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Mark William Nations

Ideas to make dialogue fun/engaging

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I'm familiar with narrative methods of making dialogue engaging, i.e. people are interested in the dialogue because of its content, but what about generating a dialogue system where the system itself is entertaining to explore/improve upon/"succeed" in? The thought just came to me earlier, and I can imagine somehow gaining the ability to somehow generate particular dialogue responses that are certain rhetorical techniques or something, (say, if it was a debate game somehow?). However, I'm generally just looking for ideas anyone might have concerning how one would make the act of engaging in dialogue a thing that is fun in and of itself, outside of what narrative content the dialogue might provide.

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Outcast (1999) didn't hold my attention very long when I purchased the game only a few years back from GoG.com - but one thing that stood out for me was a rather simple and useful AI feature they had. You could go up to any NPC, and ask them where another NPC was located. The answer could be, "In such an such a city", "I don't know", "Near here, at the tavern", "Down by the river", or, if the person was nearby, the NPCs would turn and point in the correct direction and say, "He's over there".

 

When I first played The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind, I found the dialogue system (of unlocking additional dialogue choices) enjoyable and, at the time, novel.

 

The idea is that instead of NPCs changing from [dialogue] to [dialogue] when some event was triggered, the event would give you a new dialogue option that you could use on any NPC that accepted that option as a something to say. So you'd walk up to a shopkeeper and you'd have a dozen possible dialogue choices: Normal chitchat ["How's the weather?"], NPC-specific chit-chat ["Your guild dues are up, mate; let's see some coins.""So how's your kids doing?"], unlocked global chitchat ["So watcha think of the new emperor?""Check out my new military rank and uniform."], region-specific ["So whereabouts can a gent like me get a real drink around hearabouts?"  /  "Psst, where's tonight's thief guild meeting being held?"].

 

The problem is that Morrowind reused for too many NPCs the same canned responses for some dialogue options - so you'd never actually bother talking to the shopkeeper - but this would be less of a problem in a game with fewer, but richer, NPCs.

 

By unlocking, and occasionally removing, dialogue options on the basis of personal, local, regional, event (in the midst of a dragon attack) contexts, and even clan-membership, ethnicity [dumb lizardfolk!], gender, occupation [i.e. blacksmith], etc... As well as what you've done in the past, your local reputation, what you are wearing, your gender, your race, and so on, I think interesting things can result. You could even take into account your past history with NPCs - whether you've chosen to barter with him, whether he likes you, whether you've given him a good deal, whether you've rescued his daughter, whether you've threatened him, and so on. Some games do this already, to an extent, but it could be taken much further.

 

I remember in Morrowind, unintentionally, there was a glitch in one of the quests in the game, that only in one specific city (a pretty major city), all the guards would try and kill me on sight. It was a minor nuisance, but it also added character to that area. I'd be walking across one of the many bridges in that city, and a guard on a nearby bridge would see me and throw a fireball across the river at me, and other guards would run towards me, so I'd have to bust out running and make my getaway. If only one of them saw me, I'd save myself some hassle and kill him as quietly as possible so I could continue going about my town business.

I've killed so many of them, I had the mantelpiece in my stolen house lined with their skulls. I don't know why they have it in for me! tongue.png

All my underworld connections with the thief guild in Morrowind couldn't remove whatever region-specific bounty they somehow had on me. Something about me being the prophesied person who's supposed to kill their demi-god of a city ruler - I guess they are kind of touchy about it. Funnily enough, earlier in the game, unrelated to anything, I managed to break into one of the guards' vaults and locked myself into it, while they couldn't open the door and just had to watch as I looted it dry and teleported out.

I like to think these (my house lined with their skulls, me looting their vault, me trying to assassinate their hero/leader) are the reason for their unstoppable vendetta against me, but the truth is it was just a glitch that made them continue to hunt me regardless of what I did. It was extra cool, because it didn't affect my brother - he used his connections with the assassin's guild to get them to pardon him using what amounted to a forged document pretending he was on official imperial business... except the document was for a completely unrelated crime to what they were hunting him for. So we each had interesting an enjoyable and unexpected and unique stories that emerged from dynamic interactions a buggy game logic.

