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Default Rock, Paper, Shotgun - Text in Games

October 21st, 2007, 19:17
Kieron Gillen at Rock,Paper,Shotgun has written an article on the use of text—words and dialogue—in game design. It includes some explorations of the pivotal role of words in various games and genres, including adventure games, roleplaying games such as Planescape:Torment, text adventures and others, and why text can be as effective as visuals or even more so. Here he quotes Sheldon Pacotti, writer on Deus Ex:
Words remain one of the more enigmatic yet efficient tools available to a professional game designer, and certainly one of the most overlooked. And its efficiency cannot really be overestimated – both in terms of player and development time. “Language (and prose in particular) remains an important tool for game designers because it’s malleable,” notes Sheldon Pacotti, writer on Deus Ex and now at Spector’s Junction Point, “One sentence can go from the Bronze Age to 21st-century Shanghai to the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Imagine the development budget to represent that last sentence visually. Especially in adventure games, language is critical for conveying history, prophecy, and the multiplicity of a gameworld/society. Consider the dwarves’ song about Smaug at the start of the Hobbit. It moves from legends about the dragon to a prophecy of its doom in a matter of seconds, and for me this is where the book suddenly becomes not just a story but a complete world.”
Here's Chris Avellone on how text was used to supplement or even replace visual storytelling in Planescape:Torment:
“We just thought that there was so much you could do with written description – facial expressions, motions of the hand, etc, that we didn’t have the art resources to represent,” remembers Chris Avellone, lead designer on Planescape: Torment, and now at Obsidian, “To do all the cinematics, animations, and movies to capture the memory sequences, companion expressions, and other moments just would have been impossible.” It also went against the occasional stated wisdom that text is just too much work. “I don’t think text is any harder to produce than building tilesets, models or doing anmations,” Chris, whose fellow designer Colin McComb credits as having written literally half of Planescape, adds “if you love doing it, it’s no work at all.”
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October 21st, 2007, 19:17
It seems developers have been getting more and more away from the power of the written word in favour of visual queues. I think doing this loses a lot of power.

I don't advocate the way PS:T ever did it again (I feel it just bogs the game down) but descriptions are a terrific way to trigger imagination.

A computer gives a lot of time where the player can slow down and interact. This is something not possible on a movie, tv or an arcade.

I believe it was Bethesda on Fallout 3 who said they wouldn't be putting descriptions in because they insist on capturing it with graphics. There's a sense among developers not that its cheating it seems to me. That it was the way you were forced to do things because of the limitation of computers.

Text is something old fashioned and unnecessary today like turn based play and scaled transitions for combat and cities (ala Ultima or Final Fantasy) seems to be the general attitude.

The problem with this line of thinking IMO is that pure graphic games, real time/smooth play and non-scaling (for lack of a better word) all existed at the same time these other systems did. Its just that these systems proved an extremely effective style of gameplay at the time and I think it still rings true today.

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October 21st, 2007, 20:07
I like text descriptions to go with my games. Rarely do the provided graphics capture what text can, given that the power of the imagination is far stronger than that of the pixel and polygon.
I love reading a description more than seeing what is being described.

What's unfortunate is that games focus on graphics more than anything else. Now, I like good graphics but when I say good I mean good art design, not bleeding edge rendering technology. I also think sound is far under-utilized. So give me some good graphics with amazing sound and some text detail and I'm more than happily immersed in whatever the game is trying to show me.

What I really miss are the days of the atmospheric text description provided upon entering an area in a game. Sure, you can show me with graphics but that's boring and unengaging. Give my eyes, ears and brain something to work on and it's much less boring and less lonely. Graphics only just feel empty.

If FO3 is doing away with text descriptions in favour of graphics, that is going to be one dull wasteland.

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October 21st, 2007, 21:17
Didnt kotor 1 & 2 have voice-only dialogues? I remember spending a lot of time in those discussions and they were not that bad. I havent played oblivion yet though.
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October 22nd, 2007, 14:00
Originally Posted by zakhal View Post
Didnt kotor 1 & 2 have voice-only dialogues?
Yeah, but there the majority of "voice acted" dialogs were looped alien voice clips — maybe 5-6 clips per alien race, and man did those grate on the nerves after the first couple of hours. Sure, it gave Bioware the ability to double or triple the lines of text in the game without investing in more voice acting, but it turned into one of the most popular complaints about the game.

