You Open Your Mouth But The Words Just Won’t Come Out: Dialogue Systems In Games

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//Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Mass Effect spoilers follow

So, I’m in the process of finishing up Deus Ex: Human Revolution after bouncing off of it the first time, and I’m really enjoying myself. I’m a big fan of immersive sims, and the game offers a great deal of variety in how you deal with the assorted obstacles it puts forward. I especially like how varied your options are even within the duality of “loud” or “sneaky”: you can be a silent assassin, hack a bunch of turrets to do your job for you, quietly knock out the guards in your path, very loudly knock out the guards in your path, or sneak on through without touching a fly. On top of that, sometimes sneaking isn’t required, and you can simply talk your way out of situations.

This leads me to Human Revolution‘s dialogue system, which I really enjoy. It’s usually a pretty standard dialogue system affair, but there are key NPCs that you need to talk to, always in order to get something out of them, that launch the game’s “real” dialogue system. In these scenes, on top of the dialogue and your responses, the player is given a readout of the NPCs mood, their personality traits, and a dossier of their personality quirks (all justified by the player character, Adam Jensen, having augmentations in his skull that boost his social abilities).

With this information, it’s up to the player to use that information to try and bend the conversation in their favor. What I love about this is that the game doesn’t have some sort of arbitrary “conversation” skill, like Mass Effect or Fallout. In those games, you have a somewhat arbitrary measurement of your ability to talk to people, and if that number is high enough, it unlocks the “just get everything you want” dialogue option. Human Revolution has no such measurement, and instead, if you want the best option, you need to actually reason your way around your conversational opponent.

Actually, that’s not 100% correct. There is an augmentation you can spec into which can grant you a “just get everything you want” dialogue option, but when you trigger it, you actually need to select between three such options, each tailored to a certain personality type (either aggressive Alphas, defensive Betas, or timid Omegas). To unlock that “best” option, you still need to pay attention to your conversation partner.

I adore this system, because it actually makes you feel like some sort of shrewd negotiator. Instead of just mashing the “win the conversation” button, you sit there and think a little. “Well, I know this guy is trying to save face in this public setting, so if I really push him into a corner that makes him sound guilty, he’ll be forced to buckle”. It’s not exactly rocket science (for instance, when the personality hint tells you that you should directly confront a character when they try to weasel out of a tricky subject, one option is usually just labeled “CONFRONT”), but it’s certainly more interesting than a normal dialogue tree.

What if the game went a step further? Human Revolution just hands you a subject’s personality traits on a silver platter, but what if it didn’t? After all this is a game in which violation of privacy is a central theme, in a genre in which violation of privacy is a central theme, so what if instead of just being given a person’s personality traits for free, you had to research them, pick around their public and private histories to build that personality profile. By analyzing their emails, their phone logs, their public speeches and debates, their reputation with their friends, allies, and enemies, you built up a profile of your target as a conversational opponent, and then used that to bend them to your will? After all, that’s what people who actually debate for a living do.

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What did we do to deserve stock art?

I can actually pretty easily imagine a whole game centered on this. Imagine playing a detective or police officer, or maybe even an attorney. Games of this sort usually center on the collection of evidence or testimony, but imagine one in which that was only part of it? On top of that, imagine that your “targets”, perhaps witnesses or even suspects, have particular personality traits. Usually, games have such characters crack conversationally when presented with facts or with proof of their inconsistent testimony, but maybe on top of that you also needed to know how that person debates.

If you have a witness who’s had an incomplete account of events, and you have proof that they’ve been lying, your course of action can still change depending on how that witness reacts to being under pressure. Perhaps they’re notoriously slippery, and you have to really hammer them with facts to get through. Perhaps they’re pretty averse to pressure, and you have to gently present the facts to avoid a complete shutdown on their part. It adds another dimension to a normal dialogue system, and gives players more to mentally juggle.

The thing about dialogue systems as they tend to exist right now is that they’re tactically uninteresting. By considering a character’s personality traits, it adds a layer of strategic depth which the system as it is largely codified in modern gaming simply lacks. It also does something which many modern dialogue systems don’t, which is that it rewards gameplay rather than skipping it. Many games use dialogue systems as a way to let players who lean that way simply skip entire sections of the game. Famously, Mass Effect lets you just talk the final boss into shooting himself in the face, which is a neat concept, but in the end just means players don’t experience a part of your game that might have been interesting. In fact, despite having played the game four times, I’ve literally never done the first phase of the Saren boss fight due to this.

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I have absolutely no idea what happens if you don’t convince Saren to kill himself. Maybe you have a dance battle.

That’s kinda silly, don’t you think? If I’m playing the game, I want to, y’know, play the game. If we opt into a system where improving conversational odds against an opponent requires research, now we have a dialogue system which rewards gameplay. Maybe we do get to skip a boss fight or a dungeon with our conversational skills, but to do so, we introduce a whole bunch of new gameplay of rooting around computers and audio diaries looking for clues, of pressing associates of the target to learn more about them, and other sorts of detective work that wouldn’t be necessary if you decide to just, y’know, blast the dude in the face. A dialogue system like this feels like a different path, just like a ventilation duct or secret passageway, and less like a skip or a cheat.

A dialogue system with greater complexity that just “are you smart or dumb” or “are you good and evil” opens up some fantastic new design space to think about the way your characters interact with each other. Dialogue systems right now are a hotbed for design creativity (see Oxenfree or Dropsy), so I think there’s a lot of interesting work that can be done here, looking at the groundwork laid by Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

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