8 Key Principles of Writing Effective Game Dialogue
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Writing can be one of the most brutal challenges in crafting an entertaining game. You can sit in front of your laptop for 12 hours and pump out page after page of absolute drivel and feel like you’ve barely accomplished anything. Writing dialogue is already challenging enough, but it’s even more difficult in an interactive space. Writing in games in general is tricky business, but here are 10 things I’ve learned throughout my years that have stuck with me. Some of these words were imparted on me by others in the industry, some are simply from my own observation and practice.
1. Concision -"The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak."
Has Hofman was onto something when he said that. Concision is probably the absolute most important quality any writer, of any medium, can develop. Verbosity kills, especially in this day and age where writing needs to be clear, concise, and interesting. Dickens would not have survived long as a writer in the games industry, but Hemingway might have.
Think of a simple example, say, of an NPC asking you to kill some wolves for them. It seems like some variation of this quest has appeared in every game in history, so let's start off with a base example of terribleness:
"Hail, noble traveler. Please, permit me to beseech your aid. I am Jammers, a peasant in service to Count Argyle. A pack of wolves have taken to my flock of prized sheep. I intended to give one to the Count as a tribute for this year’s harvest festival. If you kill 10 of them, I will reward you with 50 gold pieces."
So much pointless information. There are 62 words in the exchange above, you can get that down to half, or even a third.
"Traveler, help me! Giant wolves have taken to my flock. Kill 10 and I will give you 50 gold pieces."
Much better. In 20 words you’ve delivered every bit of relevant information the player needs to know what to do. They need to kill some wolves to get the gold. It’s not the most exciting sentence ever, but it gets the job done. The essence of concision is understanding what you yourself are trying to say and helping you put it to paper. Once you've sheared away all the fluff and gotten to the heart of what needs to be said, everything else is pie.
2. Character above all else
There was a rumor that Stanley Kubrick named every single character who showed up in his films, even if they only had a line or two or even no lines at all. Naming them made them more real and allowed him to understand better how even these small pieces worked in the greater picture. So it is with dialogue, even if their file name is only Peasant #7, the peasant needs to have some character to him. Let’s call him Jammers. Would Jammers be okay with these wolves killing his flock of sheep, destroying his livelihood, and likely condemning his family to death come winter? Hell no, so he gets emotional. He doesn't just want you to kill these wolves, he wants to live out his revenge through you.
But let's take this a step further. Jammers is the only peasant in the area who even has any lines, so let's make him even more interesting. He's also known for his cowardliness, and miserly character, and his propensity towards theatricality.
His dialogue should be anything but static or clinical:
"Dear Gods, if ye've got any mercy in your soul, kill these wolves. I'll give you, eh, HALF of what I own, just, please, if they eat all of my flock my family won't survive the winter!"
So here we have more a more emotional plea for help than before. We've conveyed some more of his character, given the player exigence, told the players their task and reward, and we've done it all in only 37 words. We could convey even more of his character if we wanted, but this should suffice for now.
3. The Treachery of Forced Lore
Special thanks to Jason Vandeberghe for searing this rule into my mind one year. As brilliant as your intricate history of this fictional world is, as assured you are that you are the direct reincarnation of JRR Tolkien himself, very few people want to listen to a character soliloquize about how the Elder Dragon Prince destroyed the Elven Kingdom of Sif-Rús to recover the rings of power to blah de blah de blah, I've already mashed A button to get to the quest details.
Being forced to listen to lore is usually only a step up from listening to a professor with an over-inflated sense of gravitas give a lecture, people are going to fall asleep. Players'll either want to get to the more character centric parts, or to the parts that are immediately relevant to the main story. Codex and lore writing, while a necessary and challenging part of writing for how it brings the world together, is ultimately best left optional. Unless the history of the Elven Kingdom’s fall is a huge part of the story, don’t force it down the player’s throats.
This isn’t to say that lore is evil, it simply has its own special place in the world. This sort of writing is almost always best left to either sidequests whose purpose is to flesh out lore, or to codex entries the player can access whenever they want. Lore is an important part of any world, but the fact that you’re giving the players a choice is key. Bioware is understands this concept perfectly, throwing huge swaths of information at you that you can completely ignore with no detriment to the game. You never need to read the hundred codex entries in Dragon Age to understand what’s happening or why certain things are happening, but when they take a few minutes to explain the relationship between the templars and the Mages Circle, you know that it’s important.
Always remember that lore is like the garnish on a fine meal; it brings the whole dish together visually, but ultimately is nowhere near as important as the actual food.
4. Barks - the deadly art
Always be aware of the purpose of your barks. Barks are those little bits of dialogue, those one sentence exclamations that characters will blurt out. How many times have you been playing a game only to have the player character remark about how they would solve the puzzle you’re stuck on, or the enemies who just have to tell the world that they are reloading and need to take cover. They’re not cinematic and they’re not scripted. They could be the first thing a player hears in an open world, or they could possibly never hear it at all.
Bark writing is deceptively hard, and a key element of modern games. Ambient dialogue can be a good way to tell players things they need to know, but it extends beyond that. Barks are the game world's way of speaking to the player and reacting to them. Listening in on some guards while in stealth, passing by neutral NPCs, listening to enemies in a firefight, the bark is meant to give the player feedback while making the world feel like a living, responsive entity.
