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Ode to Short Dialog: Reconsidering the Sound Bite

Big Huge Games narrative designer Schneider steps up to discuss why you should keep dialog short and sweet in games, arguing: "the sound bite is more poetry than prose -- and poetry is a powerful thing."

Ben Schneider, Blogger

October 14, 2008

12 Min Read

[Big Huge Games and former Iron Lore narrative designer Schneider steps up, in an article originally published in Game Developer magazine, to discuss why keeping dialog short and sweet in games is the way to go, arguing: "the sound bite is more poetry than prose -- and poetry is a powerful thing."]

I'm here to sing the praises of short dialog in video games. The quip. The utterance. The sound bite. Call it what you will, I fear that short speech may be under-appreciated. Not to get polemical, mind you -- longer dialog is not the root of all evil.

Short dialog will not heal burns or mend broken hearts. But very short dialog (which I'm defining as two seconds on average, and no more than six) can do things in games that longer speech simply cannot.

Short dialog is fully digestible in the moment. It can function as ambient audio, in the background -- or out loud, in the foreground. When ambient, short dialog can be repeated, with variation, until the player happens to take notice.

When in the foreground, it can deliver critical information without unduly interrupting or bogging down gameplay. Information conveyed via very short dialog can be reacted to immediately.

Put another way, sound bites can be made to function as a feedback or game information element, similar to UI events, sound effects, and particle effects. And whether it's a crowd cheering, "Chicken-chaser!" or a hero announcing that he's "here to kick ass and chew bubble gum," short lines are memorable.

They are writing boiled down to the essentials. Don't mistake cutting down for a bad thing. Condensed writing can result in subtler accents and richer flavor.

The idea that editing down makes writing stronger is one of those tricky writers' maxims that are extremely useful so long as they aren't applied with too much blind zeal. Ezra Pound famously wrote a poem titled "In a Station of the Metro," that began as 30 lines of verse. He rewrote it at half the length, then further condensed it to two short lines, almost a haiku:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet black bough.

Nowadays we speak condescendingly of the sound bite, but really we should give credit where it is due. It might lack in nuance and carry no more than a crumb of information, but the sound bite has the power to catch your attention and light up your imagination, all in the brief pulse of an instant. Good luck doing that with long-winded facts.

In other words, the sound bite is more poetry than prose -- and poetry is a powerful thing.

A Hard Day's Quote

I've been thinking a lot about short dialog recently. For most of 2007, we at Iron Lore were working on Dawn of War: Soulstorm, the third expansion to Relic's superb strategy series. When it came time for me to write the unit voice-over it was first necessary to stop and admire the standard set for my task by the folks at Relic.

I was an instant fan of lines such as "Just as Falcon brought Anaris to Eldanesh...," which deftly and poetically evokes the labyrinthine mythology of the ancient Eldar, not to mention, "'Ere ta fix yer gubbinz!" -- capturing perfectly all the comic braggadocio of an Ork warboss.

The nature of those unit voice-over lines highlights a major difference between dialog in games and other sorts of dialog. Take three steps into the world of screenwriting, and you're likely to come across the term "on the nose." (A good treatment of it can be found in David Freeman's book 'Creating Emotion in Games'.)

Being on the nose is a bad thing; it means the writing has come at its subject too directly and feels flat. It is the hallmark of juvenile, clumsy writing -- or worse yet, a script written by marketing execs. And it's true: People almost never talk directly at a point.

They don't state the obvious, they don't spell everything out. In fact, they almost always beat around the bush and whatever does come out of their mouths is colored heavily by their own personality and their relationship with whomever they're speaking to.

In other words, in real life and in well-written drama, when people speak, they speak in context. And the more context with which a writer can imbue a line of dialog, the better it will be. An elite operative in a dangerous situation is better off saying, "Sergeant Malloy. James! Please!" than they are coming out with a full, "James Malloy, I know the death of your partner of 10 years has shaken you up, but for crying out loud stop acting like an idiot or you'll get us all killed."

If the circumstances surrounding that line are well constructed, the audience gets the second line out of the first, with the major difference being that it goes to their gut, without bouncing off any raised eyebrows.

In video games, the concept of "on the nose" hits a hitch. Dialog -- especially short dialog -- almost always has another job to do, which is conveying direct, unambiguous information to the player. In Dawn of War for instance, every infantry unit can have over a dozen different types of confirmation audio, acknowledging your orders and alerting you to events on the battlefield.

Relic/Iron Lore's Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War: Soulstorm

Each type of confirmation gets between two and ten lines for variation. You naturally want these lines to convey as much character and flavor as possible, but what you absolutely need is for each to communicate its purpose without a shadow of a doubt.

The player needs to instantly grok when a line signifies squad selection, point capture, morale loss, and so forth. Almost all of these lines essentially must be on the nose. You can't come at the subject indirectly.

While not all game dialog has such strict parameters, the point holds. You won't find a lot of speech in games that doesn't directly relate to the central focus of action. It wants to keep pertinent to -- and at the tempo of -- the game itself.1

1 Writing off the nose is additionally difficult because diagesis is fundamentally different in games. Rather than being air-tight and made of glass, the fourth wall is covered in the apertures and interfaces of the game UI. It's as if a portion of the audio and visuals come from this gray area, the intersection of the game world and the player's world. 

Snubbing the Nose

Well, on the nose or off it, what's it going to be? Trying to transcribe the concept wholesale into video games doesn't really get us anywhere. Translation is required; the formula needs to be re-derived. Keeping dialog strictly indirect might not be possible, but here's the thing: That rule is just an easy-to-spot result of dialog that's in character and in context. Even lines that are brutally direct don't need to be without personality or context.

