good reason). I'm currently the Creative Lead (or "Head Writing and Stuff Related to Writing Guy") on Obsidian's Project Georgia, which is being published by Sega and that's all I can say about that right now. I've worked on many, many canceled games and a game called Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, which dozens of people around the world have played. Some of the questionably memorable characters I've created over my 6+ years in the industry include Jeanette and Therese Voerman, Prince Sebastian LaCroix, the Friggin' Chicken commercial guy and apparently, a stop sign.

My name is J.E. Sawyer and I wrote some of the dialogue for Icewind Dale, Icewind Dale: Heart of Winter, Icewind Dale 2, and Neverwinter Nights 2. Probably the only memorable character I've written is Maralie Fiddlebender in Icewind Dale 2 (in-game and chapter breaks), and probably the best
writing there.

Scott Bennie. I worked at Interplay during the 1990s, where I was responsible for a lot of dialogue in the Lord of the Rings RPG series, the Star Trek: Twenty-Fifth Anniversary and Judgment Rites adventure games, and some of the dialogue in Fallout, and Descent to Undermountain (though you probably gave up on that game after five minutes, so you never got to read it).

I worked a lot with licensed games, so I didn't create as many characters as some. There were a few: Dr. Wu in the original Fallout, is memorable just for the amount of profanity that he spews. I suppose my big contribution was in the Star Trek adventure series, where I looked at the dialogue, said "shouldn't Spock and McCoy be snarling at each other?" and I added a lot of banter between them, to recapture what I loved in the original series. And it worked. 25th Anniversary was the game that broke the so-called "Star Trek curse", in part because we paid attention to things like dialogue and dying redshirts that captured what fans enjoyed about the series.

David Gaider. I've worked for Bioware now for about eight years, with most of my work being dialogue-related. The projects I've had a major hand in include:
  • "Baldur's Gate 2" (my major contributions being much of Athkatla, the Drow city in the Underdark, and three of the four romances - Aerie, Viconia and Anomen, as well as other party members)
  • "Throne of Bhaal" (my first time as Lead Writer)
  • "Knights of the Old Republic" (my contributions being Korriban and some of the major characters - Carth, HK-47, Jolee Bindo and Bastila's romance)
  • "Neverwinter Nights" (to a lesser degree, my work is mostly in Chapter 2)
  • "Shadows of Undrentide" (much of Chapter 1, including Deekin)
  • "Hordes of the Underdark" (the critical path was mine, and I wrote both Deekin and Valen)

2. What is the role of dialogues in RPGs, in your opinion? What do they add (or suppose to add) to the overall gameplay experience?

Brian Mitsoda: This is a tricky question because it depends on the game. In some RPGs, it's to prompt you to hit the "A" button really quickly so you can get back to power-leveling. In some it's to figure out what path the designer wants you to go down to get the best reward, probably by being sycophantic to Whistlin' Bilboo the Street Sweeper. In the few that take reactivity into account and allow the player interaction to change up the dynamics in the relationships between the characters and even affect the character's fate and the story, these dialogues serve to enhance the roleplaying aspect and just possibly make the player a bit more interested in the plot because they can get involved. Adequate to good dialogue (and story) motivates a few players to continue playing and finish the game and hopefully makes the characters and world more real, completing the necessary illusion for a zesty bit of escapism.

J.E. Sawyer: Character dialogue helps define characters, mood, and setting. Like many aspects of design, it gives a sense of style, time, and place to what's happening. In its most blunt application, it conveys rudimentary information, but I think that's using very little of its potential.

Player-selected dialogue helps the player express and define the personality of his or her character. Again, it's often used to reveal basic information, but I think that sells it short, especially for RPGs. If that's really what it's being used for, it doesn't need to be a
player-driven event.

Scott Bennie: Well, you have to give the players directions somehow. I think dialogue is as important a defining element as any in an RPG. It's also a key to mood. A game has three tools to produce mood: dialogue, sound, and art. Of those three, dialogue is the easiest to adjust in the design process.

3. What constitutes good dialogue? What are your preferences in regard to length, style, verbosity, character, flexibility, humor/drama, etc. Feel free to throw in some examples.

Brian Mitsoda: What I strive for most in my dialogues is creating memorable characters. To do this, I obsess over the lines these characters say - that's how the players going to learn about them mostly, not from bios or books or gossip or friend-o-meters. They need to contain the most amount of info and personality in the shortest amount of time. They need to contain lines that players and popular media enthusiasts have not heard a million times. The dialogue shouldn't make the characters sound like quest kiosks but more like real people who existed before you met them and will exist afterward (if you didn't butcher them for loot.) The dialogue should be written for actors, no matter what genre. I try to appropriately blend humor, drama, directives/exposition/explanations (for the player), pacing, and reactivity for all my characters, which can be frustrating at times, but ultimately rewarding for me, the actors, the people who pay me, and the players.

