An open dialogue on game dialogue

This article popped into my in box this afternoon while I was waiting to hear back about a few job offers (cross your fingers for me).

I'll give you a moment...

... to go here and read it as well.

I've found that the writing in games is abysmal or the game play is abysmal but rarely both. The real quandry for me is a game like Gears of War. It's right on the cutting edge of tech, it had a professional script doctor on its side, and it still ended up being absolute dreck.

My question is tripartite.

1. What is the worst writing you've seen in a game, excluding poor translation?

2. What is the best writing you've seen in a game, excluding in-game books (i.e. Bethesda products)

3. Where do we go from here?

TheWanderer wrote:

My question is tripartite.
1. What is the worst writing you've seen in a game, excluding poor translation?

I don't tend ot play games long if I can't stand the writing, and I do my best to wipe them from my memory, but I'll see what I can come up with. Betrayal at Antara?

2. What is the best writing you've seen in a game, excluding in-game books (i.e. Bethesda products)

You can throw a lot of classics in here, but I'll lead off with Ultima 7 and Fallout. Aside from big names, I still to this day love Eric the Unready.

3. Where do we go from here?

Which is the way that's clear?

1. What is the worst writing you've seen in a game, excluding poor translation?

Well, I don't know if it was an issue of translation or what, but I thought the dialogue in Resident Evil 4 was horrendous. It was so bad that it warped space-time, manipulating the fabric of my mind until it became good again. Journey to the Wild Divine had some choice moments, too.

2. What is the best writing you've seen in a game, excluding in-game books (i.e. Bethesda products)

I always grin when I'm playing a Sly Cooper game, but I think Tim Schafer has a real ear for dialogue too. The dialogue in Grim Fandango and Psychonauts is fantastic. ("I am the Milkman. My milk is delicious. It's fortified with what the world wants. What the world deserves.")

3. Where do we go from here?

Up? I don't know if there's any way to go, specifically. It's like with books: There are plenty of writers who perfect their craft, tuning their dialogue until it sings. And then there's Dan Brown. Both groups make money.

And dont forget the open ended nature of video games. Books follow a sequences of actions. Game dialogue has to be good through plot branches and if the protagonist succeeds or fails or fails but not completely.

I mean what is Baal supposed to say? "Back again? Congratulations on killing 36.89% of me last time. I've regened 19.25% of that back and Im pissed. You'd best gain 3 more levels and stop running in circles. I can't be killed by dizzyness."

1. Every game in which "..." is a dialogue option (hi Japan!)
2. Grim Fandango - funny, moving, and perfectly voice-acted.
3. Hopefully, towards well-written, well-spoken, mature dialogue rather than inane, meaningless, constant, unskippable babbling. Final Fantasy XII was a good step in this direction.

Final Fantasy 7 is likely the worst-written title I ever played through. The story just never got together for me.

The in my opinion best-written games are, in no particular order, Planescape: Torment, an existentialist clickable novel; Sam&Max: Abe Lincoln Must Die, a great piece of satire; and Chrono Trigger, a beautifully realized modern fairy tale.

I didn't mind RE4's dialogue, by the way. Not good, but fun in a self-ironic way.

TheWanderer wrote:

3. Where do we go from here?

Into different directions. I don't believe it makes sense to consider gaming as a whole, anyway. I expect some facets of the medium will develop writing that is good in terms of what they are trying to achieve, while others will just ignore the aspect.

Fang, I would SO love it if a bad guy said that.

1. What is the worst writing you've seen in a game, excluding poor translation?
Shaman King: Power of Spirit. You've never heard of it. You don't want to hear of it. They didn't even get the names right. Ick Ick Ptui!

2. What is the best writing you've seen in a game, excluding in-game books (i.e. Bethesda products)
One of the best I've seen was "The Neverhood". FFXII was already mentioned, but I also enjoyed FFX. Crimson Skies also has it's moments. Mechwarrior 2 and 3. Wingcommander was good. Particularly Wingcommander 3.

3. Where do we go from here?
Hopefully far far away from Hollywood. The fear I have with people getting professional writers involved is that most of this type of writing is aimed at movies, or at novels. And we all know how well that turns out most of the time when it's applied to games, or games are applied to that. The skills are not the same, and there is no established body of knowledge about what it entails.

1. I know I've seen/heard some bad dialogue in games, but I really don't mind or take notice. When playing games, I tend to go to the same mental place to which I retreat to watch movies with Michael Beck in them, or read Tom Clancy novels. I'm aware that the dialogue is bad, but it's as acceptable as having sand between my toes while at the beach.

