Realistic dialogue does not make for good stories. But not for the reasons you think.
Dialogue is often viewed as either being realistic or not. This is true across all mediums. But video games present an interesting quandary in how they present dialogue. Do you as a creator allow players to loop back to earlier parts of a conversation?
It may seem reasonable not to because it’s considered “unrealistic” to loop back. But if you stop and think about how often discussions with friends simply retread the same topics again and again or how arguments with family members never make any progress you’ll come to realize that most conversations are nothing but loops.
We repeat ourselves a lot. Though we don’t straight up ask others to repeat themselves. At least not in the manner many roleplaying games have us. These loops come from a couple of places. It may simply be a desire to convert someone to our opinion. Or it’s because we enjoy talking about a particular subject with a person. Which could also just be a sign that there’s no greater depth to your relationship, but that’s another issue.
Running through these loops, repeating oneself does not make for good storytelling. If every protagonist had to keep explaining their reasons behind fighting the big bad it’d be a very slow game. Or perhaps one asking the player why such violence is necessary though that’d be an entirely different type of game. But we as the player would hear the same argument time and time again and grow frustrated with the situation, possibly ultimately condemning the game’s writing as bad because of the sheer amount of repetition.
And repeating something without using the same phrase is hard. Take a simply question that requires a yes or no answer, such as “Do you like chocolate chip cookies?” It’s fine to provide a yes or no once or twice. But when the entire game is focused on asking similar questions, those answers become not just boring, they throw a player out of the game.
There’s a couple ways to avoid this. The first is to write a range of different answers, with each becoming more or less emphatic. So “yes” can become “yeah” or “why not” and move on to “hell yeah” or “does a bear shit in the woods?” With “no” doing much the same but becoming more negative in its tone. This is great for looping conversations to make it feel varied. Though producing not just multiple replies but questions for said replies can be taxing.
An alternative is to avoid loops all together. Movies, books and TV shows do this wonderfully. Take Arrow, The Flash and Supergirl for example. Every episode will have situations where characters disagree or don’t understand one another. They won’t keep hammering home their individual points till they win, more often than not something occurs to take their attention away from the conversation. When that doesn’t happen though is when you can see that characters will pivot their opinion in the space of a single line. They will simply accept the argument of another and the story moves with them.
It’s a very soap opera technique and one that can be disconcerting given how a character can be dead set against something only to change their mind in a matter of minutes. Longer mediums tend to avoid this better as their nature allows the creators to spend more time showing a character’s shift in perspective. And games can do that too. But if a creator doesn’t feel they have the time for such a story then they need to consider the implications of how they’re going to tell a story through dialogue.
These are all things I started considering when writing a game that ostensibly has no story, but instead uses dialogue as a means of sharing an experience. For The Integration Game, I chose not to track any states but to use a simple dialogue tree. Really the most basic implementation of Twine. But it immediately had me thinking about loops and whether I wanted them as possibilities. I said no, yet in the end there were two small loops.
Repeating conversations is entirely natural. Just not in the manner many games have us do so. One doesn’t simply jump back to a part of a dialogue tree and ask the same questions. Any tension that’s meant to be in a scene is gone the moment a player can return to an earlier period and ask the same questions again. Which leaves any developer with a couple of questions that don’t have easy answers - do you want to repeat dialogue? And if so how, often? And should it ever be different? Whatever the choice it’s going to impact the tone, pace and tension of a game.