J.E. Sawyer: Good dialogue fits the mood and setting of the game, is interesting to read, and ideally is reactive/interactive on a regular basis. Long pieces of exposition can be interesting, but usually aren't. Many writers think that their exposition is a lot more thrilling than it actually us, but any sort of peer review usually clears that up quickly.

Humor can be totally fine if it fits with the mood and setting. I think it's hard to strike the right balance of humor with multiple writers on a project. Often some writers are super-serious and others decide to become a new King of Comedy. Since writers often work by area, it can produce a striking lack of continuity.

Scott Bennie: Clarity is the first and most important goal of dialogue. You don't want the player floundering without clear directions. But...

...there's a tendency these days to dismiss dialogue in games, to say it's something you can click through without paying much attention to it. The whole shooter genre is at least partially a reaction to the RPGs and puzzle adventures of the 90s -- you could see the folks at id saying when they made Doom: "let's strip this puppy down to its basics and get rid of the crap". So we got simplified mission design (which, given how infuriatingly arbitrary puzzle design was in the 80s and 90s. was a very good thing) and mission summary text. And RPGs have adapted to the model in quest design because the ease of use features they added, particularly in mission summaries, is a useful thing to have. They've also, however discouraged the use of dialogue trees and in doing so, I think we've lost some of the best parts of adventure/RPG games.

For myself, I've set three rules on a dialogue tree, should I get the chance again to write a dialogue tree the way I'd like.

1. No text display longer than one paragraph. That way, when you're forced to run long, the player knows the dialogue is special and has an extra clue to pay attention.

2. No dialogue that goes more than three layers deep. This keeps it to a manageable level.

Modern games are often scared of dialogue, of boring their audience, of making the player click too many times. That's understandable, because a lot of 90s games did exactly that. Outside of the KOTOR series, I can't think of anything that's really challenged people very much in recent years. I do think some of the quest dialogue is MMORGs is pretty good; stripped down, economical, with the right hint of atmosphere. Dialogue in a game like World of Warcraft is very competent, especially compared to Blizzard's early efforts like Diablo. However MMORGs are by of necessity pretty generic fantasy.

In RPGs, good dialogue is immersive. It's what brings the player into the story. What separates this character from every other NPC? Dialogue answers the question. It makes us hate or care about a character. RPGs can engage the lizard brain with toys, trinkets, and character advancement, but the truly great RPGs are those that hook players with characters and their story. And when you care about those, you can have a stretch where you can write 5,000 words for a dramatic revelation scene because they care, and when you get your hooks into people, wordcount is a much less important issue. (Though if you're not Chris Avellone and you're not writing Planescape Torment, you probably don't want to write the long revelatory scene too many times.)

David Gaider: I guess I could tell you the same thing that I would tell a new writer working on their own dialogue. You want to avoid being overly verbose and engaging in exposition, which is really easy to do as the tendency in a game is to want to explain everything to the player. They should perhaps have the option to seek such explanation, but it's very easy to fall into the trap of leading them through your dialogue and forgetting that there are some who don't need it or who want to cut to the chase. The other side of good dialogue is having choices in the responses. Choices that are simply there for flavour are okay to a point - you do want to provide for different styles of play, after all - but meaningful choices that actually lead to different options make for better dialogue. Naturally you can have only so many "real" options in a dialogue, but you want to have enough that the player doesn't feel like the choices he's making are meaningless.

4. Exploring the "good dialogue" topic further, how do you balance story-telling, setting flavor, character flavor, moral choices, skill-checks, etc when writing dialogues?

Brian Mitsoda: Because I'm not writing movies, TV, or NASCAR erotica, I also need to make sure that those characters react to the player's previous choices in a way that is organically transparent to the player - that is, I have to make sure the player knows that relationships are changing without the characters telling them this or something ridiculous like a relationship thermometer popping over their head. On my current project I'm doing this by BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP ...but on Bloodlines I did this by, say, calling out clan animosity, or sending out emails from characters to "announce" their feelings, or having a character like the Prince go nuts because you played through a mission a way that he did not suggest. Essentially, if you write smart, you can include reactive bits in the right places to reinforce the player's decisions with the characters and branching just enough to provide alternate dialogue to make it feel like the story/relationship has changed significantly.