2. Similarly, I honestly can't recall too many instances of excellent game dialogue writing. Anything written by Tim Schafer qualifies, as I think his writing is brilliant.

3. Writing is rapidly being recognized as a skill one should have a little more than a passing familiarity with a keyboard to do well. Like art and level design, many game makers are rapidly realizing that, while they can perform these tasks themselves, hiring trained professionals would make a noticeable difference. The folks at Red Storm come to mind here.

Good article Fletch, I've always idly wondered what goes on behind the "Presented By Clancy" stuff.

I've been pretty impressed by Sam and Max's Dialogue, and playing through Deus Ex again I'm extremely impressed with the atmosphere and in game fiction which helps further the story. The voice acting is pretty rough compared against most games these days.

Oh yeah, and Full Throttle wins for best dialogue in a Lucasarts game.

"You know what would look good on your nose?

What?

The Bar! *SLAM*

"

fangblackbone wrote:

And dont forget the open ended nature of video games. Books follow a sequences of actions. Game dialogue has to be good through plot branches and if the protagonist succeeds or fails or fails but not completely.

I mean what is Baal supposed to say? "Back again? Congratulations on killing 36.89% of me last time. I've regened 19.25% of that back and Im pissed. You'd best gain 3 more levels and stop running in circles. I can't be killed by dizzyness."

Well as a comedic option, that'd be great, but I don't think more serious games can be expected to anticipate your lack of talent!

Frankly, you just need to spend actual time on your dialogue trees. Sure, that's probably more work than game designers have time for, but the idea has certainly been tossed around these boards that the heart of the problem is that there is seldom a listing in the credits for writing.

Also, who is this Blake Snow guy, and why does it seem like he's been trolling GWJ? I think a few of the phrases in that article sound darn close to being lifted from these threads.

KaterinLHC wrote:
1. What is the worst writing you've seen in a game, excluding poor translation?

Well, I don't know if it was an issue of translation or what, but I thought the dialogue in Resident Evil 4 was horrendous. It was so bad that it warped space-time, manipulating the fabric of my mind until it became good again. Journey to the Wild Divine had some choice moments, too.

Leon wrote:

Hey, it's that dog.

Pure gold, baby.

No Monkey Island yet?

wordsmythe wrote:

No Monkey Island yet?

That was my thought; It's easily up there with Grim Fandango. Another one I thought I'd see would be The Bard's Tale, or at least the newer incarnation. Comedic genius, that.

Games that had horrible dialogue? I"m gonna go counter to momgamer and say Wing Commander 3, and through in IV as well. Not even Malcom McDowell could save the dialogue in that game. Wonderful story for both of em though.

Where to though? This is a harder question, since there really isn't a right answer. There's plenty of good that can be done with dialogue in games. Hire scriptwriters, leave the cliches at the door, and just make sure that it flows well.

That is the funny thing about dialogue trees that Ive noticed. If they give you 4 options there is really only 3 because the 4th is most certainly a 2 word exit answer for the players that dont want to be bothered with said dialogue. And this fourth choice will go no more than 2 NPC dialogues deep.

Sometimes I also feel that some writers intentionally manipulate this fourth choice in their game to loop back to the original NPC dialogue. They obviously do this just to annoy the players who would prefer to press skip. Which of course begs for another convenience... Since we can mostly skip cinematics these days, I propose to drop the thinly veiled curtain and change the fourth dialogue option to "skip".

fangblackbone wrote:

Sometimes I also feel that some writers intentionally manipulate this fourth choice in their game to loop back to the original NPC dialogue. They obviously do this just to annoy the players who would prefer to press skip. Which of course begs for another convenience... Since we can mostly skip cinematics these days, I propose to drop the thinly veiled curtain and change the fourth dialogue option to "skip".

Taking that further, if the dialogue doesn't affect the game in any meaningful way, why take the time to create entire dialogue trees to make the player believe there's some meaning to the choices? If, no matter what I say, the villain is still going to attack me or the priest will still send me on his quest, why offer anything more than a static description of the conversation and an 'Okay' button, or a cinematic of the encounter?

^^ Nod ^^

I realized I never offered my choices for good and bad dialogue and Im surprised noones mentioned System Shock 2. The bit with the PDA's that you find passing the story along was fantastic.

TheWanderer wrote:

My question is tripartite.

1. What is the worst writing you've seen in a game, excluding poor translation?

2. What is the best writing you've seen in a game, excluding in-game books (i.e. Bethesda products)

3. Where do we go from here?

1) Worst writing......a tough call. I wouldn't say worst but I thought the Dialogue in NWN2 was pretty boring and generic, and a pretty good example of what fangblackbone and killertomato were saying.

