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Default Gamasutra - Ode to Short Dialogue

October 15th, 2008, 13:42
Big Huge Games' Ben Schneider (formerly Iron Lore) has written Ode to Short Dialogue for Gamasutra. Before you grab a pitchfork to protest dumbing down games, Ben is primarily writing about short sound-bites, such as ambient background comments, and makes some good observations. On BioShock and Assassin's Creed vs Oblivion and Mass Effect:
Compare the overheard speech in these games to that in Oblivion and Mass Effect. In both of these games you can listen in on full-length public conversations. I would argue that this approach is simply less successful.

Those full conversations are, first of all, a bit "uncanny valley," since in reality the speakers would stop talking or turn to you as soon as they noticed you just standing there … awkwardly listening in. (And Assassin's Creed does in fact feature that sort of reaction!)

Worse yet, they come while you're in the middle of gameplay (exploring, questing, or shopping), and they force an awkward decision on the player — whether to stop and passively listen for a minute, or walk away feeling like you missed something. Neither option is great. This is verisimilitude versus realism in a nutshell: Full conversation dialog might be more accurate, but carefully tailored sound bites capture the essence of overheard speech far better.
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October 15th, 2008, 13:42
So, the article is about atmospheric dialogs, which suck the players into the world. This is traditionally important factor in any medium. Even an introductory reading for Shakespeare would explain the first lines by the guard in Hamlet tries to bring the audiences to the midnight of Elsinore. "Who's there?", in daylight, the guard cannot ask like that to someone so near to him, so, they must be in dark. This is an example of an economized short dialog, which even touches the main theme of Hamlet: A story of a man who struggles to identify himself. Yea, I know its' quite long-ish as a whole work, though.

Jokes aside, generally speaking, I agree with the writer here. Ken Levine has some experience in writing TV scripts and I think the experiences pay off in his works in the game industry.

Those full conversations are, first of all, a bit "uncanny valley," since in reality the speakers would stop talking or turn to you as soon as they noticed you just standing there … awkwardly listening in. (And Assassin's Creed does in fact feature that sort of reaction!)

Worse yet, they come while you're in the middle of gameplay (exploring, questing, or shopping), and they force an awkward decision on the player — whether to stop and passively listen for a minute, or walk away feeling like you missed something. Neither option is great. This is verisimilitude versus realism in a nutshell: Full conversation dialog might be more accurate, but carefully tailored sound bites capture the essence of overheard speech far better.
A bit off topic but in the context of role-playing games, if this is implemented properly, it can benefit stealth type characters in gathering information as well as smooth-talker, who can loosen tongues of even tight-lipped NPCs.
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October 15th, 2008, 14:14
Well, I do think some people would just go on talking as normal as the player passes by, I mean in a big city people pass by all the time, how is the player any different from all the other NPC's passing by ?

On the other hand if they are talking in an deserted castle in the middle of nowhere that might be the case but it is in usual not like this in Oblivion.
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October 15th, 2008, 14:47
Originally Posted by GothicGothicness View Post
Well, I do think some people would just go on talking as normal as the player passes by, I mean in a big city people pass by all the time, how is the player any different from all the other NPC's passing by ?

On the other hand if they are talking in an deserted castle in the middle of nowhere that might be the case but it is in usual not like this in Oblivion.
This is also true to some extent. Indeed, normally, people don't care about the possibility of being overheard in public/crowded places such as taverns and other social places. Another factor to be considered would be how sensitive the talkers think about the topics. Most likely, they don't want to talk about specific information in public places. I think it won't be impossible to let AI behave properly depending on the places where they talk.

In any case, I occasionally come across to the situations where some information is given too unnaturally or feel some NPC are too explanatory. This is partly because AI behaviors but, I think, this is mostly because the writers are not so careful about the dialogs they write, which makes me agree with the article.
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October 15th, 2008, 21:37
Worse yet, they come while you're in the middle of gameplay (exploring, questing, or shopping), and they force an awkward decision on the player — whether to stop and passively listen for a minute, or walk away feeling like you missed something. Neither option is great.
I disagree. These are exactly the types of reasonable and sometimes difficult choices that should be available to a player. The game should not revolve around my character. Yes, there may need to be some safeguards. Obviously a plot-critical piece of information shouldn't be allowed to be missed without some other way of getting that information later, but beyond that, I see this as a good thing.

And while you may be able to listen in on NPCs with impunity in some games, I always tried to be stealthy about it even if the game engine didn't care. Use your imagination for crying out loud. I do agree, however, that it's more immersive when the engine reacts and forces you to be more discrete.
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October 15th, 2008, 23:01
Originally Posted by GothicGothicness View Post
Well, I do think some people would just go on talking as normal as the player passes by,
In reality, I've experienced several cases where people were babbling so lidly that it was very, very hard NOT to listen to what they say … Which means - in other words - that some people just don't care.

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction. (E.F.Schumacher, Economist, Source)
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October 16th, 2008, 00:59
you gotta appreciate a guy that can work the word verisimilitude into an article. now I'd like to hear some of his background conversation use a word like that.

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October 16th, 2008, 06:44
The original poster may be successful in preventing it from simplistic long dialog vs dumbed-down short dialog arguments but, in that effort, he might have brought yet another simplistic argument between BioShock/Assassin's Creed vs Oblivion/Mass Effect fanboism.

For me, much more tougher choice is Planescape: Torment vs Bioshock. I'm quite fond of the former but I understand the design philosophy behind Bioshock. Of course, to some extent, this depends on the abilities/efforts of the writers but at the same time, there should be styles which fit the forms of media. Most of people would admit PS:T dialogs are well written but the style won't fit games such as Bioshock. The recent graphics imported from movie industry would fit a different writing style. However, this shouldn't simply mean short sentences but a different style.
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October 17th, 2008, 12:47
What about an RPG taking place at an early point of human evolution ?

Maybe then a conversation might sound like this:

"Ugh ?"
"Ook !"

That's it.

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction. (E.F.Schumacher, Economist, Source)
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