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PAX East 2011: Discussing Interactive Drama And Dialogue As Gameplay
PAX East 2011: Discussing Interactive Drama And Dialogue As Gameplay
March 11, 2011 | By Andrew Vanden Bossche

March 11, 2011 | By Andrew Vanden Bossche
More: Console/PC

Indie writers, PhD researchers, and AAA writers gathered together at a PAX East panel today to agree almost completely on the state of writing in games and their hopes for its future.

The focus for the panel was not dialogue as a feature of games, but dialogue as the game itself, like the famous insult swordfighting scene in Monkey Island.

Moderator Jonathon Myers, writer and co-founder of Reactive Games, kicked off the panel by asking the panelists what they thought was the proper place of conversations in games.

For Daniel Erickson, writer on Dragon Age Origins and the upcoming The Old Republic MMO, conversation is one of the key ways games can capture the majority of real-life conflicts that are verbal, rather than physical. Creating conversation in games should be as fun as any of the more visceral aspects of games, he said.

Erickson said he didn't want what's often considered the holy grail of in-game conversations -- an AI that can talk and act like a human -- for the same reason he didn’t want a real fight. In-game conversations need to be stylized, he said, to create something that feels more powerful than reality, just like virtual combat does.

Jeff Orkin, an industry veteran from games like No One Lives Forever II and F.E.A.R., talked about his PhD project, Improviso, a game that asks players to control actors in a low-budget sci-fi film in order to create a massive database of responses. His goal, he said, was “to have a seamless interweaving of physical imagery and dialogue.”

Aaron Reed, representing the interactive fiction contingent on the panel, started with a passage from Emily Short, who thinks of dialogue as a means for players to take on a role. In this model, conversation ins't just an aspect of or excuse for gameplay, but a personally motivated process that puts the player in the chief narrative role.

“For dialogue to have gameplay it has to have rules, a goal, and tools to achieve it,” said Dan Tanguay of Vicarious Visions. For him, the small things were the most necessary. Conversation trees should tell players when they're on the path they wanted, he said, and include failure states that aren’t serious enough to turn the player off completely.

Martin Van Velsen, Senior Research Engineer at Carnegie Mellon University, also shied away from the concept of realistic conversation systems. Rather than creating computers that think, which he compared to making “a boat that can swim,” he felt that the genre conventions that might seem limiting were in fact helpful to telling a story.

Orkin expressed his frustration with how dialogue systems are separated from other forms of gameplay. He wished for a system that let him interrupt combat with dialogue, such as a plea for mercy. But Erickson defended the traditional separation, likening the different gameplay systems to different emotional states.

For Erickson, and the rest of Bioware, agency is the most important thing. He mentioned Heavy Rain as an example of a game that keeps players feeling involved and participating even when they aren’t making life-altering decisions.

In fact, Erikson said the reason Bioware games often have a very basic, conventional plot is because the player has to understand the choices they have to make in order to have agency. Complicated plots indicate that the plot is important, not the player, he said.

“Self expression and the ability for players to feeling like they are making decisions are more important than the things that we, as writers, think are awesome,” Erickson said, adding that the mere introduction of player agency eliminates all of that.

“We always talk about when there's going to be the Citizen Kane of games,” he continued. ”There’s never going to be a Citizen Kane for ballet either. It’s a dumb concept. It’s a totally different genre of storytelling. Our biggest advantages is player agency so it’s what we have to put first.”

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Pierre Gilbert
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I would normally agree, but... with L.A Noire and games of the sort, I feel that developers are getting more and more concerned about this stuff.

...Still, games containing no fight or violence are very far from being mainstream, in my opinion.

Tim Carter
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We have light years to go in dialogue and narrative writing in the game industry.

James Holloway
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I once imagined a role-playing game where instead of fighting you had to converse your way out of an encounter. It was an interesting concept, but I had to learn way too much about debate...

Daniel Brogan
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Well we may get something of that from Deus Ex: Human Revolution, given that allegedly much of the game can be talked through. We'll just have to see how that works in-game though.

Does sound promising though doesn't it?

Maurício Gomes
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I've heard is possible to finish Planescape Torment without engaging into a single fight.

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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Really good stuff here, I particularly like the analogies

Alan Jack
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"Orkin expressed his frustration with how dialogue systems are separated from other forms of gameplay. He wished for a system that let him interrupt combat with dialogue, such as a plea for mercy."

THIS right here.

Nothing is more game-breakingly frustrating to me than to have a system for conversing with characters in a game that is only engaged when the designer SAYS it is engaged. Conversely, if a game lets me shoot people and then walk directly into a room still carrying my weapons, I should be able to shoot the people there if I don't like what they say. Mass Effect was broken for me whenever the two areas bled together.

The worst offender was Far Cry 2, which turned a lot of people off by being a Doom-like constant-threat shooter, even though you had areas where you could converse deeply with characters in a very cinematic fashion. At one point I had to clear an area of enemies to proceed, but one kept evading me. Eventually I found him cowering under a table, begging to be set free to go home to his family. The game MADE me kill him.

(of course it should be noted that forcing the player into a spiral of ever-worsening violent behaviour was part of Hocking's aim in creating Far Cry 2, which was a loose adaptation of "The Heart Of Darkness", but it was still frustrating)

There's still some really amazing ground to be broken in character interactions in games, and I'm glad people are talking about it.

Alex Taube
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For me the question is what do you want to get across in games with implementing dialogue. Is it gameplay, story, an intermezzo or something else? Many implemented multiple choice dialogues fail because they are not much more than a pretty boring puzzle with one (or two) good exits. I remember Vampire the Masquerade having a nice way of offering certain lines only for characters with special attributes, which is emphasizing a personalized dialogue. But if its all about (linear) story I don't care about choices, just give me the most dramatic version :-)

John Tynes
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Orkin is spot on. What Bioware gets completely wrong is putting conversation into a box instead of letting it be part of your toolkit. "Talk" should be a face button.

I wrote a column for the Escapist on this very topic. Sierra made a SWAT game many years ago where one of the main commands was for verbal intimidation. Using that command, you could sometimes persuade criminals to surrender -- basically it forced a morale check and if they failed, they gave up. It radically changed my game experience and I'm sad that revolutionary idea proved to be a one-off mutation. In my column I extend that idea and conjure examples of how talking could improve other areas of gameplay:

Alan Jack
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You know that feeling when you think you've come up with a revolutionary idea, nurture it, feel proud of yourself, then before you get a chance to use it you discover someone else did it years ago and just didn't get recognition for it?