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ALL TALK - conversation trees and dialogue choices
by Christer Kaitila on 06/10/11 06:25:00 pm

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


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Happy summer vacation, everyone!  Are you ready for June's Ludum Dare miniLD game jam? This month's mini will be held on the weekend of the 25th. I think you will love the theme. It is sure to get people talking... due to popular request I'm releasing the theme early so people on vacation can dive right in and get started early. The theme is: ALL TALK - conversation trees and dialogue choices.

On Friday June 24 at 4pm PST (midnight GMT) a secret phrase will be announced. Your entry must contain this phrase in the dialogue!

This month's MiniLD #27 is designed to be fun, low-stress, and relaxed. Perfect for vacationers. The rules this time are going to be very chill: you can use any game engine you like, premade art, and people are welcome to form teams. Instead of crunch-time cramming, you are allowed to start now and work up to midnight on Sunday June 26th. There will be no disqualifications whatsoever. The only rule is that there are no rules. Take your time - use whatever tools you like - just have fun!

"Crimson Gem Saga"


June's "all talk" theme is perfect for plot-heavy, deep philosophical discussions between the player and a cast of NPCs. Ideal for z-mechine text adventures using Inform7, ultra modern HTML5 literary gaming powered by engines such as Undum or the Choice of Games engine. There's also RPGmakerDoglion's RPG engine using Flashpunk, and of course the Ren'Py visual novel engine.

I'll be creating my own HTML engine for this, using pre-rendered 3d avatars. Since we don't have to care about tech or rendering performance, HTML5 is the perfect choice since it is great for low-power mobile devices. Heck, you could write your game using youtube, regular html4 or even hypercard.

"L.A. Noire"

"Fire Emblem"

Think NPCs, CYOA, multiple choice, text, plot, voiceovers, speech synthesis, prose, humour, conflict, debate, love. Make a murder mystery or a political scandal. A dating simulator or a talk show. A news report or a bedtime story. A love story or a heart-wrenching breakup. Beat poetry or freestyle hip-hop. Whispers or screams. Secret school flirtations or code-words between spies.  Hardcore RPG, Ren-py visual novel or pure text IF (interactive fiction), the choice is yours.

No matter what the genre - from AAA rpgs and shooters to puzzle games and everything in between, virtually every videogame ever made uses dialogue to progress the plot. Repetetive battles and grinding are sometimes seen as mere filler between the NPC dialogue and missions.  Which is more exciting? Killing your thousandth giant rat or encountering the next major NPC who gives you a quest?

"Fallout 3"

"Alpha Protocol"

This low-stress, relaxed rules MinLD is a fun way to get away from worrying about framerate, animation or incredible 3d graphics and instead focus on the plot. The characters. The story. The soul. Perhaps you will invent an epic storyline and a cast of interesting characters that are so cool they make it into your next action title! For now, just remember: focus on dialogue and characterization. On personal conflict, emotions and tough decisions.

"Valkyria Chronicles"

"Final Fantasy II"

Will this be a fun breather between more intense programming projects? Will your game be easier to program than something more graphics-heavy? Will it be deeper than your last brainless shooter? More artistic? Less work? More original? Discuss.

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If you want more information, I warmly encourage you to contact @McFunkypants on twitter or visit 

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Darren Tomlyn
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(This is built upon what I've written in my blog, and also the post I'm currently working on (about puzzles) - click my name).

The problem I have with such dialogue trees etc., is simple:

They're not games.

Such dialogue trees along with 'choose your own adventure books' etc. are PUZZLES. They are MAZES in literary form.

Puzzles, by their very definition, are not, nor can ever BE games.

They can, however be used to either ENABLE or PROMOTE a game.

The problem I have, is with the latter used incorrectly, or inconsistently (with games), since the former rarely exists in such a consistent manner in its place.

The only way a puzzle can be used to enable a game - (to have both the game and the puzzle existing simultaneously), is to have a race to solve a puzzle - that's it. The other basic games are simply not compatible with puzzles at all, since they require changing the nature of the puzzle itself.

The latter - using a puzzle to promote a game - is far more common - interleaving a puzzle with a game itself to (hopefully) promote a story to be written afterwards. Interacting with such a story being told in order to be given a quest etc. would be a good example.

However, if any choice made within such interaction does NOT promote such a story, then it has no place to exist within a game at all - it is simply a puzzle all by itself. This is what I have problems with.

