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Feature: 'Defining Dialogue Systems'

In this in-depth Gamasutra analysis piece, level designer Brent Ellison looks at the universe and history of player-NPC dialogue interaction in games, analyzing titles
In this in-depth Gamasutra analysis piece, level designer Brent Ellison looks at the universe and history of player-NPC dialogue interaction in games, analyzing titles from Mass Effect through Facade to The Sims and beyond. Though likeable design and well-written dialogue are essential in providing compelling characters and immersing the player in a game's world and story, the systems of interaction are just as important: NPC interaction gameplay is a part of nearly every modern game, in the form of dialogue, barking orders at followers, or just choosing who to talk to in town. However, the western games industry has always found it difficult to create successful games based solely around character interactions, even though such things are popular in other media (television, novels, etc.). The difficulties in interactive conversation lie in giving the player the illusion of freedom while still feeling natural and driving the story forward along interesting paths. Finding the most interesting and engaging way for a player to interact with game characters and develop relationships potentially opens up a wide array of game concepts and themes not typically explored by western game developers. Reviewing common interaction systems such as "branching dialogue," Ellison points out that designers risk breaking players' sense of immersion when not accounting for the natural flow of conversations, leaving players to pause and read lines of text before picking out an appropriate response. He notes that Quantic Dream's Indigo Prophecy and BioWare's Mass Effect work around this by reducing the amount of time and effort players spend considering their next response: "One game notable for its aspirations for cinematic-quality dialogue scenes is Indigo Prophecy, which eliminates full responses entirely. The player sees his choices pared down to their essence, such as "Lie", "Avoid the question", or "Ask about murder weapon." Once the player decides, his avatar delivers the full line related to the player's choice. In addition, the player has only a limited time in which to make a decision after the NPC finishes speaking. If the player fails to make a decision in that time, the game chooses a response for them, in a deliberate attempt to keep the conversation moving at a more natural pace. The recent Mass Effect makes similar attempts at simplifying the presentation of the player's choices, but rather than limit the player's response time, it gives the player his options before the NPC finishes speaking. In this manner, the player makes his decision and the avatar delivers a response with little to no pause in the conversation" You can now read the full analysis piece on dialogue systems, which studies common systems and includes game examples for common pitfalls and possible solutions (no registration required, please feel free to link to this feature from other websites).

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