J.E. Sawyer: I think setting and character flavor should be part of all conversations, though writers should be careful not to overload the writing with idiosyncrasies that alienate "nubz" to the setting. I think moral choices should actually be difficult. It's too easy if the choice is as simple as matching a character's alignment to a response. Choices should involve agony for a variety of characters, regardless of their moral/ethical background.

Things like skill checks or other "status checks" that reward the player for building their character a certain way should come up at least once in every major conversation. And I think those choices should always give the player an advantage and it should always be clear what the "checked option" is. I put points in combat skills because I want to see my character do better in combat. If I put points in conversation skills, I want to know when I get the advantage and how.

Scott Bennie: I really don't think about it that mechanically. The story's needs tend to present themselves organically, and then I go back and ask "what if" and I flesh things out a bit.

It's good, of course, to revisit your design and ask if yourself if you're penalizing a player who takes a particular game mechanic (such as a skill) by never using it. Everything has to be relevant. But that's a principle of game design that applies to more than dialogue.

5. How did you create those memorable characters you [hopefully] mentioned previously? What made them so memorable in your opinion?

Brian Mitsoda: Oddly, the Stop Sign was thought of, written and implemented in five minutes. I was just looking for some odd Easter Egg for the Malk players and, well, hadn't been sleeping much and something clicked in my brain. Since it didn't need audio and was easy to implement, it stayed.

My goal when creating Prince LaCroix was to not only make him someone that the player would love to hate but make him a plausible villain. The base for LaCroix was the character Lord Bullingdon from Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, who I reimagined if he had been embraced and survived into the present day. I'm really tired of bad guys who are evil just because, so I tried to make LaCroix reasonably realistic (to the extent that a vampire governor can be). LaCroix's a manipulative politician but he is a huge target and has been given a heated and unpopular part of the country for the Camarilla and he doesn't want to end up dead. He's somewhat stressed by this. He doesn't talk about taking over the world or destroying it in long monologues punctuated by obnoxious laughter - he's actually a smooth talker and quite a few players were sympathetic to him. Generally, if I've seen a character a billion times in movies and games, I avoid creating one along a similar path, though I do like using established clichés to throw players off their guard.

J.E. Sawyer: My characters tend to be dry because I think a lot of RPGs characters are overwrought and come across as absurd. It's an opinion not held by a lot of players, which is why I tend to avoid writing dialogue now. When talking to strangers, most people are relatively reserved and terse, their vocabulary is not flowery and their structure is not mellifluous. That's how I write characters, which typically makes them boring to readers.

Maralie's narration was different because her monologues were being read out of her journal. Her character was sort of a spacy gal, so I thought it was more appropriate for her to be "fancy" with her comments.

Some people really liked Isair and Madae in Icewind Dale 2, but I think those characters are a bit over the top. It sort of fits their devilish natures, but comes across as corny at times.

Scott Bennie: That's a big question for everyone, not just games. If we knew the answer to that, then hack movies like Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever would routinely be as good as Pulp Fiction and Ewe Boll movies would be worth watching...

If we take movies as an example of bad characters, then we can derive the following lesson, Don't settle for the stock character, the hack plot, and the unpolished dialogue. It's hard work, accept it and do it.

When we worked on the (sadly aborted) Secret of Vulcan Fury, the writing crew had twelve hour dialogue sessions at a table where we did nothing but sit around a table and read our dialogue aloud and polished it as a group. It certainly led to less clunky sounding lines. Forcing us to explain our character and dialogue choices can be illuminating. Too often in my early career, I would just let the dialogue sit on the printed page without reading it aloud -- and when I saw it in the game, I couldn't help but wince when I read it.

David Gaider: It's hard to tell sometimes what will make a character memorable. When I wrote HK-47, he was one of the party members that was passed to me that had only a vague concept behind it at the time. I remember giving James (the lead designer for KotOR) the exaggerated eye roll and going "Oh, gee, THANKS," as I wasn't really keen on the assignment. James told me I could do whatever I wanted with him, however, so I eventually decided that I would make a droid that was the reverse of "the Littlest Hobo" - a Canadian TV show about a dog that goes from owner to owner, helping them and making their lives better before moving on. HK-47 would go from owner to owner, making their lives worse and engineering their self-destruction. Oh, and he called people "meatbags". A lot. I hit that note over and over and over again... pretty much a one-note character overall, but I thought, "hey, at least he's kind of funny."