I'll look at some of the point capture lines in Dawn of War, by way of example. When you tell a squad to take a point, they spend some time raising a flag over it, then they need to tell you they've finished. The trained and orderly Space Marines get by with "Objective achieved!"

The more macabre and poetical Dark Eldar prefer, "Our flag flies proudly here," which is more than twice as long, but still under two seconds. Ditto for "It now belongs to da Orks!" On the nose and plenty of character there. "In context and in character" (ICIC) is longer than "on the nose," but it's also less than two seconds-and it might just work.

The Art of Public Speaking

Writing dialog in games comes with its own challenges. Very short dialog has the ability to work itself into the fabric (or gearwork, if you prefer) of the game, to become an aspect of the environment and player experience where longer dialog generally does not fit well.

At its most powerful, very short dialog has to balance a number of factors. It conveys game-related information in an easily recognizable, aerodynamic formulation that somehow, despite its brevity, remains in context and in character. It doesn't stick out, jar, or bore the player, and it takes a front- or back-stage position as needed.

Assassin's Creed is worth considering for its dialog. On the street, passersby and guards comment on what you're doing in muttered reactions. Scaling a wall or jumping around will earn you a "What is he doing?" while outright murder results in gasps, yells, and shouts. By and large, the dialog works well. It is to the point, short enough to respond to, and is "ICIC."

Ubisoft Montreal's Assassin's Creed

In Bioshock, likewise, the dialog you hear from the splicers, little sisters, and other characters is mostly short, and more importantly, written to be overheard in short snippets. It melds beautifully into the tapestry of the game's remarkable soundscape.

Interestingly, both of these games also feature excellent use of longer dialog, such as in the conversations with Al Mualim, the bureau chiefs, and your assassination targets in Assassin's Creed, and the voice tapes in Bioshock.

Note that in neither case are you required to listen to this dialog during intense gameplay. In fact, both games are generally designed to let you listen to them as a breather between bouts of action.

Compare the overheard speech in these games to that in Oblivion and Mass Effect. In both of these games you can listen in on full-length public conversations. I would argue that this approach is simply less successful.

Those full conversations are, first of all, a bit "uncanny valley," since in reality the speakers would stop talking or turn to you as soon as they noticed you just standing there ... awkwardly listening in. (And Assassin's Creed does in fact feature that sort of reaction!)

Worse yet, they come while you're in the middle of gameplay (exploring, questing, or shopping), and they force an awkward decision on the player -- whether to stop and passively listen for a minute, or walk away feeling like you missed something. Neither option is great. This is verisimilitude versus realism in a nutshell: Full conversation dialog might be more accurate, but carefully tailored sound bites capture the essence of overheard speech far better.

On the flip side, those lines in Assassin's Creed suffer, as the game does across the board, from some serious lack of variation. Achieving a satisfying level of randomized variation in short, repeated dialog is a big challenge in games. More lines and more voices are expensive, but the payoff -- not annoying the player or jarring them out of immersion -- is pretty big.

In Dawn of War, getting six or more versions for common confirmation lines made all the difference. As far as writing variants goes, I am surprised every time at how subtle the difference can actually be, and work well. Even getting two unique good takes of the same line can be effective in avoiding the sense of repetition.

Know When to Fold 'Em

The key, of course, is to keep dialog short where it counts. And the hard part is in knowing when that is. Dialog that's in the environment, tied to gameplay mechanics, or that plays during game action really needs to stay short, clear, and direct. But that is never an excuse for lower standards of writing.

Very short dialog (under six seconds, averaging two) is critical for information that needs to be digested instantaneously. Merely short dialog (let's say as long as 15 seconds, but averaging closer to eight) has the flexibility of carrying a lot more information and character, but can't reliably be used while the player is fully engaged in intense, focused play.

Obviously, the pressure is off when you've got the player's attention and they are largely passive, such as in cinematics, dialog trees, and when they can safely listen to narration over their current task -- that is, for untimed puzzles and nonverbal, visually centered challenges (as in Portal, for example). Still -- I would argue that there are precious few cases where a single line of dialog should run over 20 or so seconds.

Valve Software's Portal

Here, then, is my list of cases for which short dialog should be used: unsolicited dialog, as heard in crowds, through peepholes, over the radio, from merchants, from comrades as you pass them by, and in the midst of combat; confirmation audio for player-issued commands; introduction and tutorial sequences of gameplay; and finally, I would argue, for brief midgame cut-scenes and plot-driven custom events.

Now out of that list, the tutorial is the one item that is not often all that short-winded. You could certainly argue that there have been plenty of successful, long-winded tutorials. However, a quick look at the tutorials in Fable, Assassin's Creed, Psychonauts (granted, it's spammed rapid-fire), and Rock Band show how well concise jots of dialog work for the purpose.

Determining when dialog and text in general should be short or long may be more important in video games than in many other types of writing. The player is not an audience -- they are not passive -- and we shouldn't be trying to verbally upstage them when it's not our turn.

I hope that, in singing its praises, I have done short dialog proper justice. It should be deft, on the nose if need be, full of character, and dutifully to the point. It should echo gently in the background when called for and give an ear-ringing shout when its turn comes around.

Short dialog should be there to call the shots in the heat of the action, and then step aside with a bare, curt nod when the letterbox descends and its longer cousin clears its throat and begins to speak.

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About the Author(s)

Ben Schneider


Ben Schneider was a senior writer / designer at the now-defunct Iron Lore Entertainment, and now works as a narrative designer at Big Huge Games. His more than six years of industry experience include work on role-playing and strategy games. It is the potential of story-telling in games that drew him to game design and it is of story-telling that he dreams at night. Email him at [email protected].

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