Innovation and inspiration in dialogue.
The ‘inspiration’ behind new dialogue systems.
Last month, I examined the concept of dialogue in games, and how simple dialogue systems can still be a pain to create, even if you’re using a template. This month, I decided to speak to some of the developers using standard dialogue and choice systems. Contrary to what I expected, these designs weren’t necessarily more difficult to create than a standard choice or text format – they weren’t even per se. They were harvested.
“We did not want to make episodic games like The
Walking Dead or Life is
Strange,” Big Bad Wolf, the studio behind episodic adventure game The Council, tells me. “These games have their own formula, and while it works well, we wanted to create our own. Moreover, our gameplay is systemic and not only narrative. Our intention was to create a narrative RPG – even though The Council may at first glance seem like a typical episodic adventure game, it brings a unique twist to the genre, a new kind of narrative experience.” Elaborating on the areas where The Council differs from its peers, Big Bad Wolf describes its Confrontation system. “Creating a combatless narrative does not mean stripping the gameplay from it, and we’ve worked hard to translate these gameplay elements in dialoguebased challenges. That’s how we found ourselves creating the Confrontation gameplay.
“The player is informed of how many blunders they have left. If they succeed the first step, they continue. If they fail, they lose the first instance and move on to the next. If they reach the maximum number of blunders, the dialogue ends with a bad outcome. If they manage to convince their counterpart without spending all their allowed blunders, they get the good outcome.”
Marrying this with consequences that follow the player through the game, Big Bad Wolf’s decision to slowly deploy RPG elements over the course of the first episode (choosing a class and gaining XP) is used to surprise you, revealing an experience that gets deeper the more you play.
In isolation, these concepts could appear normal. It’s the fusion of these elements that creates something new. Or, at least, something that feels new, until you look at the artfully pilfered elements comprising the whole.
Joy Manufacturing Company, developer of historical visual novel Ambition: A Minuet in Power, wanted to replicate the social manipulation one might use in an 18th century French court. The team turned to roguelikes and card games to tackle group conversations. Every session a new court is generated for players to schmooze. Using a card game-like system, players “work the room”, matching topics of conversation to interested courtiers to climb a social ladder. 80 Days developer, inkle, turned to titles like The Witcher in its quest to reinvent the classic graphic adventure in Heaven’s Vault, creating an open-world experience where NPCs can misdirect you in an emergent way, based on your mutual knowledge of the world and each other. In its RPG Elemental Flow, Tea-Powered Games mixes Oblivion’s speechcraft with special powers, turning conversation into an active process, so you to imbue words with elemental qualities like firey directness.
Simply put: developers steal, constantly, from their previous work and from one another, to build experiences that wouldn’t otherwise be delivered in their genre. And ‘inspiration’ for new methods of delivering dialogue and choices don’t just come from other games.
Jake Elliott of Cardboard Computer, developer of Kentucky Route Zero, tells me about the influence classic works of literature have had upon his work. Sections where the perspective a player occupies can rapidly shift, or script-like text is manipulated in unexpected ways, have a clear root in books like William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. “I think it’s kind of uniquely dizzying in a game,” Elliott says, “because you’re asked not just to keep up with shifts in perspective but to actually carry on a conversation while hopping between subjectivities.”
When I began to research dialogue systems, I expected to find slightly more complicated versions of the humble text box. What I found was a vibrant ecosystem of cross-pollination; devs transplanting conventions from other genres, even entire other mediums, to create new, inventive narrative interaction methods. In these, I don’t just see diverse combinations that will go on to affect future games. I see developers questioning what dialogue or choice can even mean in an interactive experience.
In dialogue, a world of possibilities still remains – possibilities directly built on the present, and past.
Simply put: developers steal, constantly, from their own works and one another
Xalavier Nelson Jr. I’m a full-time game writer and narrative designer, with credits inside and out of gaming.