Why Dialogue Trees Stink

As I’ve bee playing Chronicles of Riddick lately, something has been bothering me about the whole experience. It took me a second to figure out just what it was, but eventually I came to the conclusion that I just hate talking to people in that game.  Much of this is due to the fact that the script is rather bland (even if the voice-acting is of surprisingly high-caliber), but there was something else.  And that’s when it hit me; the talky bits bore me titless and I feel it’s because the camera work and animations are clunky, causing me to tune out.  This, I’ve noticed is not just a problem with Riddick, mind you, but practically every game that’s ever had a dialogue tree.

My issue with most conversations with NPCs that have dialogue trees is that they’re not cinematic enough.  Lip-syncing and body language is almost always off, allowing for an experience that while engaging player choice, fails to be as entertaining to watch as the same conversation would be in a movie or TV show.  Furthermore, dialogue trees hardly ever have a natural rhythm to them as you’ll find yourself going back to an earlier branch, selecting a different option, or listening to the same bits of dialogue over and over ’til you realize the NPC has nothing more to say.  This was okay in the age of the text adventure or even the early PC graphic adventures as we didn’t expect anything more from our games.  They weren’t trying to look real, be cinematic, or engross us in the same way they generally aim for today, but rather were content to simply be simple, often humorous sets of responses.  One could argue that this is a more powerful means of expression.  I’d say that they’re just different.  In-game conversations back then were more akin to reading a book whereas today they’re more akin to watching a movie.  As such, I find their simple presentation not holding up so well to their older sister.  

These days, as games look more and more real each day, it’s as if they want to create this so-called "cinematic" experience, but fall short of it when it comes to interactive dialogue.  Even in Mass Effect, arguably the best iteration of prerendered cutscene and interactive choice made yet, we’re still constantly taken out of the scene unraveling as we’re too focused on making our dialogue choices.  Pause too long, and the scene comes to a halt.  We want engagement and we want choice, yet this stop-and-go rhythm is still a bit jarring.  It’s like watching a movie on your computer and forgetting to turn the screen saver off, so you have to constantly remind yourself to move the mouse every so often.  

Furthermore, in a lot of games with dialogue trees, all we’re doing is exhausting all the possibilities of each dialogue tree.  If we’re going to listen to all that anyway, I feel it would be best for designers to streamline that into a fully-realized custscene, rather than extend it out to an empty feeling, long-winded conversation.  Even the best Mass Effect dialogue felt stagnant and impenetrable as I’d just be waiting for the line to be over, so I could select something else and gain as much information as possible.  All of Mass Effect‘s most moving moments for me were during the parts I couldn’t control, which is telling.  I liked the dialogue with Liara, but it still couldn’t hold a candle to how great those scenes could have been had they been less interactive and more well directed as a movie.  Take MGS4, for example; while some of those cutscenes are poorly paced and drag on far too long, at it’s best, there are some really stunning moments that simply wouldn’t feel the same if you had to constantly stop them and go back to a menu of sorts. 

My modest proposal (that would would at the very least appeal to the demographic of gamers named Jeffrey Matulef) would be to portray most conversations in cutscenes, giving you a choice only in the beginning of the cutscene, and maybe once or twice later on.  For example: say someone has double-crossed you.  The game could give you an option to get angry at them, or play it cool and pretend you don’t know they’re behind it.  If you choose either, a cutscene plays out.  If you hear them out, the cutscene ends with you being merciful, and you can either go on your merry way, or choose to punish them, which would be done in another cutscene.  Think of it this way: remember how old graphic adventures gave you a dozen or so different choices for actions like: push, pull, open, close, give, use, etc, etc…?  Then later games like Full Throttle streamlined this into a scant few commands like: look at, pick up, use, or talk to?  Those games were still just as difficult as ever, but they felt more fair.  I feel like games could apply this more to their narrative.  Fewer choices, at the behest of more engaging drama.

I wouldn’t suggest that all games need to be this way.  In really open-world games like Fallout 3, we may appreciate the multitude of choice over their somewhat antiquated presentation.  There’s simply no room on the disc to allow for MGS4 levels of cinematic immersion for every choice and every character you’ll run into.  It’s a fair sacrifice. Arguably, one could say that it just wouldn’t work at all in an RPG, as it’s a genre based on choice.  

It just depends on how much choice they want to give you, I suppose.  It’s more linear, narrative-driven games that I feel could benefit from this.  Games like Riddick or The Darkness, or maybe even Mass Effect.  Give me some choice, sure, but don’t ask me what I think every five seconds.  If a game really wants to engross us in its characters, it should give us a protagonist who IS a character, someone who can make up their own mind every once in awhile.  We could coax them into situations, sure.  Then cut the strings and watch in awe as we would any good film.  Because really, that’s what these games are striving for, am I right?

Author: Jeffrey Matulef