[In this in-depth Gamasutra opinion piece, writer Tom Cross examines Monolith's cult shooter No One Lives Forever and other games from CoD4 to Assassin's Creed, analyzing what makes their dialogue systems different from your average branching dialogue tree.]
Telling good stories in today’s games is a contentious issue. Different genres tend to approach storytelling from different points, some use CGI cutscenes and little else, some use in-engine cutscenes and even in-game cinematic moments (a la Half-Life 2), or just plain text dialogue.
Regardless of the method of delivery, the choice to be made when writing the scripts for such games is that of a single storyline or multiple story threads. A game like Final Fantasy VII
has one script, on storyline, which never deviates from its set path.
Other games contain key plot nodes that never change, but allow for multiple paths to each node. Prince of Persia, Assassin’s Creed
and the Grand Theft Auto
series are all practitioners of this method.
Ambitious games feature multiple nodes and multiple paths, and these games require the most effort when it comes to hidden or optional content: games like Fallout 3, Deus Ex
, and Mass Effect
allow players to reach the same conclusion through two separate paths or different conclusions using the similar methods.
This necessarily causes a lot of trouble for game developers. Do they really want to write enough dialogue for 10 games, only to have one playthrough (which is too much for many players) encompass a fraction of their work?
This is normally a problem faced by RPG and adventure game developers: they’re expected to produce convincing, branching story paths, and the trendsetters in these areas (Bethesda and BioWare are responsible for the mainstream examples of such games) are constantly upping the ante.
It’s fascinating, then, to find games that have nothing to do with RPGs, have extremely linear storylines, and yet still utilize certain branching story or script paths. Mostly I’m thinking about The Operative: No One Lives Forever
, a game that was a stealth/action shooter through and through, yet featured long, interactive branching conversations within its cutscenes.
Cut The Chatter Now
was condemned for just this quality: people didn’t like the fact that they had to wade through long, input-heavy cutscenes in between missions.
It seemed to them that they’d signed up for a sneaky, exciting spy shooter, and been saddled with a game that took its bureaucratic infighting and snappily written confrontations as seriously as it did its gunplay.
At the risk of beating an already beaten horse, this is the same problem faced (to a degree) by Prince of Persia
2008. This game also made the interesting choice to include story and dialogue segments that were entirely optional, yet also rather lengthy.
At any point in the game, one could initiate a dialogue between the two main characters. While it isn’t exactly the same method as that practiced in NOLF
, it practices the same kind of tactics as does Monolith’s spy shooter. They both encourage the player to start up or continue conversations.
It’s apparent that some people don’t appreciate these kinds of antics in their non-RPG, non-puzzle games. It’s seen as a departure from form, obviously, but also as not in keeping with the tone of less “cerebral” games. More important than any such discontent is this question: how does this kind of inflection change these games, and does it change them for the better?
Part of the fun of NOLF
’s story was always the ability to explore every possible conversation option within a given cutscene. Sure, not all cutscenes possessed such options, but the ones that did added a level of depth and involvement that games without such features lack.
It sounds tacky, but there’s something to be said for even the most minor, superficial choice within such a scene. It not only gives the player a sense of agency and involvement, it allows them to explore the story as much or as little as they want.
This isn’t exactly a ground-shaking conclusion. Games have been doing this with great success for many years. Bioware’s Mass Effect
was a game best played for its conversations, so beautifully and entertainingly were they rendered.
don’t approach this same level of interaction: these are dialogues that happen with very limited options, in the case of NOLF
, and with no options at all in the case of PoP.
Still, their contributions are noticeable and should be recognized. It’s perhaps true that such games don’t normally have this kind of accompaniment that makes even these minor contributions so influential. In a genre that features cutscenes as seen in Doom 3, Splinter Cell
, and Halo 3
’s lengthy, branching dialogues are a welcome change.
Of course, this is not to say that storytelling of the kind used by Infinity Ward in CoD 4
’s cutscenes is in some way deficient. In fact, that game is one of the purest examples of almost entirely first person, non-directed cutscenes.
Still, what it lacks is that sense of agency, but more importantly, the sense that there’s more to the game than just what it’s willing to make you watch.
In most games, you watch the story and narrative that developers desire you to watch. It’s intriguing to encounter completely non-mandatory, optional dialogue. It’s often of a more personal, character-driven nature, this dialogue: it adds little things into your body of knowledge concerning the fiction. It means that you can contextualize the characters and settings within the game as much as you want to.
Of course, one could argue that this kind of back-story and minor exposition can be provided by a regular cutscene: there’s no reason, you might say to make such content an unknown, something that must be discovered.
However, it’s this unknowable quantity, this idea that such content does not, for the player, exist unless purposefully unearthed, that makes this kind of option special.
This tactic is one that game developers love to discuss. It’s this idea that allows them to make the claim that no two players will have the same experience, or at least that there are many different experiences to be had within one or more playthroughs. Doesn’t this sound like the kind of experience all games could use, not just RPGs and puzzle games?
This trick, the illusion of a new, increased level of confidence between you and the game, is something I cherish when playing. I know that everyone else (mostly) will listen to all of those little conversations between the Prince and Elika, just as I know that everyone else will explore all of Cate’s hilarious, venomous barbs directed at her superiors.
Still, the fact that I have to dig deeper into the game’s structure is something that gives me not only a sense of accomplishment, but also a sense of intimacy.
It’s an intimacy not only with the characters, but also with the fiction as a world. It’s as if I was given an extra page to a favorite book, and told that that page would reveal non-crucial bits and pieces of the story. How could I not look?
A Little Bit of Talking With Your Shooting?
I think that people are starting to embrace this kind of approach, this broadening of conversational possibilities throughout genres. Obsidian, the people behind the upcoming spy action RPG Alpha Protocol
, have the right idea. Sure, it’s still an RPG, but like the best action RPGs, it uses its conversation trees to bridge the gap between shooter and other.
Likewise, if Ubisoft’ tactics in the recent Assassin’s Creed
(a game whose lengthy optional conversations were obviously developed using some of the same philosophies on display in Prince of Persia
) represent a new unifying direction for their products, then we can expect to see more such conversational options in the future.
I see this as a good thing. People may say that these are just dislocated bits of story, meaningless due to their less than seamless integration with the rest of the narrative, but I’d like to remind them of an important fact.
These are video games we’re playing, and if we can’t find a way to break away (even in the smallest way) from the steady, linear narratives of other fictional mediums, then we’re doing something wrong.
I’m a huge supporter of wonderful stories and strong narratives, even at the expense of other elements of video games. Even so, it’s obvious that there are stories of amazing depth, dramatic ingenuity, and potential that we can uncover using these methods.
Here’s to shooters with lengthy, annoying conversations, and adventure games with pointless chatter. I’ll take what I can get.
[Tom Cross also writes for Gamers' Temple and blogs about video games at shouldntbegaming.wordpress.com. You can contact him at romain47 at gmail dot com.]