Why in-game dialogue and character conversations matter

Conversations in video games exist as the foremost way to guide the player through the game, according to a recent talk at Game Developers Conference 2014.

"Engineering Better Dialogue" featured insight from founder and CEO of Zombie Cat Studios Sheri Graner Ray and former Dragon Age writer Jennifer Hepler. According to Ray, developers and game writers need to have a common understanding of what in-game dialogue is for.

"Conversations are there to move the player forward in the game," Ray said. "Conversations are a hallmark of story-driven game and adventure games. They are there to keep the player involved, to keep the story moving."

These conversations can take the form of quests, hints or handoff conversations that introduce players to new characters and locations. Although dialogue can branch — and often will — depending on player choice, writers must be aware that only one nugget of information will move the player forward. Everything else must eventually fold back into that conclusion.

"The very last thing in the conversation needs to be a reminder of where to go ... "

According to Ray, these "critical plot points" usually take the form of statements. Part of a writer's job, then, comes with thinking up many different questions that ultimately lead to the same answer. To accomplish this, Ray suggests writers work their way backwards.

Speaking on the subject of creating engaging NPC dialogue, Hepler said that writers should avoid creating characters who just wait around for the player to solve their problem. An engaging character is one finding themselves in trouble.

" ... and what to kill right now."

"They're trying their hardest to solve it themselves and failing," Hepler said, "and you get to come in and be the hero, which players love."

Other pitfalls in writing game dialogue include offer players what is essentially the same option, but simply reworded. According to Hepler, there are three options typically offered: one for the eager player, one for the "what's in it for me" player, and one for the "aggressive" player who wants to refuse but still take the option. Conversations that don't have a point or confuse players of their goal are also to be avoided.

"Player responses should come at the point where there's already information on the table that's worth reacting to," Hepler said. "The very last thing in the conversation needs to be a reminder of where to go and what to kill right now."

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