And then the voiceover actor does a brilliant job with him and he's supposedly the most memorable character from KotOR. While other characters that I felt were more nuanced were more or less overlooked. Go figure.

I think in order for a character to be memorable you have to strike a balance between entertainment value and usability. The last thing that a player wants, I think (and I've learned this over time) is characters that whine, complain or are critical of the player in any way and characters that exist solely to talk about themselves. I think we're past that point, now.

6. What games/characters would you use as outstanding examples of great writing in games and why? What influenced you as a game writer?

Brian Mitsoda: Fallout was the game that made me transition from a career in film and apply at Interplay. I enjoyed that the story could be different to each player and I saw potential in reactive storytelling and the possibilities of game narratives. I was a bit naïve in thinking it wouldn't sink into the same formulaic trappings of the film industry, but I look at games like Planescape, Psychonauts, and System Shock as examples of how interesting stories and gameplay can be intertwined in a way that can't easily be duplicated by other forms of entertainment. Planescape, I probably don't have to explain the sense of brilliant weirdness and fantastic exploration to readers of this site and Chris (Avellone, my boss) really hates it when people get fanboy on him (but you should probably dress up like Falls-From-Grace and wait for him in his car, he loves that.) The mind voyeurism/exploration aspects of Psychonauts and the smoothness with which they were blended into the game design, wow... more games should have that kind of story integration (and be that funny). For System Shock, I not only enjoyed the terrifying exploration of Citadel Station, but I don't think I've ever hated a "bad guy" in any game, movie, or book more than Shodan because she actively taunted and harassed me in a way that traditional written medium bad guys can't replicate.

J.E. Sawyer: I think the writing in a lot of the old LucasArts adventure games was great, even though you didn't have many true dialogue options. In particular, I liked the dialogue in Full Throttle. Ben was a great character, his romance with Mo was very well-done, and it's one of a very small number of games to succeed at balancing comedy with drama.

Scott Bennie: The great games are Torment and the KOTORs in modern times, with a lot of 90s adventure games (particularly by LucasArts) and the Fallouts not too far behind. Torment just teems with great characters.

I really wasn't influenced as a game writer by what had preceded me in the game industry, because by and large, with the exception of some of the Infocom text adventures, the technical limitations of the systems prohibited large swaths of dialogue in RPGs. Some of the limitations we worked on in the first Lord of the Rings were ridiculous by modern standards. The whole game was 1.6 megabytes. Torment probably has NPCs whose text files is larger than that.

David Gaider: Two separate questions, really, as I don't think I've been personally influenced by writing in other games so much as writing in other mediums such as books and movies. A couple of games that had spectacular writing, in my opinion, were "Planescape: Torment" with its use of heavy narrative (the closest a writer could probably come to writing prose in a CRPG, I suspect) and "Vampire: Bloodlines" with its style and use of clan/discipline-specific dialogue options. You don't need dialogue to have a great story, however. A game called "Ico" that I played on the PS2 blew me away with its ability to convey both character and emotion without any dialogue at all, a real eye-opener.

7. Cinematic storytelling vs "recommended reading" storytelling. What are your preferences?

Brian Mitsoda: Whatever the people who pay my salary ask me to do. That's the part of the job most people don't consider and gamers (and a lot of people in the industry) forget. Sure, I have personal projects I'd like to pitch and ideas on how to make the most of interactive storytelling, but I'm comfortable with doing both if I don't have the choice. The kind of story I'd like to do is probably more along the line of cinematic, but I don't think the kind of game writing I'd like to do can be pointed to definitively in anything out there. That answer seems like a copout, but then LOOK OVER THERE!

J.E. Sawyer: I think it depends on what sort of game you're trying to make (and I don't just mean "an RPG"). Cinematic storytelling can work well in a game where the number of characters is relatively low and other elements of the game are trying to achieve a cinematic feel. Present-and-read dialogue works better for games with large volumes of text and a large number of characters, I think.

8. What are you thoughts on using narrative in dialogue lines? Or taking it one step further and integrating text-adventures into dialogues?

Brian Mitsoda: Most dialogue is voiced these days and you interact with a "live" talking/gesturing character, so this question is kind of moot - at least with a great deal of the next-gen stuff. To be honest, I haven't given it a great amount of thought because I'd rather the player see as little dialogue, floating numbers, chart-o-graphs as possible and stay immersed in the game.

