Role-playing games (RPGs) are one of the greatest genres of games this world has to offer. It’s also a broad category, which leaves a lot open to interpretation.
My experience with them is digital, but their origins are on the tabletop. Board games (you may have heard of Dungeons & Dragons) are where playing roles really started. It is also a social experience, as it requires a party of people. Even if it’s not a particularly big party, it’s still interacting with both other people and a story. It’s that social interaction that I think RPG video games are losing some of these days.
Putting the RP in RPG
When you play a role in something like D&D you personify another character that is (probably) distinctly not you. I imagine it’s not unlike acting, it is playing pretend. The interaction with a fantasy world is done with other people, and in that way it is both important that that world be interesting as well as the people you’re interacting with. Both sides of the coin are required for an enjoyable experience.
I have written about the importance of NPC immersion in another blog post and part of that has to do with this. As an extension of it, the way you interact with NPCs needs to not restrict you. Some games do it well, and some do it quite poorly. The long and short of it is in realizing the importance of social interaction. NPCs may be sudo-social interaction, but tricking a well developed part of our brains (conversing with other people) into suspending disbelief is an important part of any fantasy.
What freedom are we given, in any particular game, to interact with the world and its denizens in whatever way we choose? Also, how much of the game is focused on that interaction? Is it just accepting quests? The occasional chit-chat with the local passers by? Maybe it’s so important that you’d scarcely have a game without it. As RPGs wander away from their D&D-esque roots they sacrifice some of that freedom.
Combat is not irrelevant, either. No matter how fun your combat is, you need some dialogue to break it up. If you don’t, then you’ll more quickly engage the part of the human brain that finds patterns. Combat will have an algorithm of interactions behind it, and as you proceed through battle after battle that interaction will look more and more formulaic. The player will see through the combat into the underlying system, and at that point the line between video game and interactive spreadsheet becomes blurred.
Doing it right
The best examples stayed the course and followed a D&D like approach by offering a nauseating number of dialogue options for any manner of scenarios. Those like the Divinity Original Sin games show this off well, having options that are not wide and varied, but also many that show up specifically related to your character.
Your race, gender, patron deity, class, company, and accomplishments are all looked at to pull together how your character might communicate. You want your fictional avatar to be well represented. You don’t want to be cornered into ‘saying’ something that is very much not anything like you would ever say just because the developers of the game couldn’t give dialogue the time it deserved.
Say I’m playing the role of the evil vampire. I’m skulking the night as I imagine they do, and come across a civilian with a broken wagon in distress. He spots me and rushes over. “My wagon wheels hit a rock and is in disarray! Please sir can you fetch me wood so that I might repair it?” I am greeted only with the response, “Why sure, I would love to help. Be right back my good man!” Boy do I sure come across as the epitome of evil and blood sucking demon incarnate in that one, huh? This is a problem, it breaks immersion and feels suffocating.
At least I can take solace in knowing that it could be worse, my options could look like the developers needed to save every byte on the cartridge. Oh wait.
Doing it lazily
It takes time to write dialogue, and it requires someone that — you know — can actually write worth a damn. Even still it can take time, a lot of time. Video games these days already take an unbelievable amount of time to create as it is. Tempting is it to shorten the process by simplifying the dialogue. Your marketing team drums up a brilliant idea: tell the players it’s simpler so that they can map their personality onto the protagonist! Genius! That is, until the players actually play the game, and then they find out all the grossly simplified dialogue does is break immersion.
Of course by then it’s too late, they have your money and the marketing paid off. Part of the blame (and certainly not the majority) is on the players. Reading dialogue also takes time, and effort to understand the potential implications of each line. This can feel like the entire games drags along much too slowly for some people’s tastes. The gamer of today is frequently an adult with a full time job and a family. There is no spare time, so if this player base wants to play this game, why should they spend it reading when they could be entertained by flashing lights and visual effects? A growing number of gamers want something shiny instead of something deep and immersive.
Quantity wins out, of course. If the money to buy games is there, so it is that games will have lazy dialogue.
Sweep it under the carpet
Some games use another approach to dialogue. That is, they make it not a dialogue anymore.
