Spoony Bard 6: Dragon Age’s Better Banter

Dialogue is hard, just ask any game writer. When it comes down to character interaction, the fine line between natural and contrived is one that many loathe to even approach. Descriptive writing is far simpler as it involves only the natural tendencies, cadences and thought processes of a singular being.

That’s why banter that is particularly well written is often particularly endearing, particularly moving, and particularly capable of progressing plots in ways we have only begun to explore.

Similar to sandbox games, where the sense of agency is more important than the actual amount of agency, games can evoke a sense of narrative freedom. This can be done in any number of ways, but has been traditionally done through expository cut scenes or through the player deciding to interact with certain characters at certain points. The quantity of both methods depends on the genre and game. Often first-person shooters lack the same story-driven character interface that role-playing games have, with recent versions of the latter cutting back on cut scenes.

This established dichotomy has been challenged by the concept of randomly occurring dialogue events. They might not sound revolutionary, what with randomly generated, well, everything having been around since gaming’s beginnings. But characters have not interacted outside of the player’s influence before in any real capacity. To not be so academic about it, banter between characters adds a dimension of realism to any given game and drastically improving its immersion.

Take Dragon Age, for example. In that game there are both cut scenes and player-initiated dialogue. However, there’s also a mechanic where, depending on who you have in your party, the dialogue in both dialogue events and outside of any actual player-driven events is subtly different. With Shale in their party, players will hear about how birds are foul creatures that are no better than vermin. Contrastingly, if Leilana is also there then she will counter Shale, saying birds are actually pleasant things. The pair will go back and forth, and Shale even makes reference to their argument later on.

This type of believable discussion between non-player characters gives players a feeling of progression beyond what has normally been established in the medium. The banter can range from the humorous, such as Morrigan’s mocking of Leilana, to the serious when one your party members particularly objects to a choice you’ve made in the dialogue tree. Depending on the actual situation, the latter could well see you part ways with that character.

This allows for a significant amount of exposition to be explained without any real action on the player’s part. Instead of insistence on delving trough the dialogue trees, randomly-generated banter shows insight to both party members involved; not only does one learn about Shale’s hatred of birds but also of Leilana’s love of them. If I have one criticism, it’s that the banter is always been two people and never three. For complexity’s sake the number of involved parties was kept to a minimum, but when a game reaches to that level of immersion it’s a shame to not shoot for the moon.

Many feel that Dragon Age’s dialogue has helped put the magic back into fantasy video games.

Dragon Age isn’t the first game this season to nail this design, either. Uncharted 2, written about extensively by both fellow TGR writers Joe DeLia and Sinan Kubba, has similar dialogue between its characters. Unlike Dragon Age, however, it would seem that all of the banter between Drake and his menagerie is predetermined. That isn’t to say that the dialogues in Dragon Age aren’t planned – far from it – but each speech in Uncharted 2 is triggered by a certain part of the game where certain actions are taken. When you jump in the pool, Drake wants to play Marco Polo. When he sees the yaks, he comments on them. We don’t really get much insight to the characters beyond what a single playthrough tells us.

And maybe that’s where the RPG and shooter truly differ. There are just more ways to tell a story in an RPG. Then again, conventions and conventions were meant to be challenged, right? Realism and immersion shouldn’t be left only to those with 40 to 60 hours that they can toss into a single playthrough of a game. And even though Uncharted 2 doesn’t have as many dialogue options, there certainly are ones that you could miss while playing. Either way, it’s an exciting time for those interested in game narrative – even if Clint Hocking has his way.

Author: James Bishop