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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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About Andrew Kauzone of us since 5:10 PM on 04.30.2009

In loving memory: PAX 2009 (thanks ZombiePlatypus! And WalkYourPath, of course)

I'm Kauza, which is pronounced like cause-uh. My real name's Andrew Kauz, if you'd rather go for that.

I like talking to Dtoid people, so please add me on your favorite social networking site:
Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/kauza
Gchat: santakauz[at]gmail.com.

Basics: I'm 25, and I write things.

Eternal thanks go out to Y0j1mb0 for the amazing header image you see above. So, thanks, sir!

Look at some of the things I've written.

Things on the Front Page:

Mass Effect, Metal Gear, Moon Unit, and more: An interview with Jennifer Hale
The Future: Demanding more from the voices of videogames
Love/Hate: A plea to play as a female Shepard
A warning: Regrets from a former life and experiences yet unlived
Top ten games for people who hate Thanksgiving
The wrong thing: Being evil should be more like sex
Staying dry in a sea of spoilers is a matter of building a boat
Lessons on taking games just seriously enough
Come, take your pilgrimage to gaming's one true mecca
Here's to you, random-JRPG-dialogue-writer-man
The forgotten: Crushing disappointment at the hands of Crash 'n the Boys
The people who have the power to change the world
Improving game communities: Enough with the negativity
The draw of exploration: Antarctica to Oblivion, Shackleton to Shadow Complex
I suck at games: BlazBlue and a slapdash attempt at fisticuffs
I, the Author: My Everest
Untapped Potential: The Gamer's Education
Other Worlds than These: Our World, Only Different

A series sort of thing about status effects
Toxic Megacolon and other fresh status effects
Curse you, status effects, stop confusing my heart
Status effects are poisons that turn my silent heart to stone
Also check out the related forum thread.

The Fall of the Titans (wherein I talk about dead or dying gaming companies)

The fall of the titans part 3: What once was shall be again
The fall of the titans: Sega died so that we might dream of the future
The fall of the titans: Why do the giants of gaming die?

Stories from the Past (a series about my experiences playing certain games):

Stories from the Past: Tobal 2, Tomba! 2, and console double-vision
Stories from the Past: Diablo and the Dark Ride
Stories from the Past: What the f*ck, mom?
Stories from the Past: Xexyz and the battle aboard Turtlestar Lobsterica
Stories from the Past: The One-Balled Man-Bear
Stories from the Past: The Battle of Olympus
Stories from the Past: Suikoden 2

Storytelling (a series about, well, storytelling):

Storytelling: The Problem of Genres
Storytelling: Mass Effect, Vonnegut, and the Fourth Rule
Storytelling: Doing Nothing in "The Darkness"
Storytelling: The Power of a Single Line (Yeah, it was my first post.)

Other stuff that is good:

Lessons on taking games just seriously enough
A consuming power: The demon and the borderlands
Can games transcend good and evil?
Nothing is sacred: We won't let you go alone, but we have made a tragic decision
How Destructoid single-handedly changed my mother’s opinion of gaming
Why Tecmo Super Bowl is the greatest sports game of all time
Seven reasons that I will end you in creative ways if you don't play Folklore
Mother Nature and the Impending Death of the Gaming Spirit
Times Games Forgot: The Dark Ages
The Sins and Successes of In-game Collectibles
The Lock is Broken
When Music Surpasses the Game
Truckasaurus Rex and the Humor of Games
I Want to Cry (storytelling related, but not part of the series)

I have others as well that you can check out on my blog. You'll enjoy them or your money back.

Since it seems like the cool thing to do, here a list of my favorite games that is coming straight out of my ass and onto your computer screen, and in no particular order.

Fallout 3
Uncharted 2
Suikoden 2
Mass Effect / ME2
Metal Gear Solid followed by any number you can think of
Tales of Somethingendinginia (OK, and the Abyss)
Battlefield: Bad Company
Xbox LIVE:kauza
PSN ID:santakauz
Mii code:kauza


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