2) Best: I'm going to pick a wierd choice here and go for Half-Life 2 as the best in recent memory just on the basis of Dr. Breen's speeches. I always looked forward to hearing him go on the occasional rant, it really, really added to the story in a way that was not to obtrusive or "rpg-y" for a first person shooter. It made Gordon and his conflict come to life and the way it was implemented was very cool.

3) Where can we go from here? By making writing and dialogue more interactive, more immersive, and more intertwined with the game experience. Less "Level/quest starts, engage in dialogue options. Proceed to end of dungeon. Engage in dialogue with end boss. Kill end boss. Return to town and engage in more dialogue which furthers the story" and more dialogue and writing that occurs as you're doing stuff, with less generic options.

Worst writing:

"I saw a mudcrab the other day. Horrible creatures. I avoid them whenever I can."

Also:

"You look like you know how to move in light armor."

That line NEVER works for me at bars.

IjonTichy wrote:

Worst writing:

"I saw a mudcrab the other day. Horrible creatures. I avoid them whenever I can."

Also:

"You look like you know how to move in light armor."

That line NEVER works for me at bars.

Quite true. "Hail, Bosmer!" gets old pretty quick, too.

Dysplastic wrote:

2) Best: I'm going to pick a wierd choice here and go for Half-Life 2 as the best in recent memory just on the basis of Dr. Breen's speeches. I always looked forward to hearing him go on the occasional rant, it really, really added to the story in a way that was not to obtrusive or "rpg-y" for a first person shooter. It made Gordon and his conflict come to life and the way it was implemented was very cool.

I think part of the appeal here is that you didn't have to listen to most stuff in that game. It was there if you wanted it, but you could easily walk away and start breaking his toys. Then again, the silent archetype of Gordan Freeman makes dialogue trees a little easier. Perhaps not forcing players to listen to speeches would be better. Let them goof off in the back fo the lecture hall, as it were.

TheWanderer wrote:

3. Where do we go from here?

I did some slightly more serious thinking and have come to the conclusion that this should be rephrased to "Where should Wordsmythe and Wanderer send résumés?"

wordsmythe wrote:
TheWanderer wrote:

3. Where do we go from here?

I did some slightly more serious thinking and have come to the conclusion that this should be rephrased to "Where should Wordsmythe and Wanderer send résumés?"

Don't you dare leave me off that list jackass. I need gainful employment.

My vote for worst will probably be MGS2. I've had people explain the concepts to me, exactly all the myriad stuff that Kojima was trying to expound upon. That didn't stop the dialog from sucking.

Best? I'm actually hard-pressed to say. Are we trying to talk about stuff we could critically analyze, or just narratives and writing that resonated with us?

Rogue Galaxy has pretty terrible writing. I'm struggling through the story right now. If it wasn't for the great gameplay and mini-games it would useless.

Planescape and Fallout/2 have great dialogue.

Tim Schafer is the best dialogue guy in the business. He's brilliant.

Worst ever? Without a doubt, Max Payne 1. That writing was the all-time worst trainwreck I've ever suffered through. Overwrought adjectives splattered on a thin cardboard excuse of a story. I've stepped in mud puddles that were deeper. It pretended to be A Tale of Suffering, but it was gold spraypaint on a pile of cow dung.

If my overwritten adjectives don't convey the idea well enough: I didn't like it.

I can forgive bad dialogue in action oriented games, because it's not the point anyway.

But RPGs should be a step above.

I thought the dialogue for Jade Empire was incredibly bad. Just flat out awful.

Oblivion was crap for dialogue, too. I played both english and spanish versions, and the spanish version was even worse, if you can imagine something like that. Cutscenes were ok, but most dialogue was at best utilitarian.

I seem to remember KOTOR being ok, but it's been a long time. I do remember that KOTOR 2 was awful.

Console RPGs were written for idiots (But I did stop at Final Fantasy 8, so maybe they got better).

In conclusion, from here we clearly have to go North. I see a forest in the distance.

edit: Obviously the exception to this is Planescape+Fallout, but you already posted that.

Malor wrote:

Tim Schafer is the best dialogue guy in the business. He's brilliant.

Worst ever? Without a doubt, Max Payne 1. That writing was the all-time worst trainwreck I've ever suffered through. Overwrought adjectives splattered on a thin cardboard excuse of a story. I've stepped in mud puddles that were deeper. It pretended to be A Tale of Suffering, but it was gold spraypaint on a pile of cow dung.

If my overwritten adjectives don't convey the idea well enough: I didn't like it.

