Can't See the Forest for the Dialog TreesComplications Ensue
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Monday, June 07, 2010

Hunter urged me to check out DRAGON AGE: ORIGINS, but it didn't grab me. The combat system seemed a little passive. It was weird that other characters' voices are recorded, but your character doesn't have a voice. The enemy AIs are pretty dumb. (Why don't the walking corpses go after the mage instead of the warriors?) Characters move awkwardly. NPCs are pretty generic with stilted, insipid things to say. The sound design is ... okay, I don't think there is a sound design. There are some sounds here and there, but overall it's a bare soundtrack.

A little bored, I started selecting only the most obnoxious dialog options. (E.g. "Go soak your head.") But that never produced any interesting results. The other character would respond accordingly, but there were never any consequences past the next line of dialogue. What's the point?

Some game studios are putting a lot of work into dialog trees these days. At least, for some games they're recording all sorts of different dialog options. There are big fat scripts and my actor friends spend days in the studio. But the dialog rarely seems to have any effect on the story. It's just there for ambience.

It would be possible to rig up a basic "conversational combat" system where you can only achieve your goal using the right dialog options and not others, just as you need to use fire against undead but not against, say, balrogs. It would take a bit of programming. But all that hard work recording all those voices would actually have some gameplay and story value.

Or, you can just skip dialog trees altogether. I know some script writers hate dialogue trees and just don't put them in. I don't miss not having any dialog options in RED DEAD REDEMPTION or ASSASSIN'S CREED. But when properly used, as in, say, HEAVY RAIN, a real branching dialog tree can really "put you in the movie."

UPDATE:  Thanks to David for linking to this escapist post. And this comment on it:
I'm glad to read this. The conversation minigame is something I'd like to see more of - either inspired by LSL Magna Cum Laude (minus the sperm as you mention), or to pick an in my opinion better example, Fahrenheit ("Indigo Prophecy" in the censored version). You have to juggle the right stick to get a specific dialogue option, and time to choose is limited. The "best" topics (i.e. the ones that are the most intelligent) are hardest to do. Other options are easier, and if time runs out, the easiest one is automatically chosen.
Thus you can easily coast through a conversation, or choose to make it go a specific way by "using your mind".
Another good example of conversation done right is in Culpa Innata. There is no minigame, but the number of topics to be picked is limited by time of day, a set (but hidden) predefined conversation length, and any topic chosen hides and opens other topics.
All of these are much better than the Talking Heads mechanic just about all other games use.



The Mass Effect games have a conversation tree with some impact. Being positive adds to a sort of "good guy" experience bar, and your more tough-guyish choices add to an outlaw bar.

Further along in the story you can sometimes resolve a conflict by, say, being intimidating, but that option is only available if you've filled enough of your outlaw xp bar.

There are also missions that you may not complete if you want to keep adding to only one of the bars. So if you want to be a good guy you can't take on a mission to beat up a pirate's competition.

By Blogger Choppednuts, at 1:10 AM  

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

By Blogger Habiba, at 7:45 AM  

Yeah, I was going to mention Mass Effect. But you're not trying to alter your dialog according to who you're talking to. You're altering it according to who you are. And it doesn't affect the conversation so much as future conversations. So it's really about optimizing your stats.

For example, what if you cannot get anywhere being rude to a bureaucrat; but you cannot get anywhere with a Krogan unless you are rude?

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 8:52 AM  

I believe that a lot of point-and-click adventure games had dialog trees where you had to pick the right options to get the NPC to solve a sort of dialog puzzle. Grim Fandango springs to mind.

By Blogger Morley, at 11:03 AM  

You'll find this interesting. And if you're into games you should be checking out Zero Punctuation + Extra Punctuation anyway.


By Blogger David, at 7:45 PM  

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