 

Morrowind was very enjoyable - I spent over 350 hours in it.

 

In addition to Outcast and Morrowind, another dialogue-related game of interest to me is Alpha Protocol - I got rather bored quick; it felt like it was trying too hard to be Deus Ex. But what I did enjoy about it was the full voice acting - and multiple choice dialogue. But the really really cool thing was that you choose your dialogue option while the NPC is speaking, so your character started speaking audibly the moment the NPC ceased speaking, creating an actual fluid conversation with no pauses, but one that you actually are participating in through your dialogue choices. It felt alot more like a real conversation psychologically to me - a huge jump forward. Plot and gameplay was boring though. laugh.png

 

Another thing that I've thought of in the past, is dialogue options and conversations involving two or more NPCs, where both are in sight, but the camera turns your head to face whichever NPC is speaking or whichever NPC you are primarily addressing, while keeping both in view, and both participating in the conversation with you, and interacting with each other as well as with you.

cooperative

 

But even with that, I'd have to keep in mind the lessons of Portal 2 - Portal 2 had fantastic dialogue. Dialogue was often triggered by actions you took in the game world, making it (sometimes) feel like the game wasn't just triggering scripts, but was reacting to your actions. That's important.

Another thing of importance, which I didn't realize until watching a video of the writers talk about it later, is how they worked very hard to make sure the player was the center of attention at all times (especially since the main character is a silent protagonist). Every conversation, if it's not directed AT the player, it is ABOUT the player. If two NPCs are having a conversation, they are talking about the player to each other, or constantly talking to the player in asides in the midst of their dialogue to each other. This is important to 'include' the player in the vocal dialogue of the game - to include the player 'into' the game's "conversation".

 

There was a recent article posted here on GameDev.net that talks about interactive storytelling, and gives more examples. I also commented under the article with more of my thoughts and my disagreement about one of the listed games (Dear Esther), and why I disagreed. I won't bother copy+pasting my comment here, but I'll re-mention Stanley Parable as another game that always talks TO you (the player), and does an even better job than Portal 2 at reacting to your actions.

(Note: I haven't played the new full Stanley Parable game, so my experience is from the old Halflife 2 mod. The new one looks even better though, so I need to give that game a go sometime soon).

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Aside from good writing and compelling characters, I think it comes down to challenge -- rarely does dialogue provide much challenge, and therefore rarely does dialogue provide much fun.  Mostly you explore the dialogue tree until you find the response that flips some switch and you get what you want.

 

Two dialogue systems I remember enjoying:

  • Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (1992), where one entire path through the game dealt heavily with dialogue puzzles.  What made the dialogue puzzles good, I think, is that they followed the "Visibility" or "No Backwards Puzzles" Rule, that you always "see" the problem before you find the solution.  (That was very likely a conscious design choice by Barwood et al.)  Although (of course) you spend a lot of time randomly chatting to see who people are and what they know, you often know who you need to talk to and what you need from them, and the challenge is figuring out how to argue them into it.  That, to me, is a more interesting challenge that trying to figure out whether a compliment or a punch in the face will make the NPC like me more.  (Spoilers: It's the compliment.)
  • The game variously called "Nomad" or "Project Nomad" (1993), which had an earlier example of a Morrowind-like system, where the main thing you do is fly around the galaxy and ask aliens about stuff.  The challenge comes from the fact that you have many, many more dialogue possibilities than are useful, and thus you can't just traverse a dialogue tree, you have to pay attention to the various aliens' interests and needs.

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This raises one of my pet peeves. I feel that dialogue has become much worse since voice acted dialogue became common. The simple reason is that you can only pay an actor to record so many lines before it becomes too expensive, time-consuming and adds too much to file sizes. This means that the vast majority of games use a very small set of canned responses because that's the only option available to them. The simple but cool stuff that would be nice to add, e.g. a character mentioning some unrelated event that happened, or that someone is wearing or holding, or just adding some mood into the existing lines, aren't possible.

