Renga in blue

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Conversational cutscenes

A long-held charge against conversation menus is that they are modified cutscenes of sorts -- infodumps where the player will pick every choice given to avoid missing anything. Take the following, for example, from Andrew Plotkin's review of The Longest Journey:

And that means each conversation is a cut scene. It is not interactive. I can't put it more clearly than that. You sit back and listen to the pre-scripted dialogue, occasionally clicking a menu option to hear the next paragraph. You could skip some options, or leave early, of course -- but why bother? You're just going to come back later and listen to the rest. It's the shallowest kind of interactivity.

However, I contend that the ASK/TELL system can contain the same problem -- only even worse.

Consider the average static NPC with information. The standard behavior with ASK is to try every reasonable term that comes to mind, with the difference that a.) everything the PC says is a question, so there's not a great deal of dialogue variety from that end and b.) half the responses are "I don't know anything about that."

Now, one might argue ASK/TELL is superior in it requires more ratiocination (and it does) but it also contains the two flaws I just mentioned. It is a tradeoff. In a mystery, I'd say the thinking process of ASK/TELL is more important than the possibility of hitting unknown topics; in a game where the characterization of the PC is vital, the story benefits from expanded dialogue options (so Guybrush Threepwood from the Monkey Island games always has a selection of jokes to choose from).

I'd say the problem in general is not with the system chosen, but the static infodumping NPC in general.

There are alternatives:

* Galatea is interesting in it has a "mood maze" where the same question may receive different responses depending on what occurred before.

* Other NPCs react relatively dynamically to events and will respond differently to the same question based simply on situation.

* Dialogue options can be mutually exclusive, and can be actions that affect the plot -- the choice of gilded words versus an insult, the choice to lie rather than tell the truth.

I'll make a deeper examination of these tactics in the future. Any of them can reduce the cutscene effect, with both dialogue menus and ASK/TELL systems.


As a postscript, let me also add: even with an static NPC's dialogue menu, the experience isn't quite the same as a cutscene. A cutscene essentially makes the game a hybrid -- whether with a novel as in text games (like The Legend Lives!) or with movies as in graphical works (like the Xenosaga series). The mere act of choosing what to say next serves to break the information in chunks, and maintains an illusion of player control of the PC (however rudimentary).