J.E. Sawyer: If you can't show it, you should probably tell it. I think it's a little silly to just say, "Well, we can't show the character doing anything, so we can't say that they're doing it, either!" I think that camera perspective can determine how readily players accept this. If the camera is right in someone's proverbial grill (well, seeing their full body taking up most of the screen, anyway), I think people reject "He strokes his beard thoughtfully and does a flip." When the camera is pulled far out, people are used to the abstraction and can accept narrated actions more easily.

I don't have a strong opinion on "text adventure" reply options.

Scott Bennie: I think it can be done occasionally. At the very least, it's a shake-up technique to make a complacent player sit up and take notice.

David Gaider: I think the use of narrative can be very evocative in creating nuance where you can't actually show it on the screen. Not that using narrative was ever popular, but we seem to be moving away from even the possibility of using it as games get more cinematic and there is a feeling that everything described must also be shown. Perhaps this is another aspect of the so-called "uncanny valley", the idea that there is a degree of photo-realism where viewers stop looking at what's there and instead look at what's missing. Perhaps there is a degree of cinematic storytelling where people stop being willing to fill in the gaps with their imagination and instead expect to be shown everything verbatim. Not that there's anything necessarily wrong with cinematic storytelling, as it offers its own advantages, I'm just not sure that it's the goal that some people hold it up to be.

9. What's your opinion/preference/experience with unique dialogue lines defining player's character's background, race, class, intelligence, charisma, etc? Malkavian dialogue lines in Bloodlines, Fallout's low intelligence lines, and some class-based Icewind Dale 2 gems come to mind. Worth the effort?

Brian Mitsoda: Wow, this is difficult. I enjoyed writing Malks but they nearly killed me for the amount of work they created. Anytime you do a lot of work that no one sees, it's hard to justify it with production. This obviously depends on the type of game, but as games become more complex, I'd imagine we're going to see less and less of this. I'm not all that impressed with an occasional character saying "he" versus "she" but I would like to see more games present more meaningful choices for my character rather than give my smart character a "sophisticated" line to replace the default response.

J.E. Sawyer: I think it's worth the effort, but it has to be an early goal on the project. You can't jam that stuff in halfway through the project and expect that it's going to come across well. Some people think that if you have reactivity, the meaningful effects of it have to echo off of everything else in the game world. I don't think that's the case at all. A reaction can be self-contained to a single character, as long as it's meaningful in the game or changes the emotional impact on the player.

Scott Bennie: Yes, if it's an important choice to the player when he or she is generating the character generation, it should be noticed in game. It doesn't mean you have to make special dialogue in every case or invent special storylines (although one or two elf specific quests would be neat). But the NPCs have to notice, and the player has to feel rewarded for making the choice.

David Gaider: Sometimes. I think it's important that the player feel that the choices he made at character creation actually meant something, and the more that dialogue can recognize those choices the better. I think there is a point, however, where such options can seem like they don't offer enough return for the effort if they're purely cosmetic. In NWN, for instance, we had "dumb dialogue" options throughout the entire game which, while amusing, didn't really add much.

10. Many role-playing enthusiasts would like to see several moral dialogue paths. How do you see the evil path? What's evil and how do you show these traits in your characters? How would you create this "I may be bad, but I feel good" experience without relying exclusively on "I'm teh evil! MWAHAHAHA!"?

Brian Mitsoda: Moral choices, in most games, serve to determine what prize you get. I would like to see more choices that are difficult and neither good or bad or everybody wins - difficult choices to make that will stay with you. There was a quest in Bloodlines where you had to kill a pretty pathetic vampire that had unknowingly broken vampire law, and since I've heard some people felt bad about killing him, I'd say that's the reaction I'd like to strive to hit more often. He broke the law - that's bad, you have to kill him - that's justifiable, he doesn't know he broke the law and is kind of an idiot - is it evil to kill him? Maybe if you spell "fuck otters" in his blood, I guess.

Evil is difficult because the foundation of your game really needs to be set up for it. So many games are set up with heroic arcs and so the evil is just layered on top of that, most times poorly. A fellow designer and I have a dream design for a game that encourages you to not be good and also not be a psychopath. Real "evil" choices just aren't going to be allowed as solutions and I doubt many publishers would take a chance on games that would encourage it. For example, DeNiro's character in Cape Fear is a convicted rapist who terrorizes the lawyer who blew his case by harassing him, killing his dog, and getting close to his 15 year old daughter - I really doubt you'll be seeing any game allow this anytime soon. Murder seems to be more acceptable for evil paths at the moment, probably because most characters in games don't behave like real people.