 

I'm hoping for the day where either decent quality voice synthesis is possible (may be a long way away), or at least there is good enough post-processing to smooth transitions between recorded segments and/or to change qualitative attributes such as gender.

 

To go a completely different way with dialogue, check out interactive fiction, e.g. Emily Short's Galatea. The NPC is an active agent - it has stuff that it wants to tell you based upon the context of the conversation, and a lot of internal state that controls how it reacts to you.

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I'm hoping for the day where either decent quality voice synthesis is possible (may be a long way away)

 

I always thought an interesting approach for a particularly dialogue-heavy game might be to feature all robotic characters so that what you normally consider "bad" voice synthesis would be perfectly suitable. :)

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I always thought an interesting approach for a particularly dialogue-heavy game might be to feature all robotic characters so that what you normally consider "bad" voice synthesis would be perfectly suitable.

 

Yeah, I thought of that too. It may work, although it's disappointing that the most popular robot voices in games were done by humans. ;)

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Thanks a lot for the great responses!

 

 

 


The challenge comes from the fact that you have many, many more dialogue possibilities than are useful, and thus you can't just traverse a dialogue tree, you have to pay attention to the various aliens' interests and needs.

 


The problem is that Morrowind reused for too many NPCs the same canned responses for some dialogue options - so you'd never actually bother talking to the shopkeeper - but this would be less of a problem in a game with fewer, but richer, NPCs.


I especially like these two points from Valrus and Servant. I would like to develop a game that is primarily based on dialogue interactions that has a rich story behind it with a few characters that players really come to know well. The idea of having more responses than are necessary though is something I hadn't really thought of before. Because I could presumably give the player a choosable question like, "Do you like crackers?" and the NPC could just be perplexed and respond with, "uhhh, why are you even asking me that? Get back to work...weirdo." Stuff like that, while satisfying the player's curiousity, would instantly make them realize that the specific comments they make have distinct meaning to the characters they interact with. Thank you very much for the input!

While this has all been terrific, I guess I'm more interested in hearing what you all have to say about a game in which the core game mechanic IS the game's dialogue. I keep on getting the sense that one could make a game where a person can somehow gain skills and abilities in dialogue, improve their skills in aspects of it, and somehow come to develop an interest in deeply analyzing the decisions they make within it. Can anyone else envision details about what such a game might look like, how it might work, or in what ways it might be able to reel in a player's interest?
Edited by facehead1992

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I think it would be interesting if dialogue were based a little bit more on human dialogue. For example, the process might go something like this:

  1. Say or ask something fairly general.
  2. Based on their response determine their attitudes/areas of interest.
  3. If their interests go strongly against your interests or morals, end the conversation.
  4. If their interests aren't a good match to yours, try another topic.
  5. If their interests seem aligned with yours, explore those topics deeper.

So you could bring up general town gossip or whatever, but the meaning is different for different characters. Bringing up an execution might prompt the NPC to feel out how you feel about it if they have an interest in the case, and they may open up to you if you feel the same as they do. You would have to choose your words carefully. Just exploring the dialogue tree in order could be disastrous. Plus the majority of the tree would be invisible until you gained their trust. Also keep in mind that trust is not a boolean. Thieves may discuss their love lives together, but not where they keep their loot.

 

Learning skills could be a similar investigative procedure. You talk to someone wise, and go deeply into a topic. If you ask the questions that show you understand what you've been told, they explain further and your skill increases. Talking to other people who know different aspects increases your understanding and you get to understand it more deeply.

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There was an old internet based game whose name escapes me at the moment that was all dialogue and was set while having dinner with friends who get into a huge fight. 

 

I was thinking about the problem dialog in games and that is that it either comes across badly, is canned and repetitive, or is very limited.

 

Then I remembered the movie Wall-E.  How much emotion and meaning did the character portray with only body language and a couple of words. Could the same thing be accomplished in a character interaction based game?

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Chris Roberts has an interesting new design idea in his dialogue system for the up coming Star Citizen, using a simplistic dialogue tree system but using the webcam to drive the character's facial rig, using physical cues to alter the NPC's response and interaction with you. This obviously is insanely complex. But it brings to mind how much of the dialogue systems are static. Body language, posture, expressive or reserved behavior could all be explored and instead of a turn based dialogue tree players could experience a dynamic real time tree where the player chooses a frame of reference(topic and opinion), then has control of only the characters movements as mentioned above as the conversation plays out. 

