Narrative games need to ditch short and vague dialogue prompts


Putting a short story long

More and more games want to be interactive stories (even if only kinda sorta interactive) more than they want to be games. Provided they’re written well, that’s fine. If you’re looking for something unusual out of games like I often am, that can even be great! I get attached to the characters and stories in games more easily than any book or movie because the controller in my hand becomes a bridge that pulls me deeper into its world. And as production values continue to rise, games get better at pulling us in… or, they should. Yet I keep seeing games build poor dialogue systems that needlessly risk shattering everything they stand for.

Even if you’re not into 100% cinematic games like Until Dawn, if you’ve played any recent AAA WRPG, you might have chosen a dialogue option you regretted the instant your character opened their mouth. This is so annoying that I want to explore why it’s become prevalent purely so I can deconstruct it further. Because nothing pulls me out of a story-based game more easily than short and vague prompts for dialogue choices.

Previously, most RPGs and adventure games presented lengthy dialogue options that mirrored the protagonist’s words one-to-one. It just seemed like the most natural thing to do, to write out entire responses when the player chooses them. But as the games industry matured, streamlined and simple user interfaces became the new ideal.

In response, most writers designed more compact dialogue prompts that only reveal full responses after being chosen (with some exceptions, such as the above Pillars of Eternity 2 that draws inspiration from older RPGs). Some also impose strict time limits on player responses to keep the dialogue flowing smoothly and impose tension during what is otherwise a multiple-choice question.

On paper, this sounds harmless, but vocabulary is a very complicated machine. Omitting a single word from a statement can change a lot. Narrative games love to throw players into dramatic conversations where those little nuances become much more important to satisfying writing and decision making. If an abridged prompt is all you have to go from in such tense situations, it’s not enough to truly understand what you’re saying. Does the word “Blame” during a heated argument mean taking it yourself, or dishing it out? Does “Truth” mean spouting a tautology that agrees with the other side, or criticizing its actions?

Eventually, such a lack of information will lead to a player making their character act against their own intentions. This sort of “that isn’t what I tried to do” moment is the worst thing any game’s controls can do, especially if the controls are already minimalistic. It’s frustrating, it disconnects the player from their character, and in this case, it can have lasting negative repercussions on an entire playthrough.

The whole point of a narrative game is to make a player feel as if they are experiencing a story through one or more characters as a focal point. By taking control of their actions and reactions, players develop more of a sense of responsibility and causation for the events that unfold. Whether or not that holds true upon a closer look varies on a case-by-case basis, but even a mere illusion of choice can help make a story hit harder. And nothing shatters the illusion of choice more quickly than choosing something you didn’t even want to choose, such as by a slip of the hand. Unclear prompts are lubricants which make that slip all the more likely.

Some may argue that making the occasional flub in a narrative choice is something we should embrace, not cry out against. Always choosing the exact outcomes you want can lower dramatic tension and take away from the very point of not being sure how decisions may change a story. And I agree, but that also has nothing to do with my actual complaint.

To illustrate why, let me explain how I reacted to two of my biggest regrets from my Paragon playthrough of the Mass Effect Trilogy. The first came from a binary Paragon and Renegade choice. As I already came to expect, the Paragon choice was on top of the dialogue wheel, and Renegade’s choice was on the bottom. There was also a middle option worded differently from the others. I felt it might make for an interesting change of pace to try a neutral option, so I selected it. It wasn’t. Shepard immediately did the Renegade option. This result bothered me through my campaign, and the only reason I didn’t reload my save was that I was too stubborn to throw out my commitment to not do so.

The second regret was the death of one of the characters I wanted to learn about most during Mass Effect 2. I tried to do as much as I could to prepare them, but because I poorly prioritized my missions, they were not ready. As I navigated through the endgame, I tried to designate orders to protect that character. In retrospect, my decisions were really dumb. They died, and my Shepard was distraught to see them die. Even though this was what I wanted to avoid most, I quickly accepted it as a consequence of my poor decision making and moved on.

