Why a wall of text is hard to build.

PC GAMER (US) - - CONTENTS - By Xalavier Nel­son Jr

It’s easy to think about di­a­logue within its tra­di­tional role in other medi­ums; as the spo­ken con­ver­sa­tions char­ac­ters have to flesh out char­ac­ter­i­za­tion, con­vey pro­gres­sion and de­liver ex­po­si­tion. Videogames defy this, be­cause ev­ery­thing from the pieces of the ground you can walk on, to the di­men­sions of the text box that ap­pears on your screen, have to be strictly de­fined. To have a tan­gi­ble ef­fect on a player, mes­sages have to be re­in­forced through ev­ery as­pect of a game, down to the color, mo­tion, and speed of text. De­spite the com­plex­ity this sug­gests, writ­ten di­a­logue in games of­fers po­ten­tial for nar­ra­tive ex­pres­sion un­like any other medium. “I’ve been us­ing di­a­logue in my games a lot lately,” says indie cre­ator Zenuel. “It’s an of­ten un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated ef­fort. You wouldn’t ex­pect text in a game to be so di­vi­sive or com­plex, but when done right it em­pow­ers ev­ery area of a game, en­riches even the small­est de­tails and makes a world feel like it knows you’re there. You get the chance to for­get you were ever any­where else to be­gin with.” How­ever, such an ef­fect re­quires sig­nif­i­cant work to achieve, Zenuel ad­mits. “You could write a ba­sic di­a­logue sys­tem and have it do­ing what you need in al­most no time. Hon­ing it into ex­actly what is re­quired by your game is where all of the work comes in. Even a ba­sic di­a­logue sys­tem asks a ton of ques­tions: Does your text all show up at once for each text box? Does it type it­self out? Can you skip that typ­ing an­i­ma­tion? How does the game know when to [open and] close the di­a­logue? Again [that’s] not even ap­proach­ing text an­i­ma­tion, char­ac­ter por­traits, UI, au­dio, and all of the tech­ni­cal ques­tions you need to an­swer for each.”

Things get even more tricky when you in­tro­duce player choice. David Stan­ley, the dev be­hind up­com­ing 2D ac­tion-plat­former Ske­lat­tack, de­scribes it like this: “You’ll have out­comes that have an on/off switch at­tached. Re­ply a cer­tain way, or do a cer­tain ac­tion, and the next rel­e­vant bit of code is turned on and the game con­tin­ues. You can think of a [choice] as a tree branch, with twigs pok­ing out of it. You’re gonna need to be con­cerned with stress test­ing this sys­tem, as it be­comes eas­ier to make mis­takes in pro­gram­ming. The scope of a game with choice mul­ti­plies so much, it’s like mak­ing mul­ti­ple games.”

What can make this level of de­tail frus­trat­ing for an un­pre­pared de­vel­oper is that, if you de­sign a text or choice in­ter­face well, the results are of­ten in­vis­i­ble to play­ers. “Since you want each el­e­ment to fit com­fort­ably in the game, this means de­sign­ing the UI in a way that re­flects the tone you’re try­ing to achieve,” says Zenuel. “For ex­am­ple, if you want your game to give the sense that choices are dif­fi­cult and there are no right an­swers, then a UI el­e­ment show­ing some di­a­logue choices in red and oth­ers in blue can give the wrong im­pres­sion. Some­times this just re­quires a care­ful eye when do­ing the art­work, but it also means that when de­sign­ing ev­ery­thing af­ter that choice is made, you have to be care­ful with how that branch plays out. Build­ing in­ter­faces is one of the hard­est things I’ve been tasked with do­ing, just be­cause of how many ways there are to con­vey in­for­ma­tion.”

“Build­ing in­ter­faces is one of the hard­est things I’ve been tasked with do­ing”

Keep­ing it hid­den

Chris Ti­hor, de­vel­oper of nar­ra­tive ad­ven­ture Manda­tory Up­grade: X Marks the Spot, notes that this call to make de­sign el­e­ments in­vis­i­ble can ex­tend to some­thing as seem­ingly small as font choices. “I of­ten find that you know you’ve got it right when the player doesn’t no­tice them,” says Ti­hor. “You have to pick some­thing that feels nat­u­ral amidst the rest of the de­sign.”

Michael van Di­est is among the peo­ple at­tempt­ing to make the process of de­sign­ing di­a­logue sys­tems eas­ier for his peers. He cre­ates tu­to­ri­als and as­sets to this pur­pose for the GameMaker en­gine. When I asked how he used the results of this sys­tem to re­in­force por­tions of his own games, he linked me to a GIF from his up­com­ing game, Rib­bert’s Ad­ven­ture. Here, sim­ply mak­ing text shake or vi­brate con­veyed surprise or shock just as well as de­tailed an­i­ma­tions, for a frac­tion of the de­vel­op­ment ef­fort. How­ever, even the small­est text ad­just­ments still do re­quire time and ef­fort.

These state­ments are a glimpse into the work that ac­com­pa­nies some­thing that we take for granted. How­ever, as un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated as text boxes may be, it’s still a some­what known quan­tity. Next month, I’m go­ing to fo­cus on the devs de­vi­at­ing from this tra­di­tion, and ex­per­i­ment­ing with the edges of what form di­a­logue and choice in­ter­faces can take.

Xalavier Nel­sonJr I’m a full-time game writer and nar­ra­tive de­signer, with cred­its in­side and out of gam­ing.

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