Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Pretentious Dialogue Trees

I've noticed that some dialogue trees (specifically those in BioWare games) offer the illusion of depth and complexity, but then betray their shallowness in practice. Conversations give you various response options, but in most situations they have very little effect on anything at all. In the more expository sections, your response only affects the very next line the NPC says, and then they go right into talking about the other topics you didn't prompt. It only affects the order in which information is presented to you, having zero resemblance to an actual conversation and ultimately making your input pointless.

There are a lot of other, more minor issues that bother me with some of theses dialogue trees. Continue reading for more about what's wrong with them.

In a lot of cases, the point of dialogue is for characters to dump a bunch of background information for the player to understand what's going on. Before going on a big quest, you'll have maybe six or ten things to ask/talk about, but the order doesn't matter because the tree keeps looping back to your series of questions. The whole point is to exhaust the list by clicking each of the options, but if that's all we're doing then why not make it into a cinematic cutscene with interesting camera angles, character animation, drama, and s forth? If the point of letting us pick the options is to make it interactive, then why not actually make it more interactive than clicking one button every 30 seconds?

Even in cases where your dialogue is supposed to matter (like with approval stats), it only affects the background stats in any significant way, not the actual conversation. If I'm romancing a character, the overall conversation is going to flow to the same setpieces with only minor deviations where the character makes a quick response in approval or disapproval before continuing with the next pre-scripted line. It kind of breaks the immersion when you realize the formula for how they're supposed to flow, regardless of your input.

At other times, you get three options that all say the same thing, except with slightly different emotional tones. You might be agreeing to a quest, but one option is noble, another is snotty, and another is indifferent. And most of the time, characters don't even react to these options, they're just there for your own role-playing pleasure. It's good to have these options for role-playing purposes, but it takes away from the experience when people don't react to your role-playing. 

Besides the pretentiousness of pointless dialogue options, there's also the rigid, formulaic "back-and-forth" problem, where only one character talks at a time, patiently waiting for each other to finish their monologues. This leaves you with nothing to do while the other NPC is talking, when you could be interacting with the environment around you or steering the conversation yourself. It also leaves you with long silences while you consider your options, the characters on screen just staring at each other blankly.

A few games have tried to improve in this area. Mass Effect showed your dialogue options a few seconds before the NPC finished their last line of dialogue, so you could minimize the awkward silence. Fahrenheit / Indigo Prohecy and Alpha Protocol gave you time limits, forcing you to pick quickly. The time limit is especially handy, because it gives you some kind of imperative to act on your gut instinct, keeping you engaged with a flowing conversation. 

These things certainly help. I liked the conversations in Indigo Prophecy, because they give you vague options that left things open to interpretation while the characters on screen acted them out in interesting ways. The options also steered conversations more; you control where things go, and what you ask about and what you learn plays a functional role in the gameplay. It's one of those games that you can replay and find all kinds of new, interesting things by trying to pick different dialogue options and watching the story unfold in a slightly different way. 

But alas, Dragon Age doesn't have a particularly great dialogue system. I don't mind traditional dialogue trees, but it bothers me when a game makes itself seem sophisticated when in reality it's the same old crude system without any real depth of complexity to it.

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