(TBH, I don't like such puzzles in games regardless - if any dialogue is necessary, then get to the point and give me the choice as is - I'm playing to write my own story, not to sit here and be told one instead).

If you are not designing a game to BE the best GAME it can be, then why are you making games in the first place? If you just want to make a work of art, or a puzzle or a competition, then do so - since a game will only get in the way of that, as much as they get in the way of making a good game too.

Games are about people writing their own stories in a structured competitive environment. Any game created should exist to enable just such a thing. Puzzles are about interacting with stories being told, either because they've been created for such a purpose, or to solve a (difficult) problem. Competitions, are about competing to be told a story.

Neither puzzles or competitions are about writing stories at all, which is why anytime they appear in a game, it is usually at the game's expense - it ceases to BE a game, if only for a moment. Why should anyone involved in the act of designing and making GAMES, think that that's a good thing?

Christer Kaitila
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Interesting opinion! For me, the dialogue, puzzles and conversation in games like KOTOR, Mass Effect, Oblivion, Fallout and others are always by far my favourite part! The combat, for me, is the "filler", the "grind", the stuff I'd happily skip.

Other people feel completely different: some people actually skip cutscenes even when viewing them for the first time (which to me is insane!). Thanks for a fascinating opposite opinion.

To each his own, am I right? One person's noise is another's thrash metal perfection, and same goes true the opposite way: one person's formulaic crap is another's masterful pop song.

The best game possible, to me, is ALL dialogue!

Darren Tomlyn
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Sure - but it means identifying exactly WHAT type of product you want to make/design and 'play', and do it to the best of your ability - games, puzzles, competitions, (and even art in and for itself), are either incompatible, or compatible in limited ways, meaning that any product that tries too be 'all things to all people' will simply fail as a whole.

This is the problem I have with so many 'games' being made today - especially the ones I like ('cRPG's').

Games will 'never' reach their full potential AS games, until people:

a) understand what games, puzzles, competitions (and art) actually are.

b) understand how such things are related to each other in every applicable manner.

Neither of these seem to exist at this time - (which is the reason for my blog).

If you want a puzzle then that's FINE - but DON'T CALL IT A GAME.

I skip cut-scenes! Why? Because I want to PLAY a game, not watch a movie! If you can't use the game ITSELF to enable such a story to be told, then you're doing it WRONG and not really making a game in the first place! (Consistently).

Games, especially COMPUTER games, have SO much more potential than has been seen so far, AS games - but we'll never find out if people keep on interleaving/changing them into works of art, puzzles or competitions with them, instead!

If you want a puzzle - a 'choose your own adventure book' on a computer, for example - then that's FINE - just make one to the best of its potential, and forget about it being a game... I'm sure there are quite a few people who would like that sort of thing - (even me if it's what I'm looking for at the time - (I have a collection in paperback)) - and it's not like such a thing doesn't already exist.

But don't call it a game, or change a (any) game into such a thing if it's not absolutely necessary...

EDIT: I should have said this at the time - but was in a hurry (just went to see Senna at the cinema).

As I said above - it's not like what we're talking about here doesn't already exist:

What this post and we're talking about is known as Interactive Fiction (IF). It's not a game, and has never been considered to be. It is, however, a puzzle, though it is NOT known to be. Again, the lack of consistency with behaviour and its recognition is causing problems even here...

Roberta Davies
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To be diplomatic, Darren, not everyone agrees with your personal take on linguistics.

Despite your arguments, human language is an elusive, sometimes ambiguous creature, and many of the concepts it refers to are entirely subjective. "Play" is one of these. It's impossible to define play according to exterior, objective actions -- and yet we all know what it feels like to play, and we can find broad agreement with the vague definition of a game as a rule-structured process of play.

I've found a few interesting concepts among your posts, but I'm getting really tired of seeing these long hostile comments on every single blog.

Luis Guimaraes
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Darren Tomlyn
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@ Roberta

If you feel offended by the use of capital letters - then blame gamasutra for not allowing me to use italics [i] etc. instead to provide emphasis...

Why is such emphasis necessary - because I'm tired of repeating the same basic simple matters of language over and over again, and have learned that some emphasis is usually necessary.

The problem you are having, is exactly the problem many people have with language - mistaking definitions of words BASED on their use, with how WHAT such words represent is further APPLIED when used in combination with other words - mistaking definitions with applications.

The word play, for WHAT it represents, when used as a NOUN is not very subjective at all. How it is APPLIED IS, but that is exactly HOW the language is supposed to work! The reason WHY so many people (including yourself, probably) have so many problems, is by confusing the two!