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October 22nd, 2007, 14:18
I am not too nostalgic about actual text descriptions - more often then not they were trite and cliché. The case is different with in game texts, and dialogue. At least until we have text to speech systems that can rival voiceactors in quality, limiting dialogue to full audio always will create a barrier to depth of dialogue. Mainly because of the high cost of professional voice acting which allows only so much text, but also because it creates logistic problems - you need to lock down dialogues realtively early in the design process and changing it later creates even higher cost. For that reason I wish more games would go back to good old text. I'd say with some additional effort the KOTOR alien speak model could work great too, it just needs to avoid the overly obvious looping.
I am also a great fan for in game literature in any form. This is a great, and relatively simple way to add depth to gameworlds, NPC's, and storylines.
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October 22nd, 2007, 14:48
I definitely think text can be a valuable asset in immersing the player. Especially today, because it's so cost-effective and doesn't have to impede the "cinematic immersion".

Case in point: Hellgate: London. If you right-click an item, you can more closely examine it. Up comes a little screen with flavor description and detailed statistics. That's what many would consider a trivial addition, but I consider it of no small value in terms of contributing to the overall experience. It's great after a frenetic item run to kick back near a vendor, and casually ponder over your treasures and I enjoy those little moments, even in a mindless action RPG as Hellgate.

Another example would be the flavor text of Baldur's Gate, when examining magic items. You got a great little "old-style" book screen with a relatively detailed account of what the item was and were it came from. It added a lot with some creative use of a simple interface with a quaint font.

Yet another example would be System Shock 2. I loved the little tidbits you got when you examined the pointless magazines and such lying about. It simply enhanced your immersion into the world, and showed that the developers had spent some time doing that kind of thing just because they could. I actually really missed that in Bioshock.

Those are just minor examples of what can be done with text, and without standing in the way of immersion. I can't decide if developers are being blind, incompetent or just plain lazy, but they're missing out on relatively painless ways to add flavor to their games.
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October 22nd, 2007, 15:04
Originally Posted by DArtagnan View Post
Another example would be the flavor text of Baldur's Gate, when examining magic items. You got a great little "old-style" book screen with a relatively detailed account of what the item was and were it came from. It added a lot with some creative use of a simple interface with a quaint font.
I agree with your other examples, but Baldurs gate was actually an example how it should not be done, IMHO. These descriptions were not integrated into the game at all, they were just an interface feature. How do the player characters know these stories? It would have been more fun to find books on them or learn about them in conversation.
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October 22nd, 2007, 15:10
I agree with your other examples, but Baldurs gate was actually an example how it should not be done, IMHO. These descriptions were not integrated into the game at all, they were just an interface feature. How do the player characters know these stories? It would have been more fun to find books on them or learn about them in conversation.
They know about them because of the way AD&D works with identification. Basically, if you identified a magic item, it's implicit that you have the "lore" sufficient to know its history and magical properties, which is essentially what you mean by reading about it in books. Look to D&D 3rd edition and upwards for a more clear rule regarding this, where they specifically have a Lore skill to determine your actual knowledge of ancient artifacts as it relates to identifying what you find.

You can argue that it's a conceit, but I think it fits quite well and I have absolutely no problem with this implementation.

I never thought anyone would have a problem with it, but you learn something new every day.
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October 22nd, 2007, 19:30
This was an interesting article with some explicit ideas and opinions. It actually even upset me a bit. No one came right out and said it, but they obviously feel text has become obsolete in video games.

I did like this quote from Sheldon Pacotti: "The rush of immediate experience is what makes video games unique, but it’s also the medium’s greatest liability." And I thought his example about linear space-time was a very good one.

Today's CRPGs are sacrificing a lot of the benefits of good writing in order to leverage all of the benefits of cutting-edge computer graphics. It's The Witcher (which I'm going to be buying along with everyone else). It's awesome simulation; but it's a niche, one that's, unfortunately, becoming the mainstream of CRPG.

Text is about limitless possibilities while graphics is about limited possibilities exploited to their maximum potential. Personally, I'd prefer to play a CRPG that utilized my computer's processing power to tackle more of the limitless possibilities and fewer of the graphical ones.
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