In both cases, I made a decision I quickly came to regret. The difference is that in one case the regret came from seeing what Shepard did. In the other, the regret came from what happened after Shepard did his thing. I felt that the former wasn’t truly my choice, whereas I felt the latter was. My beef against vague prompts isn’t about avoiding unfavorable outcomes, it’s about properly communicating inputs.

Bear in mind that as I suggested, Mass Effect is still better at communicating intent than most games that do this thanks to its dialogue-wheel design. Not picking the Paragon option was absolutely my fault. That doesn’t change the fact that Shepard betrayed my reasonable expectations of neutrality with a Renegade response. Other games that use such prompts aren’t designed so intuitively, making such betrayals much easier to stumble into.

I understand why short prompts might be seen as a good thing and why they remain prevalent, especially in purely cinematic games such as Quantic Dream’s beautiful works of art sullied by David Cage’s bad writing. Making a game more accessible and less cluttered gives it more mass appeal. Theoretically, this means more people will play and enjoy it, which is a pretty understandable goal for any multi-million-dollar production.

Furthermore, full-length dialogue prompts can lengthen the decision-making process to a point where players must remain awkwardly silent. This is never a problem in games with lower production values, where a lack of dynamic cameras or voice acting lets someone suspend their disbelief enough to fill in that gap of silence. By contrast, cinematic games want to look… cinematic. They impose strict time limits for players to provide dialogue responses because allowing otherwise breaks the rules of good cinema. They use short prompts because they can be quickly processed within those time limits.

Except, as I just said, when they aren’t properly processed. Cutting out details from a decision to make it more easily accessible is a moot point if it prevents users from accessing the decisions they intended. Nor does this actually lower the barrier to entry, given how following an entire dialogue conversation is technically harder than understanding a few multiple-choice answers. I’m trusting that anybody who plays an M-rated game other than Call of Duty passed 5th-grade reading. This “streamlining” is counter-productive to its own goals. Much like how streamlining gameplay may take away substance from hardcore players, streamlining narrative choices strips them of substantial information.

Different people interpret the exact same information differently. That’s kinda why divergent narrative games can exist in the first place. But something that makes sense to developers and playtesters may not make sense to players. It causes even more problems if players only have 10 seconds to parse these words and have no reason to revisit them afterward.

The best solution to that conundrum is to cut out the arbitrary middleman. To tell the players exactly what their character thinks about each prompt, or at least paraphrase it with every meaningful detail, and lengthen time limits appropriately. Yes, this damages the cinematic flow of conversation. But the worst this does is create dead air while the player is already preoccupied with weighing their options.

In fact, I played The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit recently, and something never occurred to me until I started writing this. Any time I took my time in a cutscene dialogue prompt, Chris just… stood still. Not actually saying anything while an adult was waiting for his response. While idle animations continued. Without any time limit. And I never paid attention to that while I played! Playing a game doesn’t feel like watching a movie, that’s why the rules of good cinema don’t universally apply to cinematic games.

While I respect streamlining on a case-by-case basis, placing it above everything else is a philosophy I’m still uncertain about. Examples like this are why I'm skeptical about glorifying simplicity. Dumbing down a core gameplay loop until it lacks its highest points pales in comparison to making controls less responsive and reliable. The latter is effectively what poorly written narrative prompts do.

As long as the user can give even the tiniest bit of input, any story-driven game can’t ignore the rules of good game controls. If dialogue prompts are the bulk of a gameplay loop, they better be fudging great dialogue prompts. They are not fudging great if all we have to go off of is a word or two for several sentences.

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Chris Hovermale
Chris Hovermale   gamer profile

I'm a former Contributor who goes by the screen name Cedi or CediFonei on most corners of the internet! Not quite obligatory disclosure; I backed Chris Niosi's TOME RPG on Kickstarter. I really w... more + disclosures



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