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Our regular 'Design 101' column sees game designer Manveer Heir analyzing Telltale's adventure-centric Strong Bad's Cool Game For Attractive People, particularly focusing on the game's icon-based dialogue trees and their use in advancing the gameplay.

Manveer Heir, Blogger

September 24, 2008

5 Min Read

['Design Lesson 101' is a regular column by game designer Manveer Heir. The goal is to play a game from start to completion and learn something about game design in the process. This week we take a look at Telltale's episodic Strong Bad's Cool Game For Attractive People, which recently commenced with Episode 1: Homestar Ruiner.]

Dialogue trees are a standard part of many RPG and adventure games. These games usually narratively center around interactions with characters, so allowing the player to at least choose what to speak about with the character is important.

Often the designer will present the options to the player in a verbose text format, then have the other character in the conversation respond. Strong Bad's Cool Game For Attractive People – Episode 1: Homestar Ruiner (which I am just going to call Homestar Ruiner from now on) chooses a different approach that made me consider the execution of dialogue trees in games and features that could be useful.

Design Lesson: Homestar Ruiner presents iconic representation for its dialogue trees, which fails to inform the player what he is going to talk about and if he has exhausted the conversations on that topic

When you start a conversation with another character, such as Coach Z, a number of icons appear over Strong Bad's head. Each of these icons represents a different topic to talk about. Clicking the icons will start the conversation, and since this is an comedic adventure game, hearing the dialogue is half the fun of the game.

However, the issue is you don't know what some of the icons mean initially. Luckily, many of the topics of conversation are available with multiple characters, so after a little bit I began to understand what all of the icons mean.

The advantage of using icons like this is that what Strong Bad is actually going to say is unknown, so you get the enjoyment of truly hearing both sides of the dialogue. If you already knew the line, and it was repeated by Strong Bad, it would become tiresome quickly.

The disadvantage is that what you are trying to discuss isn't fully understood by the player, which means you aren't always making choices in the game, but rather clicking through. There are no game consequences for clicking through, and it's actually encouraged, but it still gives the perception of taking away some amount of agency away from the player.

This leads into the next major issue. Each topic can be clicked on multiple times, with different responses available each time. However, once you've gone through all of the available conversations with a character on a topic, the icon usually still persists. Clicking it again will repeat the critical information (if there is any) or just play some repeated flavor dialogue that makes you laugh the first time you hear it.

The issue is not knowing when a topic is exhausted. At the most basic level, the player wants to know when they have been given the critical information from a character. The game is pretty good about drawing attention to the fact that something a character said matters to progress gameplay, and isn't just a throwaway line, so that case is mostly handled already.

On a deeper level, a game like Homestar Ruiner has funny dialogue and a lot of the enjoyment of the game is just hearing that dialogue. As a result, I wanted to hear all the dialogue the game had to offer. I clicked on every available area, to hear Strong Bad's observations about the world, and clicked through every dialogue tree possible to hear all the topics discussed.

Usually, I ended up clicking one extra time and hearing a line repeated before I stopped that line of questioning. This makes it hard to make sure you listen to all the dialogue in the game without hearing repeated lines regularly. It forces the player to poll the game to see if a topic's conversation is exhausted, mentally remember that it is for the future, and move on. To me, this is the dialogue tree equivalent of having a player draw out a map on graph-paper instead of just giving them an in-game map.

All of this stems from using the icons that don't change for conversation topics. There are a few ideas I have of ways this could be handled without resorting strictly to text. I would try coloring the icons depending on the situation. If new conversations have opened up in an area, highlight the icon green. If an icon's topics have been exhausted, but the critical information is available to be repeated, highlight the icon red.

This would give the player the information immediately, in-game, about dialogue. Additionally, I don't think it's a terrible idea to have pop-up text over the icon to tell you what the topic is, so the first time you are talking to people you realize that the picture of a snake refers to your Snake Boxer V video game manual and are able to draw that parallel faster.

I know some people will view this as unnecessary hand-holding of the player, but the purpose of this game isn't to make talking to characters difficult. It's about puzzle-solving and humor. This allows the player to access the humor faster and doesn't affect the puzzle-solving in the game (the game sports a rather gracious hint system and is rather blunt about when something important is being told to the player).

By giving the information up-front the player with dialogue trees, especially in a game that rewards you for trying all of the dialogue, the game becomes less frustrating and more enjoyable. It also gives you the ability to torment Homestar Runner for longer. And isn't that really what life is all about?

[Manveer Heir is currently a game designer at Raven Software. He updates his design blog, Design Rampage, regularly. He is interested in thoughtful critique and commentary on the gaming industry.]

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