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Andrew Kauz avatar 3:10 PM on 05.12.2009  (server time)
Storytelling: Mass Effect, Vonnegut, and the Fourth Rule

[This is part 3 of my Storytelling series. For the two previous parts, check out my blog by clicking on my picture above.]

American author Kurt Vonnegut, in addition to his many famous and influential novels, penned a short series of writing rules that have found their way into many fiction writing programs at dozens of universities. He then said that great writers tend to break them. Oh, you.

Oh, Vonnegut, you sarcastic fellow.

Nevertheless, there are a number of these rules that I agree with, and none more than his fourth rule: “Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.” I think all great dialogue does indeed fall into one of these two functions; even the telling of a joke could be thought of as adding to the development of a character, as readers quickly begin to think of this character as a jokester.

Despite the vast expanse between novels and video games, I think that plot-centric games could benefit greatly from an adherence to this philosophy. If games are going to use our non-gameplay time in a way that will not make the player feel as if the time has been wasted (yet another of Vonnegut’s rules, adapted for games), the use of dialogue needs some attention.

My love of Bioware’s Mass Effect is runs deep, and I found myself eager to explore every bit of dialogue in my initial playthrough. Just what would that cheeky bastard Wrex say next? What kind of pissy remark would Penelope Shepard (the best of all the Shepards—trust me) say in order to get rid of the pesky news correspondent? The sheer inundation of dialogue had me punch-drunk: where there was dialogue, I would seek it out, and I loved every minute of it.

I played through the game multiple times afterward, each time trying new dialogue choices. However, my initial impression having worn off, I began to notice something: I didn’t really care about what most of these people had to say, and I never did. I think the reason that the dialogue failed to impress is that it didn’t always seem to have a purpose: it wasn’t advancing the story, and it wasn’t building a character. I don’t think that Mass Effect has bad dialogue by any means. It’s the opposite: I think Mass Effect’s dialogue is good enough that it merits some criticism, and there are definitely things that Mass Effect 2 can do better.

How interesting can we really expect the first two responses to be?

Building Character

The player can make Commander Shepard say a lot of things. There are good responses, neutral responses, and bad responses to almost every situation in the game, making up pages upon pages of dialogue. However, in many cases, these lines are just that: they’re good, bad, or neither. They’re rarely funny, angry, sympathetic, etc. These are real human emotions, whereas the ideas of good and evil really aren’t. Couple that with the fact that most “good” lines aren’t really all that good and most “bad” lines aren’t really that bad, and you just have flat, robotic dialogue. Shepard’s personality is far more lifeless than it should be, though if you’re playing a female Shepard, it’s aided greatly by Jennifer Hale’s VA performances.

The simple fact is that it’s very difficult to get a sense of Shepard’s personality based on the dialogue—even if you want to make her a complete jackass by selecting all of the “evil” responses, she still won’t feel truly evil.

It may be too late now, but I think Shepard needs some personality traits or quirks that are constant in Mass Effect 2. For example, maybe Shepard could be given a sense of humor that appears throughout the dialogue, regardless of what option is selected. For good choices, that sense of humor could be at her own expense or simply an innocent joke, while the evil choices could allow Shepard to exploit insecurities of characters, make rude remarks, etc. Even a simple addition like this could make Shepard much more relatable, likeable, and certainly more human.

Where’s the option for “Slap her and tell her she was adopted?”

Quantity over Quality

Some estimations put the number of recorded lines of dialogue in the game at 20,000—not a small number. But how much of it is interesting, revelatory, and useful dialogue? Certainly not all.

Now, I don’t think the solution here is to include less dialogue; I’m sure that Mass Effect 2 will actually have more. But I think the priority needs to be on examining the dialogue to make sure that it is necessary. Sure, it would be sad for a writer to pen a thousand lines of dialogue only to have half of that actually make it into the game, but trimming around the edges (killing your babies, as an old writing instructor called it) is just what writers do.

I think a simple focus upon the purpose of each dialogue exchange could benefit the next game greatly. By asking what each line of dialogue is meant to do, it’s easy to trim the fat and make for a more streamlined, meaningful experience for the player. There are tons of side characters in the game with varying roles, yet every character should have something truly worthwhile to say in any exchange.

Please choose your response to this article. Note that choosing option one or four will results in the loss of an undetermined number of fingers.

So it’s not a matter of Mass Effect’s dialogue being poorly written or poorly acted: it’s just not exciting, which is a problem of relatively low importance when compared to the massive writing problems in other games. However, it’s my belief that a studio like Bioware can, and should, do better, creating dialogue that even the good man Vonnegut would be proud of.

So, how did Mass Effect's dialogue work for you?

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