If NPC interaction is kept to them telling you a story of your choice in some vague concept of a storyline? That cuts down on how much dialogue I have to write, but then I don’t need to write a back-and-forth interaction. I just write a series of stories and have the NPC monologue to you. Your brain fills in the gaps with some form of “I guess my character asked them about this topic somehow?”
This creates an environment of NPCs that might as well be walking billboards. They are as useful as a piece of paper nailed to a plank of wood, and try as you might nothing will get the player to care about this billboard-character after the first playthrough.
Dialogue has grown shorter and shorter in RPGs, and this has been exemplified masterfully by Bethesda’s RPGs. Today they are an open world first person RPG, and Bethesda’s in particular are the titans. In the same way that after World of Warcraft’s rise to popularity saw every MMORPG to come after it labeled ‘another WoW clone’ so too do open world first person RPGs see backlash for being too like Bethesda games.
The most popular ones today run on the Creation Engine, a game engine with incredible modding capabilities. This has breathed a longevity into their games rarely seen anywhere else. Though I am about to throw flak at some of their games, know that for this type of game they still reign supreme with all their flaws.
Look at Fallout 2, and you’ll see very clear tabletop influences. The options are almost all full sentences that communicate not just a thought, but emotion as well. You can feel a very real sense of who is speaking, and what they’re like. Though you only get a tinge of it, it comes through in each option, and as the person that needs to pick a dialogue choice it’s nice to have that back up your role play.
One of the greatest additions to gaming dialogue is found in Fallout 2. With an unusually low intelligence score, which you have to do to your character deliberately, your dialogue options can be replaced with simple grunts and noises.
Then we move onto Fallout 3, where each line is shortened by word count. Fortunately it still sticks to great RPG roots in that certain dialogue options open up depending on parts of your character. A bit less is felt through each line, but for the scale of game it was working with it did a great job.
Like the 2nd Fallout game, they included the fact that a low intelligence can affect your dialogue options. Though not as extensive, you may find NPCs being annoyed at your character’s rambling idiocy. A semblance of the greatness of RPGs is captured here. Maybe I do want my character to be a buffoon. If that is my character, that is my character. A well made RPG should let me be the moron I’ve always dreamt of being.
Three years later we get The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim. Dialogue options are cut down even more, and the presence of dialogue specific to your character is almost nowhere to be seen. Here you get many examples of the one-size-fits-all strategy being leaned towards by RPGs. Emotion is less prevalent, and made ambiguous. The limited pool of dialogue forces you to run into the same one-lines time and time again. You may consider the invention of the arrow-in-the-knee meme to be a silver lining of this aspect.
When the demo of Skyrim was showcased we see not just parts of its story but emphasis is made on the ability to hold different weapons in each hand. Combat is emphasized. See a pattern yet?
Lastly, the most recent release of a single player RPG by Bethesda shows off the worst offense in recent memory. Fallout 4, with all of its graphical and gameplay advantages, decimates the concept of a dialogue tree. Who your character is now resides entirely in your head and on your decisions about where to roam on the map.
Now, there are only ever four potential responses. Emotion is only found with a magnifying glass, and the preview of what you will say can differ wildly from what is actually said. The fanbase was rightfully appalled, and only through the use of Fallout 4’s creation engine have mods come to save the day.
Credit Where Credit is Due
In all honesty I’m not giving proper attribution to the Bethesda games. The comparison between them and Divinity Original Sin just isn’t fair. The former games are fully voiced (at least most of them are at this point) and voice acting is another layer on top of dialogue that eats a lot of time. Paying for voice actors, packaging the audio of the dialogue, managing each line’s audio and its words, this is all very difficult stuff. I don’t blame them for looking at where their biggest time and budget sink is and giving a stink eye to the dialogue slice of the pie chart.
If you’ve played large open world games with fully voiced NPCs you’ll easily take note of how often voice actors are repurposed to save on budget. All you need is 3 or 4 generic guards or civilians to duplicate as many times as you please. I would love a AAA game studio to crowd source this effort with technology behind them. Even better yet I would love to see technology solve this. Once research allows us to efficiently generate human voice and modulate it? It isn’t going to replace those special characters that need talented voice actors to put a spring in the step of the dialogue. Civilian number 31,512 — however — might be automated.