Making Conventional Conversation

There is a lot of talking in Mass Effect. One could say an eye-glazing amount of talking. People just love to talk to Commander Shepard, and Commander Shepard loves to ask people detailed sets of questions to which the answers are mostly redundant. But nobody ever gets bored or annoyed by the conversation. Everyone just loves all this chit-chat.

Except me. I’m rummaging around my desk for reading material while Shepard does the conversational circuit of the Normandy or Citadel Station. There has to be a better way of revealing character.

"Hey Liara, just thought I'd stop by to have the exact same conversation about your health we've had three times before."

The dialogue tree itself is a pointless device if developers don’t use it to enforce conversational choices. No matter who Shepard is talking to, the conversation will just go on and on, covering every conceivable topic of interest, before you finally hit the “end conversation” option. This means the choices on offer are entire illusory: we’re going to have this whole conversation no matter what I ask or how I ask it. Worse, I can ask questions out of order. You are clearly supposed to proceed clockwise through the “conversation wheel”, and there are times when skipping to a more interesting line of inquiry leads to an answer that refers back to a question you haven’t asked yet.

It’s this kind of phony nod to interactivity that drives me crazy about the medium sometimes. These characters are not having the conversation I want to have, we’re having the conversation the developer wants them to have. And I have no problem with that, none whatsoever, but why not embrace the fact that your characters won’t, and can’t, respond dynamically to the player’s choices? Why not use that lack of freedom to turn your writers loose and create wholly scripted conversational encounters that have better pacing and more natural dialogue?

Look back at games like Wing Commander 3 or The Last Express. Wing Commander 3 planted forks in each conversation that had an impact on your character’s relationship with his shipmates, but outside of those choice moments, each encounter moved swiftly along a predetermined path. It gave freedom to the writers, the actors, and the director.

"Would you like to hear why people call me 'Joker' again while you stand there woodenly, Commander?"

Did I care that I wasn’t in charge? Please, in what game are we ever in charge? Until the day comes that a game can provide us with a virtual Game Master who can respond to our every idea, someone is going to have to plot and script these damn things. And honestly, I don’t ever want a virtual GM, because it will arrive approximately five minutes before the machines rise up and kill us all.

Or take a page from Jordan Mechner, the hands-down master of character development in a videogame. The Last Express hardly offers any choices, but you get to know the characters in a far more natural setting. You listen to them interacting with each other and occasionally a conversation opportunity arises, which always plays out in a brief cutscene. If the writing is sharp enough, nobody will care that they didn’t get to click on a, “Tell me more about…” button.

"Don't be fooled by my blank visage, Alenko. This lighting is as intense as my feelings for you. Now tell me more about how hard your life has been. I love self-absorption."

But NPCs interacting with one another is another crucial element to character development, and it’s one that Mass Effect completely ignores. The only way you get to know anyone in this game is if you actually walk up to them and spend ten minutes talking to them. Not only is that boring, because it’s always the same two characters talking to one another, but it also forces the player to turn Shepard into Chatty Kathy. My Shepard started the game as a tough-as-nails, ruthless martinet. But I ended up discarding that idea of the character, because it was unsupportable in the face of her endless interest in her crew. “No, tell me more about you childhood, Kaiden. Please, I would love to hear about the school you went to. Oh, you had a mean teacher? Tell me all about it.”

It’s telling that my favorite piece of dialogue in the game was an incidental, throwaway exchange between Tali and Wrex in an elevator. Wrex, trying is trying to bait her.

“So, do the Quarians ever talk about the creation of the Geth which resulted in the exile of your people?”

Tali fires back, “Do the Krogan ever talk about the war with the Turians which resulted in the sterilization of your entire species?”

“All the time.”

"Let's just admit it, Shepard. I'm the only person you really talk to."

There is so much to love about this exchange. It brings out Wrex’s terminal lack of of subtlety but also his artless literalism. It also tells you a lot about how these two doomed races confront their extinction: with a combination of schadenfreude, anger, and gallows humor. It’s not something that comes out in Shepard’s one-on-one interrogations, it’s something that can only arise when these characters’ personalities can play off one another, without having to make room for meaningless button-presses and stilted answers.

    • Dave
    • July 23rd, 2010 7:14pm

    Somehow I actually tolerated this stuff back when I first played Mass Effect, but what I just couldn’t deal with was when this system, almost verbatim, was implanted into Dragon Age. Perhaps I’m more forgiving to boiler-plate sci-fi than boiler-plate fantasy, but it got to the point where I just couldn’t care about the characters if the only way to access them was through these artless dialogue trees (with the obvious exception of Shale).

    Just like the elevators in Mass Effect, the only place to get any authentic and spontaneous character interaction was when you and your party crossed a bridge. I almost exclusively ran with Morrigan and Sten (until I got Shale), and almost every time we crossed a bridge Morrigan would sexually harass Sten. At a certain point Sten just became so fed up with it he finally started harassing her back, which resulted in a very quiet Morrigan the next time we crossed a bridge. Under the surface it’s easy to see that this was a static script and the silence merely meant that the the two had run out of material, but the underlying systems don’t really matter compared to the experienced behaviors, and what came out of this short set of scripted banter felt like the most honest and natural bit of character interaction I encountered in the course of my play-through.