Edited by Mratthew

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I've always thought it would be cool if a dialogue system similar to The Elder Scrolls or Mass Effect had a way to apply a range of attitudes to responses. I haven't seen any games that have done this, although it wouldn't surprise me if one is out there. My idea was to create the tree of responses as being neutral and the player can manipulate a slider (or some other visual UI) to apply certain ranges of emotion to the responses and the NPC's dialog tree would take these cues into consideration and react accordingly. So instead of the usual 4 responses where each has a general attitude the player will only get a few basic neutral responses and will have to apply the emotional attitude themselves. Then there could be a deeper conversation tree that will fetch the "spoken" (show as being actually said to the NPC) response that is appropriate to the attitude chosen (if that makes any sense, I'm really tired).

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Well, a detective game naturally promotes focus on dialogue, which can be fun and engaging.

People like to find clues/secrets to solve things. I used to really like the Miss Marple mysteries (books) by Agatha Christie.

In such a game, it is all about Character, and then you have the heavily researched field of literature to aide you in how to build up a character. Your protagonist can be almost anyone or anything. Your antagonist can also. The plot can shift as many times as you want. Also future games would be just like writing a new book. And maybe you will get a movie deal, or start a new genre.

LA NOIRE is an example

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So this thread made me finally registering. With all the games mentioned, one is missing IMO, that is Captain Blood 

 

360099-captain-blood-amstrad-cpc-screens

 

The idea here is, to communicate via icons only. This works well for this type of game because..

a) The icon language is meant to be some simplified universal language, useful to communicate with aliens (all you do, basically)

b) It is sort of a detective game, so the topics circle mostly around your "case" (here, finding clones of yourself), and some rudimentary diplomacy between various alien leaders, and so limits the number of needed icons (in this game, already ~150)

 

Basically this technique should allow to get away from the usual tree "pick your choice" structure. I can't really tell if Captain Blood did that, since I was quite young at that time and not yet bored by dialogue trees.

 

Not very applicable to every sort of game as already mentioned, but I thought it shouldnt miss in this discussion smile.png

Edited by riidom

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While this has all been terrific, I guess I'm more interested in hearing what you all have to say about a game in which the core game mechanic IS the game's dialogue. I keep on getting the sense that one could make a game where a person can somehow gain skills and abilities in dialogue, improve their skills in aspects of it, and somehow come to develop an interest in deeply analyzing the decisions they make within it. Can anyone else envision details about what such a game might look like, how it might work, or in what ways it might be able to reel in a player's interest?

 

Hmm, here's an idea.  So the balancing act in designing a "gamey" dialogue system, I think, is that the player either knows what words their choice corresponds to -- that is, they see their utterance ahead of time, or they don't.  (That is, they see "Agree" or "Sarcasm" or "Threaten" rather than the utterance that the choice will actually produce.)  With the former, they'll just treat it like any other dialogue system, I think; with the latter, there's the frustration and loss of immersion when the words chosen aren't what the player anticipates.  (Like we might be in a negotiation, and I might think the best tactic is applying some subtle pressure, but then choosing "Apply pressure" causes the PC to threaten to kill someone's family.  That reminds me that I'm playing a game, and also that it's a game written by idiots.)

 

A happy medium might be if different rhetorical strategies are represented by different characters in the player's party: an earnest farmboy, a haughty noblewoman, a blustering mercenary, a snarky thief, a flirty spy, etc.  When you ask someone something, you choose both a topic of conversation AND which character should present it.  So as you gain characters, you gain a wider variety of conversational abilities, like a dialogue-centric Suikoden.

 

It comes down to predictability.  The player can roughly predict what effect specific utterances will have.  The player can't predict what effect choosing "Sarcasm" will have unless they know the actual utterance.  But once the player knows and understands character X, they can kinda predict the results of "Let's send X to ask about Y."  

Edited by valrus

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