Language is of human creation, yes, but it can NEVER be so subjective or it cannot function. The English language IS still evolving and changing, yes, but MANY words are NOT - neither are the foundations of the language changing either - why? because it's not necessary - the rules ALLOW the language to change without having to be broken!

Based on how the word play is used as a NOUN, it represents an application of behaviour - the act of someone doing something FOR themselves that is non-productive, and therefore done for the purpose of enjoyment instead. How and why do you disagree with that?

The word play cannot be defined as something done that is enjoyable, since that is NOT behaviour, and is NOT consistent with how the word play is related to the rest of the language, including the word work. Work and play are a VERY firm dichotomy, based on their use. Since work can also be enjoyable, play cannot represent such a simple concept in isolation.

The idea of work and play as representing productive and non-productive BEHAVIOUR is NOTHING NEW. This is NOT an original idea at all, (though I cannot remember where I first read it).

The ONLY way you can complain about my conclusions of such words I'm examining is:

a) arguing about their USE. I expect evidence of this if you wish to do so, which shouldn't be hard since the words we're talking about are so basic.

b) by breaking the basic rules of English grammar, since everything I have is based upon them.

Obviously b) should never happen.

If you see hostility in what I post, then I'm sorry - I'm certainly not trying to be hostile, I'm just trying to point out exactly where, how and why people are either mistaken or wrong, based on what I see. As I said above, some emphasis, while not being very good on this site (only capital letters - since no italics/bold type possible), is usually, unfortunately, necessary, due to people usually getting confused even by the simple, basic matters of language and linguistics the problems I have found are concerned with.

And it is for that reason I must now post the following, whether or not you understand why it is necessary...

I'm sorry - but your second paragraph betrays the very EXISTENCE of language itself! The very PURPOSE of language is to transfer information between people - SUBJECTIVE information on behalf of each and every individual that uses it. The ONLY reason that this is even possible, is that the sounds and symbols we use to do so is recognised in a consistent objective manner between people to an extent that such information can be transferred. If language was as subjective as you suggest, this would simply NOT be possible - each individual would have their own UNIQUE language, that would be incompatible with any and all others.

Language, in ITSELF, is NOT, nor ever CAN BE, so INDIVIDUALLY subjective, or it has no identity or place, and therefore USE, AS a language.

So to try and say that ANY common word within the English language IS so subjective, is a betrayal of the language itself, and all who use it, and have ever done so, and so you WILL be ignored, since you obviously know very little about language and therefore linguistics.

Michael Frauenhofer
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Okay, you clearly thought through your argument, Darren, but there's no need to be so obnoxiously condescending about it.

Yes, yes, language requires shared understanding to serve its purpose, but it can totally be subjective. The fact is, linguistic drift happened, is happening, and will always keep happening, and it's kind of silly to just cling to an arbitrary moment in time and say "this is what this language REALLY is". A b-boy from the streets of Queens and a wealthy congressman from Georgia probably talk very differently, and they may even have trouble understanding each other when delving more deeply into regional/cultural slang - but they're (hopefully) not just making words up. There's a group of people out there who would understand each of them - individual subjectivity may not have any use as an interpersonal language, but the instant a second person knows the meaning of a word, even if it's just a minute-old neologism, then that word has use as language, though possibly only between those two people. Even if one person makes up their own word, and uses it when writing down information they think they'll forget, if they come back to it later and understand the word, then that word had a use as language, if only between that person and themself at a later date.

In a sense, I think we're agreeing on a basic point - don't shoehorn shooting into your puzzles unless it makes sense, and vice versa. Don't call it a "game" if there's no way to win/lose because it's all talking, blahblahblah. I agree that a bunch of puzzles with dialogue trees between them probably isn't a very good "game". But what makes me sad about your arguments is that you let these problems of semantics limit your thought, closing yourself off to a huge range of experiences. Why do we need to call these things we make games? Why do we ned to call them Interactive Fiction?