J.E. Sawyer: Evil isn't usually a motive, which is something that I think causes a lot of problems. It's an attitude that governs how the character interacts with the world on a variety of levels, usually when forced to choose between his or her own benefit and the benefit of others. Material selfishness is just a part of that, and I think expanding the ways in which a character expresses that would help flesh out "evil paths" better.

That said, I think tracking good/evil is kind of pointless most of the time. I think it's more important to track "in-world" reputations with people. When you get into measuring what a character "really" means vs. what they pretend to mean, there are a lot of goofy assumptions and logical problems to deal with.

Scott Bennie: I love moral choices, as it makes the choices mean something. I think light side and dark side is too coarse. Perhaps you should look at them as Roles instead of Sides. I might propose the five roles that fit most people's playstyles in genre fiction: Idealist, Diplomat. Mercenary, Deceiver, and Bully, with maybe Coward, Insulting Jerk, Philosopher-Guru and Psychotic as additional choices if you really want to get ambitious. Admittedly, 9+ branches per dialogue tree is a lot, so you'll need to be prepared to truncate them.

David Gaider: Part of the problem, I think, is with conveying motivation. I often hear fans say that they want to be "intelligent evil" - and thus the sort of character who is more manipulative rather than openly villainous. This entails, however, a character who seems to be doing good but is otherwise manipulating those around him to ultimately evil ends. How do you convey to a player that, yes, he is accepting this heroic quest right now but only to do "x" later on? The only way would be through some blatant out-of-game means, which we've never done yet and I'm not sure how it would work. So other than having an overarching plot that is intrinsically villainous as opposed to heroic, you're stuck with assigning options that are short-term and largely transparent - both good and evil.

This is doubly a problem, I think, if you have a game mechanic that relies on the game being able to assign very clear motivations to any given action - such as an alignment system or a good/evil meter. With those systems you need to know when the player is doing good or evil, and there is no "doing good but for evil reasons" or vice-versa. Then the motivations must not only be transparent, but they must also be present constantly in every plot and dialogue whether it is logical or not.

I'm sure that some fans would hear that and go, "oh but there's a way to do it! You're just not trying hard enough!" - and maybe that's so. Having a game that doesn't use a morality mechanic is a start. Perhaps having fewer but more logical and devious evil options would be perceived as better than having more but less satisfying options? Perhaps we simply need more evil-only quests and to find a way to do more long-term manipulative plots? Perhaps ultimately it's simply that there isn't a lot of desire to include evil as a truly equal option. When what you're writing is ultimately a heroic tale, possibly the best you can do is the anti-hero, which simply isn't going to satisfy everyone.

11. Some people think that PC responses, no matter how well written, are too restrictive, forcing a certain tone or choice of words on players. What are your thoughts on that? What do you think about topic-based systems, practically eliminating PC lines and the above mentioned issue?

Brian Mitsoda: There are many reasons why more dialogue will go this route, one of them being that games have to sell more copies and the less reading the better as far as the mainstream market goes. Player characters have voices now, so it's kind of redundant to read the line and then hear your character speak it. Depending on the project, the genre, and the audience, I think topic-based systems have their uses. As with anything, you can implement a system like this poorly or brilliantly.

J.E. Sawyer: Well-written responses are usually the ones that are the most restrictive. Reponses that are neutral in tone and short in content are the ones that come across as bland. I think there needs to be some character in delivered lines, especially if the point of the line is specifically to establish character. A line can be written plainly if it's purely informational ("Tell me about the wizard"), but if it's something aggressive (for example), it's better to play up the character a bit and load the line ("Listen jackass, unless you want your ass kicked... ").

Topic-based systems work fine if you aren't attempting to build or express the PC's personality through the lines.

Scott Bennie: I prefer dialogue to topics, because I see it as more immersive. I can certainly understand the appeal of topic-based approach -- it's more game-oriented -- but we went through that particular battle with some of the RPGs of the late 89s and the early 90s and the dialogue-based game won.

David Gaider: I hate topic-based dialogue. I find it flavourless, and while PC responses certainly may restrict my options to an extent I would rather have them restricted than be subjected to open-ended blandness. That said, PC responses are never going to cover all the bases. Indeed, I think if you tried to include more options solely for roleplaying purposes, that could quickly get out of hand - and perhaps without any real benefit, as the more options you provide, I suspect the more that the players would want and expect.

12. How do you see dialogue systems evolving? Obsidian's added the influence system, Bioware is playing with a dynamic dialogue concept (Mass Effect). What else is or should be on the horizon to make dialogues more interesting and interactive?

