I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream
“Relax, Mr. Threepwood. I know why you're here. Believe me, you're not the first who's tried. Although, I have to admit, not many get as far as you have.”
Quick Guybrush, make your call. Get into character. How do you – the player, in the role of Guy Threepwood – really feel right now? Is it more of an “Er” moment? For me, I know it was strictly “Golly” all the way.
The team behind Monkey Island had it right. Dialog trees are ridiculous. So why are we still stuck with them? (Warning, if you care about the secrets of Monkey Island, a game almost 20 years old, stop reading now.)
The Lucasarts SCUMM games are the pinnacle of the dialog-driven adventure game. It is essentially impossible to play a SCUMM game for more than 5 minutes without selecting a line of pre-fabricated dialog, and The Secret of Monkey Island was no exception.
The reality of those early, brilliant games was that the designers had no alternatives. There was no voice acting, no full-motion video, no motion-capture animation. All they really had to tell stories with was the words.
“My lookout told me of your arrival. I've wanted to meet you ever since I heard your fascinating name. Tell me, Guybrush, why do you want to be a pirate? You don't look like one.
Your face is too ... sweet.”
In these exchanges from Monkey Island, the writers moved beyond the words. Here is the dramatic moment at the center of the game – the first meeting with the infatuating Governor, Elaine Marley. She’s the love interest. She drives most of the plot. At the end of the game I (as Guy) will marry her.
In this critical scene, Guybrush (our hero) meets her for the first time while trying to complete one of several quests in order to prove that he’s a true pirate. So the challenge for the writers is this: how do you convey Guybrush being completely thunderstruck on meeting the beautiful Elaine?
Their answer, which seems simple in retrospect, was to rob the player of control while presenting the illusion of choice.
“I see... Well, you're obviously not in the mood for idle chitchat, are you?
I suppose you've got many more exciting things to do. I won't take up any more of your time, Mr. Threepwood.”
Yes, it’s funny. But it’s no less intentional an affront to player control than any explorations Ken Levine has made into the idea of player agency. Some players perhaps found this ambiguity frustrating. How are you supposed to know what to DO when presented with these choices. What if I get it WRONG!? Of course, that's precisely what the puppetmaster wants you to feel.
The aging dialogue tree is a prime example of false player choice. By dividing all possible actions into 3 or 4 choices, there is absolutely no room for nuance. It is a storytelling sledgehammer as heavy and blunt as as a 30 minute cut scene. There’s no opportunity to be a just a little bit good or a little bit bad.
To be sure, over the course of a given story—Monkey Island or any other—I can choose the “good” answer one time and the “bad” answer the next, but more often, dialog trees force me into a pattern of excursion, digging through all possible options to extract the maximum amount of information, with only the occasional foray into one-way plot advancing conversation.
All of this nostalgia for Monkey Island is of course the result of the sharp feeling in my eyelids. Right between where the eyelashes attach and the eyelid actually touches the moist barrier of my eyeball there exists 2 millimeters of flesh. I’m completely unaware of this part of my body until I’ve played a game too long without blinking.
In other words, I’ve been staying up too late playing
Fallout 3 is an amazing game, let me be very clear about that. It tells a story through mis en scene, details and action as well as any of the aforementioned Levine micro-epics. But for all it’s finely honed newness, it relies ceaselessly on traditional dialog trees. It’s not unexpected. But the presentation of these dialog trees has been a small pea in the mattress of my otherwise luxurious stay in the Capital Wasteland.
Games at their best embrace and explore their limitations. Monkey Island and Planescape: Torment and even World of Warcraft succeed in their reliance on text because they make the most of every tool at their disposal. Knowing that the volume of text has few limits, and without the ability to hire voice talent for every quest line, the writers at Blizzard construct elaborate, funny, overlooked and often surprising stories for those who bother to slow down and read them. Planescape has often been called "a book you play," but given the tremendous limitations of the target platform (PCs less potent than my phone) the designers chose to jump into the quarry from the high rocks.
In Fallout 3, Bethesda had the opportunity to do essentially anything they wanted: they had budget, control over system specs (for the PC version) and bottomless wells of talent. But instead of pushing the envelope in storytelling, this tremendously compelling world is hampered by 20 year old technology, boiled down to even simpler ingredients to play well on a standard definition TV screen.
It’s not that Bethesda does it badly, it just feels unnecessary. My living room is surrounded by games exploring narrative techniques, occasionally to excess: Grand Theft Auto IV. Metal Gear Solid IV. Portal. Bioshock. Lord of the Rings Online. But Fallout 3 doesn’t feel like it’s embraced and explored its narrative limitations, it feels like it has created ones that needn't be there at all. Even more damning, the stories of people in Fallout 3 rarely benefit from the excruciatingly detailed and fascinating story told by the world itself.
In a simple encounter with random scavengers, I can see how they live, how they fight, where they've been, what they're fighting for, all told by the place itself. Even more interesting, I can often see layers of stories being told over time, as I discern what parts of the environment are current vs. what parts are pre-apocalypse.
And yet, my interactions with the actual people remain tremendously confined. Major characters are introduced with a few scant lines of text. My interactions with them trapped in a handful of canned responses necessitated by the marriage of dialog trees and voice acting.
While I know that Fallout 3 will suck me in for dozens of hours, I can't help feeling like Megaton isn't all that far from the SCUMM bar.