I think there's a basic divide: whether or not something s interactive - even if you only have to hit one button to advance a static movie, that's some measure of interactivity, because you determine the length of the experience through your actions. On the other end of the interactivity spectrum, there would be something like Tetris, where your actions affect what happens on a moment-to-moment basis. But why do we have to limit ourselves to arbitrary groups and give them specific names? Why can't we explore all of the infinite points along the interactivity spectrum? You could argue that the level in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare where you play as a president and are assassinated is, on its own, not a "game". It doesn't "need" to be interactive to work, though I think using "need" like this is kind of problematic. But it was hugely better as it was than it would have been had it been non-interactive, even if it had still been first-person - being able to control how my character looked around, even if I wasn't responsible for their movements (although this was cleverly handled by making the character a bound captive), added a level of attachment and intensity to the proceedings that really hooked me. It's not Tetris, and it's not a movie, and I don't see why it need be either.

If you skip cutscenes because you'd rather play than watch, that's your prerogative - maybe you only really care about pure "games", regardless of narrative. I, personally, think cutscenes can be useful, though they are often used as a crutch by lazy designers. But using them is not doing it "wrong". It's just doing it "different". So it's not a game? I don't care. Never had much attachment to that word. I use it in the context of a phrase like "the games industry", because it's useful that way as language in that it communicates to someone else familiar with the term the industry I mean, regardless of the fact that you and I seem to agree most of what is produced is not purely a "game". The difference between us is that you seem to hate that fact, while I think it's wonderful.

I don't think a sequence of branching dialogue trees is a "game", but neither do I think it's a "maze" or a "puzzle" - I can see elements of all three in it, but none fits perfectly. The very fact that there's no name or category to throw it into (as with so many other interactive experiences, however interactive they may or not be) is exactly what I find exciting - interactive media are pretty new, and we're just starting to explore all of the possibilities they offer. Not games, not puzzles, not mazes, not interactive fiction - blends and interpolations and crazy chimeras of creations that we just might not have a word for yet. If none of them interest you, that's your loss, but don't say it's wrong. Don't say that you should start off a project by figuring out just what cookie-cutter mold you want to fit and doing your best within it. Not that that's an invalid process, it's just not the only one.

You're not all wrong, Darren, but you're not all right either, and I don't detect any hostility in your arguments, but I detect a lot of condescension, and that's almost as ugly.

Darren Tomlyn
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The problem is the really big elephant sitting in the middle of the room that you're all talking round:

Human behaviour.

Games, art, puzzles, competitions, work and play etc. all represent different applications of often DIFFERENT, and sometimes INCOMPATIBLE behaviour.

THIS is the problem. (Though, of course, the real problem underpinning all this is that such words are not fully recognised for the application of behaviour they represent, or even AS such a thing at this time).

There are three basic types/aspects of behaviour such words represent applications of:

Things people DO for themselves

Things people DO for others

Things that happen TO people

This isn't the best way of describing such behaviour, no, but between that and 'things that happen' which EVERY word representing behaviour ultimately comes down to, there's not much we can do - or is there?

There is, but I recommend you read my blog.

The problem we have between games and puzzles, is that games represent something a person DOES FOR him/herself, and puzzles represent a person interacting with something that happens TO them. Games and puzzles, are therefore directly INCOMPATIBLE. (Indirectly, puzzles can be used to ENABLE a game - but only in a very limited manner - (a race to complete a puzzle)).

Games are compatible with art, as are puzzles and competitions, but of course, none are defined by or as it.

And everything we DO is compatible with either work OR play.

Games and competitions are not compatible at all, though puzzles and competitions are compatible.

Games, puzzles and competitions can all be INTERLEAVED with each other, but nearly always at the expense of the game, the exception being when the game is the final element the others are being used to PROMOTE - (but I doubt it'll be a very good game when that happens).

Lex Allen
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I'm in. June 26... I'm really slow, but I'll see what I can come up with.

Christer Kaitila
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So happy to hear that, Lex! Enjoy! I look forward to playing your game and giving you positive encouragement and feedback. My advice would be to K.I.S.S. and start with a single, simple scene with two characters so you are sure to reach the finish line. Good luck and have fun!

Lex Allen
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Thanks! I posted a preview on my blog, so you can check it out if you're interested:

Christer Kaitila
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Wow Lex this looks totally awesome! I really like the avatar. Keep up the FANTASTIC work, and please cross post all your updates on the Ludum Dare blog so everyone can see your screenshots! As we get closer to June 25th the Ludum Dare website will become a hub of community activity and we want you to be a part of it!

Roberta Davies
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You talked me into it! (See what I did there?)

I've never actually finished a game design since I'm-too-embarrassed-to-say-when, so this will be a good kick in the pants at least.

Went to bed with some stupid ideas, woke up with a much more interesting one. Whoo-hoo!

Christer Kaitila
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You can do it! I can't wait to play your game.