Brian Mitsoda: Huh. We're bordering on NDA territory here. In most games, the story is more of a traditional strictly linear narrative and the gameplay exists outside of the story - integrating these two, thinking less about game stories as playable movies, this is something that is an eventual goal. I'd like for player immersion to be maintained as much as possible, so less stopping to read while I try to remember what the NPC just said would be a good thing. Pacing that resembles scenes in movies rather than a D&D game is going to be key to getting non-RPG fans to embrace heavily story-driven, big budget RPGs. Of course, I'd love it if the technology existed to even give companions simple commands verbally, but I think that's still way ahead in some beautiful future where you can buy white noise pants, which would be very cool and inspire many "hook up my cable" jokes.

J.E. Sawyer: Honestly, I like the idea of dialogue skills granting a sort of "currency" to dialogue -- sort of similar to Vanguard, I guess. I don't think dialogue should be overly game-y, but making the use of dialogue skills something that is done more electively could be interesting.

Scott Bennie: I have no idea. I suspect as technology evolves, as computer voices become more convincing actors and scripting vocal intonations becomes easier, that we'll see a big increase in the use of audio for game dialogue. That's my hope at least.

David Gaider: I think I'd like to see dialogue systems that are more context sensitive, that look at the choices you've made and not only react to them but anticipate them. The kind of planning that would require, however, makes my head a bit dizzy.

13. There are a lot of people out there who don't read, but play games, which basically means that you have a certain market segment that doesn't want to see text getting in the way of action. As a writer/designer, how do you deal with it? How do you write for people who don't want to read?

Brian Mitsoda: I answered some of this above, the answer essentially being mass-market wants less reading, design games for that. I don't think a lack of reading replies makes the game worse at all - bad reactivity, writing, and design help achieve that just fine. Is it restrictive - yes, one because it's very hard to change things once it's recorded and two because recording budget influences scope of the dialogue. Then again, those aren't always negative - makes it less likely that someone will slip something in just because they can. Older RPGs had a lot of text because they had no other alternatives. The hybridization between traditional RPGs and more popular genres should produce some interesting results in the next few years.

J.E. Sawyer: If player choice is a focus of the game, allow people to skip conversations, avoid speaking characters altogether, or use other means to pass through areas (violence, sneaking, etc.). If dialogue is really supposed to be an integral part of the game, it needs to work at a level that a variety of players will accept. That usually means shorter dialogues overall, fewer choices (if any), and less dialogues throughout.

Scott Bennie: I remember one tech support person complain about the amount of dialogue in a game because people who had cheat codes got bored by clicking through it. Yes, I was supposed to make the dialogue shorter so that people who were cheating could have an easier time.

I think rather than spending a lot of time accommodating those who will force you to make a poorer game, you do the best you can and hope the audience follows. If you can craft a game with compelling characters and a beautiful story, why neuter yourself? It's like covering the Grand Canvon just so you don't scare the acrophobic.

It's not an absolute, of course. If you're writing in an action genre and you don't understand how dialogue -- even good dialogue, can drag down the pace of an action scene -- or when a joke completely deflates dramatic tension, then you shouldn't be writing dialogue, or at the very least, you should be under tight editorial control..

Of course this is not a decision that a writer really gets to make; if you're using too much dialogue to appeal to a broad audience, the upper echelons of the company (and the audience) will let you know.

David Gaider: I think to some level you can accommodate that in your dialogue by offering ways for a player to avoid the big explanations and lists of questions if he wishes to. You want to go and kill the foozle without asking why you should? By all means. Personally, I think there should be rewards for the players who take the time to explore the dialogue. Let them discover the options that don't involve kicking the doors in, and be satisfied with having discovered that path. But for those who just want to start kicking? Why not? I'm not sure, however, that it's a good idea to accommodate those who seem to demand things be even simpler than that - the wisdom of trying to appeal to those who simply don't and won't like the kind of game you're making seems questionable. I suppose it really depends on who your intended audience is.

14. Let's talk about the diplomatic path in RPGs: progressing through a game by talking to people instead of killing them. Is it a viable choice? What are your thoughts on that? How would you make it/keep it interesting, assuming you think it's a good idea, of course.

Brian Mitsoda: I know a lot of people that love having this option, but they can also be a waste of work and content - hold your eggs for just one more moment please while I explain. Let's say you spend several weeks getting the enemies placed, design tweaked, maps rebuilt for an action solution through an area, providing ten to fifteen minutes of gameplay and then add a line in the dialogue that negates all of this. It's hard to justify, and in some kinds of RPGs, it's actually making the game weaker. Not to say the choice isn't welcome, but I'd like if the diplomatic player had to work a little harder than saying a line, like if he had to go convince other people to beat the shit out of whoever (it's always comes down to beating the shit out of someone, right?) or run for office and get elected to mayor so that he could pass a resolution to allow the friggin' bridge to Lootmonster Beach be repaired.