    If the The Old Republic is to succeed at making me care about my fellow characters there will have to be quite a few bridges and elevators.

    • Rez
    • July 23rd, 2010 10:57pm

    “Why not use that lack of freedom to turn your writers loose and create wholly scripted conversational encounters that have better pacing and more natural dialogue?”
    Preach it, brother.

    “Until the day comes that a game can provide us with a virtual Game Master who can respond to our every idea, someone is going to have to plot and script these damn things.”
    Check out Sleep is Death (http://sleepisdeath.net/) by Jason Rohrer, which does exactly that!

    “It’s telling that my favorite piece of dialogue in the game was an incidental, throwaway exchange between Tali and Wrex in an elevator.”
    I totally agree. I remember this even from the first Mass Effect. I even took the elevator back and forth a few times to squeeze out all the spontaneous inter-NPC dialogue I could get. Incidentally the spontaneous banter is one thing I really love about the Left 4 Dead games.

    Dave: I honestly cannot see how this sort of thing can work in a MMORPG like TOR, though. You can’t have player characters spontaneously talking because players will be put off and feel like they aren’t in control. Sadly I can’t see how it would work with dialogue between NPC characters, either, unless the dialogue is heard only by you and not the other players around you. Otherwise there would be so much repetition, given how many players are in the MMORPG world.

    On a related note, a lot of gamers seem to have problems with cutscenes these days and I don’t get it. I love cutscenes. It gave the devs a chance to liven things up by allowing characters to do things that weren’t possible within the mechanics of the game, it allowed for more dramatic camera angles and better-looking pre-rendered imagery, and it gave characters the chance to really express themselves without the constraints of generic speech animation cycles or the long pauses between dialogue choices.

    -rez

      • Flitcraft
      • July 24th, 2010 3:59am

      But isn’t the whole point of The Old Republic that it is not like an MMORPG? I haven’t been following that project very closely, I’ll admit, but my understanding is that it was going to play more like a single player game that we’re used to seeing.

      I think there are a lot of people who bash cut-scenes because they are under some misguided notion that a game must always let players do rather than watch or listen. Just like film has a school of thought that constantly wants filmmakers to show rather than tell by using clear editing and elegant shot composition rather than dialogue or (for shame!) voiceovers. I think this a fine philosophy provided you aren’t stupid enough to believe it’s practical. It’s a useful admonition: where possible, play to the strengths of your medium. But that’s not an absolute rule. But when you’re dealing with a medium where many of the audience and more than a few auteur are insecure about its artistic maturity, you get fetishes for things inherent to the medium that the other media can’t provide.

      The other thing working against cutscenes is that gamers just have no patience for a lot of them, and that’s a good thing. People should get annoyed with the self-indulgence on display in Metal Gear Solid 4, just as they should have been annoyed with the cloying camp of Resident Evil’s or Command & Conquer’s B-movie trapping. We have seen astonishing things in cutscenes and gameplay, and so we’re mostly past the gee-whiz factor. If you’re going to make me sit and watch something, it’d damned well better be worth it.

      But I do think we’ve kind of tossed the baby out with the bathwater. A snappy cutscene can be worth a dozen dialogue trees.

  1. I’ll agree with every one of your complaints about dialog trees. I do, however, find the talk-y bits of most of these games to be significantly better than the shoot-y bits of damned near every game. I’ve said before, but I’ll say again: I want to play Mass Effect CSI, a game that would be roughly 90% dialog and 10% combat. I want to search for clues inside those dialog trees, and who I choose to help and who ends up liking me makes the difference between a solved case and not.

    This would take a radically different approach to conversation than we have now, I agree.

    I think the NPC on NPC interaction is what makes Dragon Age so compelling. It brings the world to life around you, letting you know that you’re not the only actor in this world. Paradoxically, this makes your actions even more important. You can piss people off so badly that they won’t work with you anymore- and that makes the world even harder to save.

      • Flitcraft
      • July 24th, 2010 4:05am

      What you’re describing sounds like Heavy Rain, although a bit more committed to the notion of consequences than that game was. I’d love to see it, too. I think if someone just went ahead and made a straight-up police procedural, using Heavy Rain’s approach to conversational decision-making, you’d have one hell of a game.

      I can’t wait to play Dragon Age… someday. There’s a lot of gaming between me and DA.

      • I think “XBox 360 and Heavy Rain” are high on my list of things to buy once I’ve got a job.

        I’m not really sure why the shooting bits don’t work for me in the Mass Effect games. I see them (the central gameplay mechanic) as the price I’ve got to play to immerse myself in the world they’ve built. I felt a lot of that also in Dragon Age– though I liked the combat system they’d built, I thought their dungeons went on way too long. By contrast, ME2′s dungeons were just the right size.

        I know Tom Chick thinks that ME2 shouldn’t have had dungeons at all…

          • Flitcraft
          • July 24th, 2010 1:31pm

          I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the shooting bits don’t work for you because they’re rubbish and it’s a sign of your discernment that you dislike them. You have it exactly right: they’re the price you’ve got to play. At least in ME1 they’re pretty much filler.

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