Editorial: Drake’s Banter Shines in a Sea of Robotic Dialogue

As I played through Nathan Drake’s latest adventure – which I really liked, by the way – I felt like it was a breath of fresh air in many ways. Sure, the superb platforming and breath-pilfering combat put Lara Croft and Marcus Phoenix to shame, but it wasn’t just the mechanics or visuals that left me awestruck. What surprised me most was the way the characters interacted with each other. It wasn’t purely by necessity. Instead, they were making small talk, a part of reality that is rarely represented in gaming. Through these personal, witty exchanges I really got a feel for each character’s motivation, and could see the relationship building between each of them as the adventure continued.

Uncharted 2’s banter was one of its strongest assets.

This got me thinking about video game dialogue, and how many games completely waste it. With DVD and Blu-Ray discs capable of holding thousands of hours of audio, many developers continue to push strong, silent heroes on us instead, particularly so in action titles. These walking hunks of meat only speak when spoken to, and are bereft of any personality, wit or identifiable quirks that would make us interested in them. And this, quite frankly, sucks.

I’m not sure who decided that we gamers like our heroes to be hard-as-nails, without an ounce of individuality or humor. Games like Halo, Resistance, Gears of War, and Infamous all feature no-nonsense badasses at the helm, none of whom seem to have a thought process of their own. Even when paired with other survivors of their respective apocalypses, the only chit-chat on offer is the occasional order being barked or a rousing, saliva-spewing snarl, all of which blend together amidst the din of warfare. Why not talk about the weather, or sports they enjoyed before the fighting began? Why don’t the intergalactic space marines ever comment about an alien world’s beauty, or the fruitlessness of the killing both sides are merrily engaging in? Sure, these matters seem trivial in troubled times, but meaningless banter is actually what keeps us going when faced with grief or torment. Trivial or not, its absence in these games dehumanizes these characters.

Dialogue tends to only be a gameplay tool for the developer, one that is mostly used to relay certain information like:

1. Location of the next objective: ‘We have to get to that tower before the enemy does’
2. Warn a player about an incoming attack: ‘Here they come!’
3. Informative audio clues: ‘Reload!’ or ‘Use a health pack!’

Seems familiar? It’s not a coincidence. This kind of dialogue feels so mechanical, only there to keep the player moving along a pre-set track. Meanwhile, explosions are going off, blood is being spilt, and bullets are flying in every direction without as much as a peep on proceedings from your avatar. Is it too much to ask for a little personality here? Instead of having characters speak only when they need to, why can’t we have frequent commentary on the action? Why can’t we hear our avatars describing their thoughts, memories, and why they continue to push their way through such harrowing horrors?

It’s especially frustrating to see so many games get this wrong when others have nailed it so well. Prince of Persia used in-game dialogue fantastically, its story mostly told through the Prince and Elika’s interactions. While jumping from platform to platform, the pair talked about their lives before the mess they were in had started, and shared their feelings about the dangers they were facing. Prince of Persia rarely broke up its action with cut scenes, instead it relied on in-game conversations to carry its story. Design like this is refreshing compared to the Hollywood-mimicking, cut scene-heavy nature of games like Metal Gear Solid 4. While I don’t think that every game can get away with what Prince of Persia did, it still felt like a natural way for a video game to tell a tale.

The Prince and Elika’s relationship was an endearing part of the new-look Prince of Persia.

Half Life 2 and BioShock are also terrific examples. Both contained auxiliary characters that carried out engaging, one-sided conversations with your mute avatar, filling in the holes left by an absence of cut scenes. Half Life 2’s Alyx Vance was a particularly vibrant example. She enthusiastically filled you in on everything that she loves, and even cracked the occasional joke as you journeyed through the warzone. She helped to make me forget that I was (essentially) a walking camera with an arm taped to it. She was the glue that held Half-Life 2 together, as integral to its success as its celebrated physics and gunplay were.

It’s clear that more attention needs to be paid to writing in video games, and I don’t just mean regards the stories. With millions being spent on graphics and technology, the script so often feel like an afterthought, even when notable Hollywood or literary talent is brought in handle it – I’m looking at you, Shadow Complex. Video games aren’t movies, television shows or books, and the writing in them should take advantage of what defines them: interactivity. Uncharted 2‘s writers understood this. Its dialogue found was clearly written with reacting to the player’s actions in mind. We (as a gaming public) need to let the developers of other games know that dialogue matters to us, and that we want more humorous, clever banter stuffed in where it fits. As video games continue to grow, so must their writing.

And if all else fails, I’ll kidnap the industry’s most valued commodity, one Nolan North, and hold him ransom until I get my way. No game can be made without him. 

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