J.E. Sawyer: I certainly think it's a good idea in some games, but like many things, it needs to be established for the developers from the beginning. I doubt most people play any games only using one method to get through -- unless it's their fifth or sixth playthrough. But always having the option to try out a certain tool in each area means that the play style can be varied throughout
the game.

Scott Bennie: I loved that people were able to solve Fallout, one of the most violent games ever, without performing an attack action. It's a challenge to be able to design a game that way. There are two approaches that need to be supported in the game design: the Sneak and the Agitator. The sneak's your typical rogue/thief/swashbuckler. The agitator is someone who gets people upset, then gets someone else to fight his battles. Both are difficult in a design sense because they are one trick ponies and most games will be designed combat-first because (except for games built for the approach, like Thief) that's how most players (and playtesters) will play it.

David Gaider: Occasional diplomatic path? Awesome. Pacifistic path, as in having the option to go through an entire game without ever fighting? No, I don't think there's much point to that. I suppose it depends in large part on the kind of game you're presenting, but for most CRPG's the combat is a huge part of the effort and part of the point. Why would you let your players shoot themselves in the foot just because they decide that might be fun? That said, if I make an intelligent and/or charismatic character, I occasionally want to feel as if my character is indeed smart and/or smooth-talking. There are several ways to do that, and occasionally being able to get past non-critical battles without lifting a weapon is a good one.

There's one other important point, here, one that I've seen in more than a few games. If you're going to go ahead and offer me the opportunity to play a character that focuses on a non-combat path, do not suddenly take that away from me in the name of "mixing things up" and make it next to impossible for me to finish the game without having focused on the combat path. I find that much worse.

15. What's your experience dealing with publishers/marketing folk in regard to dialogues & writing? What's their expectations, preferences, guidelines? Any good stories worth sharing?

Brian Mitsoda: I don't know if I can share the bad stories - actually I KNOW I can't share the bad ones. Some publishers are very interested in the story, some aren't. Some are especially interested in presentation, pacing, and VO, but I'm not sure if a lot of them understand the work involved. Then again, I couldn't tell you what it's like to executive produce a game, though I'd imagine they don't think about the game during most of their waking hours.

My biggest problem with the publisher pitch process (every designer and company will tell you this) is in trying to get them to gamble on new ideas or non-traditional story implementation or story topics. For example, it's hard to pitch a fantasy game that isn't Tolkien-derived. It's not always easy to work with controversial subjects or mature themes without making the publisher nervous. I'm actually very fortunate because I've worked on a lot of mature and unconventional game stories.

All this comes back to marketing, which doesn't like anything that can't be justified by research, which means they like games that are like other games. I thought marketing was created to figure out how to take a product and figure out how to sell it, but that's not how it works in any medium anymore. When costs come down, expect that more folks will be willing to take chances. Each dollar is a vote, so as long as people keep buying games of a certain genre/style, don't expect to see anything that isn't a slightly different version of something you've already played. Games are really expensive to produce right now, so I don't blame them taking the safe bet. What few games do try to break convention, those games need to be embraced by as many gamers as possible. That said, please buy as many copies of our next project as your credit limit will allow.

J.E. Sawyer: Publishers/marketing folks generally associate RPGs with stories and dialogue, so they tend to expect that those aspects will be more well-developed and complex than they are in projects from other "genres". They usually don't want much "front-loaded" text near the beginning of a
game, which is understandable and it's typically preferable even from a storytelling perspective.

Publishers can also be hyper-reactive to content, even when it just involves text. For one project I worked on, there was a character who told the story of another character who had been raped. She subsequently auto-aborted the child in a town square. The word "abortion" wasn't used, but the storyteller was blunt about what the woman did. The publisher freaked out about it for rating reasons, so I re-wrote the story as a parable involving a field that was seized and later salted out of spite by the owner.

I guess it was an interesting creative exercise, but the ordeal was honestly pretty lame considering the title was supposed to be M-rated. "Whoa guys... we're okay with seeing peoples' heads get lopped off left and right, but let's not get crazy with this abortion talk!"

We'd like to thank everyone who participated and helped us with the interview.

There are 42 comments on The Dialogue Interview

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