Barks are not a crutch to be used in place of visual storytelling; they serve a distinct and specialized purpose.
When it works, it works beautifully, but it can severely detract from the game when it doesn't work. Arkham City's barks during the Catwoman levels and Dishonored's 3 ambient barks stand out as particularly egregious moments of barks gone bad, the former for being overly sexist and awkward, the latter for lacking variety and largely being pointless.
It can be hard to write barks, as they follow all the constraints of normal dialogue, but with the added difficulty of requiring a huge amount of variety. Writing 100 variations of "I'm going to kill you" to find the best 5 or 10 can be a brutal slog, but ultimately one that will lead to your having a more varied set of enemy barks. It will force you to think of really what you want to say and why you want to say it. Make a bark work for you. Don’t just let the bark be what it is, have an implied meaning.
Patrick Redding, narrative designer for Far Cry 2, gave a wonderful talk on barks at GDC 2009, and indeed Far Cry 2 had a lot of really interesting barks in it. One especially effective bark was able to convey three things at once: What the enemy was doing, that the enemies no longer knew where the player was (player was in stealth), and that they were afraid of the player. Good barks avoided redundancy (which meant less time spent with voice actors in the studio, which meant more money saved), and always
Just be aware that even when you’re wearing full Daedric Armor enchanted with the souls of the damned, someone will still tell you to watch out for the mudcrabs by the lake.
5. The LOST school of creating interest out of nothing
Lost’s writers had a very interesting philosophy when it came to how they wrote their tv show, which was that for every question they answered, two more were asked. Approached more broadly, this means making the players doubt the NPCs, or at the very least question why they would do something. This makes the players think different thoughts about the NPCs, and makes them more interested. Suddenly, Jammers' little quest for us isn't so simple.
“You must kill the pack leader before the count arrives, you must! On his body you’ll find a ring. Just bring it back to me and MAYBE I’ll give you a little more gold. Don’t count on it though.”
A little heavy-handed, but it does ask questions. Why was is there a ring on the body of the wolf? Why did Jammers want us to kill the pack leader so much? Why does a peasant even have this much gold? This ties into interesting quest design and what makes players interested in listening to what Jammers has to say beyond the promise of fat loot and some gold. Something weird is going on. Even if the payoff isn't the greatest thing ever, the fact that you piqued their interest and made them analyze what the character was saying is a victory.
6. Anachronistic Language - sometimes your friend, sometimes your enemy
Watching shows like Rome and Game of Thrones can be amazing if you want to figure out how to express dialogue in a historical or fantastical setting. A lot of young writers, myself included, make the mistake of thinking that everything has to be thee and thou wilsts and "Of course, My Lord Liege, pray tell the news from the front carries favorable tidings." Again, it probably goes back to Tolkien, the veritable deluge of fantasy authors who copied him, and the general cliched of how people spoke in medieval Europe. And this isn't just limited to fantasy, science fiction suffers just as intensely from the legacy of Star Trek and old serialized science fiction like Flash Gordon.
What shows like Rome, Game of Thrones, and Battlestar Galactica can teach us about dialogue is that there's no need to use any sort of flowery or unnatural sounding language. There need to be some language quirks to set them apart (Sons of Dis, Frak, etc.) but so much more of it is in the actual delivery. If your VAs can deliver everything with just that right balance of conviction in what they're saying and the fact that this is a fantastical world and so there needs to be enough for people to latch onto with suspension of disbelief. Dylan Moran has a quote that sums this up pretty nicely:
"People love to hear words like that, they love to say stuff like that. Makes them feel ten feet tall."
So sometimes it's fun to play around with language and give people a way to hear themselves speak whenever they really role play and pretend to be a part of this world you've created, but don’t let yourself get bogged down in a trite mire of antiquated speech. Keep things moving and snappy, and save the eloquent soliloquy for the badass speech before the final boss.
7. Developing an economy of language through study
There's no real way to do this except through constantly reading and constantly writing yourself. Playing games with particularly effective dialogue is, of course, required in order to further your own understanding of how dialogue works.
For economy of language, read authors who are under similar constraints. Short story authors tend to be neglected, but they are amongst some of the most brilliant at crafting masterfully concise dialogue. Hemingway was a master of this, so was Chekhov, and plenty of contemporary writers are veritable masters of dialogue as well (George Saunders and Alice Munro spring to mind, as well as China Mieville's short fiction).
I cannot stress enough the importance of keeping a wide and variegated internal library to draw upon. Watching as much as you can, without regard for what's cool or not cool or what's antiquated or contemporary, all of it needs to simmer inside you brain before anything can come out.
8. Realizing that 95% of people won't remember a thing you've written a week after playing.
Above all else, you must never forget that the majority of people who play this game won't remember a damn thing you've written. They won't remember that snappy one liner that made everyone on the team laugh, or that amazing turn of phrase that just made that one character really come to life. Most people, if they even decide to pick up your game, won't even finish it. They won't do any of the sidequests, they won't read any of the lore, they won't care about any of the time you spent trying to make sure. And that's okay.