Not a fan of film noir, eh?

wordsmythe wrote:
Malor wrote:

Worst ever? Without a doubt, Max Payne 1. That writing was the all-time worst trainwreck I've ever suffered through. Overwrought adjectives splattered on a thin cardboard excuse of a story. I've stepped in mud puddles that were deeper. It pretended to be A Tale of Suffering, but it was gold spraypaint on a pile of cow dung.

If my overwritten adjectives don't convey the idea well enough: I didn't like it.

Not a fan of film noir, eh?

Indeed. I think they nailed what they were going for.

Mex wrote:

I thought the dialogue for Jade Empire was incredibly bad. Just flat out awful.

Really? I just finished it, and thought it was mostly OK, for a videogame. The stuff with the Black Whirlwind and Henpecked Hou was pretty good, and the end credits dialogue was funny. Most of the dialogue with random NPCs did suck, though.

Noir is fine, when it's done well. Chandler stuff is perfectly readable. Max Payne, on the other hand, read like a teenager's angsty attempt at A Tragic Storyline. I don't think I've ever disliked the story of a game as much. Bullet time was fun, but the backstory was grindingly inept, sloppy and overwrought.

I don't remember much about the KOTOR and Jade Empire dialog, but I don't remember ever being actively offended by it. It didn't stand out either way. The dialog trees in KOTOR2 were a mess, because they didn't actually finish the game, but it was mostly pretty okay. I have a vague memory of one conversation with a female on ship as being really awkward... you were kind of hitting on one of the women. Not only was the dialog bad, there was something about that tree that was all screwed up. You ended up being forced to go through the same cringeworthy lines more than once.

I really liked the dialog with HK-47, though. He was awesome.

2. What is the best writing you've seen in a game, excluding in-game books (i.e. Bethesda products)

I liked the beginning part of Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines, playing as a Malkavian was awesome. It felt rushed towards the end though.

3. Where do we go from here?

Mass Effect seems to have a relatively new idea

3. Where do we go from here?

*Cue music and dancing*
The only way is UP! BAY-BEE!

Seriously though. This is my second problem with the games industry after AI (or the lack thereof) and it's also my main focus since i want to get into games design at some point and i can't code for... well, anything.

The best book i've read on this subject is David Freeman's "Creating Emotion in Games". If you have an interest in this area and don't own this book then you're missing out on some good critique and possible solutions to these problems.
I think David was originally in movie script writing but then moved over to games and has developed a different way of writing to be able to apply it to games without the gameplay being affected. Unfortunately, although his theory is sound (or seems to be at least) the examples of games that he's worked on doesn't inspire too much faith. However, i'd probably go out on a limb and say that it was more the developer's fault than his since generally it's difficult to write a script or change it after the game has already been conceptualised.

Plus it has a kick-ass cover illustration and really cool illustrations inside as well. It's a really well thought out book.

The problem i see is that when a game is designed a lot of thought goes into the gameplay hooks, the art design and setting.... but the story is fleshed out about as much as StarWars episodes 1-3 were when episode 4 was released...

Dysplastic wrote:
2) Best: I'm going to pick a wierd choice here and go for Half-Life 2 as the best in recent memory just on the basis of Dr. Breen's speeches. I always looked forward to hearing him go on the occasional rant, it really, really added to the story in a way that was not to obtrusive or "rpg-y" for a first person shooter. It made Gordon and his conflict come to life and the way it was implemented was very cool.

Wow, nice call.

I remember during the fan-boat level coming to a damn. You had to stop and go on foot to open it, drop a few sleepy guards with pop guns, and enter a hanger for those silly armored transports they drove around by climbing up a ladder and into a command center.

As you come through the door the monitor sparks to life and there's Breen, staring at you like Dr. T.J. Eckleberg as you take cover in the room. He prattles on, trying to reason with you as an interogator reasons with a man he's got trussed up in the corner over an iron maiden. You could stay to hear him, but he just pisses you off, and you rush into the hanger itself. Opening a door you find a torture chamber with a corpse, further on a rough bit with a small offce that makes you retreat for the case of granades and then back into that room... that room where Breen is still going on and on and on... You can take out the computer at this point to shut him up, but that just wastes ammo... It's amazing writing that's keyed to the level. The dialogue picks up where the tension leaves off and the level itself is talking to you, forcing you to emote through your avatar, forcing you to make emotional decisions that you don't realize your making. At that point you become Freeman, free man trapped in this game, stuck in this world, and the final push to the mounted gun, past those dumpsters, into the generator room where you ambush the unsuspecting guards... That feels really good.

Yeah, HL2 got it right.

This fresh Ars Technica piece covers the same topic, just btw.

TheWanderer wrote:

wordswordswords
Yeah, HL2 got it right.

Wow. I gotta play Half Life 2 again.