What’s In a Dialogue Choice Anyway?

What’s In a Dialogue Choice Anyway?

There is a saying in screenwriting:

‘No line is worth a scene, and no scene is worth a film.’

It literally means that you should cut any line that works against the thrust of the scene it’s in, regardless of how ‘good’ or ‘cool’ it is, and that you should cut any scene that doesn’t serve the movie as a whole. It is a reminder to keep your eyes on the big picture.

It is good advice and one I often need reminding of. The writer’s most emotionally urgent work, the work that feels the most like progress, happens in the body of the text: in the lines of a script or the body of a novel. That is where the writer’s tiny, monstrous obsessions rear their heads: rhythm, syntax, or the deliciousness of certain words (I’m looking at you lurking, and utterly). It’s the nitty-gritty, the line-by-line where we usually get bogged down, where we need to be reminded of the bigger picture.

What I’m coming around to saying, Dear Reader, is that here at Gamechuck we are well-aware of the dangers of the nitty-gritty. We know how the writers (and the designers, too) can get lost in the weeds. And we know how usually the right thing to do is to grab onto the bigger picture and let it lift you out of the bog. Usually.

This time though, Dear Reader, we’re dropping the big picture stuff.

I’m taking you into the weediest of weeds to delve into a very niche concern in narrative design:

In narrative games with dialogue choices, how should the choices be presented?

In other words: When the player gets to choose what their character will say next, how are the possible choices presented?

Two approaches come to mind.

The first is the approach favoured by Black Isle Studios, of Fallout and Planescape fame, and other old-school RPG developers, which I’m dubbing the verbatim style, in which the options spell out the entire line your character will say word for word. If one of the options was, say: ‘Drop that gun, you melon farmer!’ That’s exactly what your character would end up saying.

An example of dialogue from Fallout 2

The other approach is one we might call the implied style. You’ve seen this one in Mass Effect and the Witcher series. In the implied style the option only suggests the basic gist of what the character will say if you select it. In this style, selecting the option ‘Drop the gun!’ might produce the result, say: ‘Drop that gun, you melon farmer!’

An example of dialogue from The Witcher 3

Both styles bring their own design baggage and create certain expectations in the player.

The verbatim vs implied style of the dialogue

The verbatim style makes the player’s dialogue choices perfectly plain. The player can examine the style of a reply as well as its substance. It places full responsibility for what the character says on the player, and it promises that the character will never say something the player did not agree to. The implied style, on the other hand, signals to the player that they are only making broad decisions about the direction of a conversation. They are able to choose what is said, but not how.

The transparency of the verbatim style of the dialogue lets the player commit to a certain role-playing approach, by letting them micromanage the tone and style of their character’s replies. The narrative control of the character is placed as far into the player’s hands as the medium allows. This undoubtedly increases the player’s felt agency and helps with immersion–both good things in RPGs.

The implied style, on the other hand, signals to the player that they are only making broad decisions about the direction of a conversation. They are able to choose what is said, but not how.

However, this transparency is not entirely a virtue in narrative games, since it is impossible to surprise the player with their character’s response and it makes it harder to deliver exposition in a natural way. These are the places where the implied style really shines. Consider this jury-rigged example:

Implied Style:

  • NPC: ‘I know you’re not from around here, but you’ve heard of Harren of Dens, surely?’

Option 1: Yes, I have.

  • PC: Of course, he’s the man who killed the Vicar of Shoals in that senseless duel. Over a couple of turnips, if I recall correctly.

Option 2: No, who?

  • PC: Harren of Dens? Who’s he?
  • NPC: He duelled and killed the Vicar of Shoals over a couple of turnips. Utterly senseless.

As you can tell, using the implied style let us give the player the opportunity to express themselves (in this case by choosing how well informed their character is) while still delivering the exposition in a natural way. The player doesn’t know who Harren of Dens is, but their character might. This is a kind of false branch in the dialogue tree, as both choices lead to the same outcome (i.e. both let the player know who Harren is) but the implied style lets us hide this fact from the player.

Consider how clunky and transparent this dialogue branch would appear in the verbatim style:

Verbatim Style:

  • NPC: ‘I know you’re not from around here, but you’ve heard of Harren of Dens, surely?’

Option 1: PC: Of course, he’s the man who killed the Vicar of Shoals in that senseless duel. Over a couple of turnips, if I recall correctly.

  • PC: Of course, he’s the man who killed the Vicar of Shoals in that senseless duel. Over a couple of turnips, if I recall correctly.

Option 2: Harren of Dens? Who’s he?

  • PC: Harren of Dens? Who’s he?
  • NPC: He duelled and killed the Vicar of Shoals over a couple of turnips. Utterly senseless.

In this awful, awful case, one of the presented options actually tells the player who Harren is. Using the verbatim style here has front-loaded the exposition, delivering it to the player prematurely. Instead of two snappy choices, the options now feel like an info dump. This info dump prior to the player deciding on a reply also changes the context for the player’s decision, making it feel like Option 2 is a decision to lie about never having heard of Harren, now that Option 1 has revealed who he is. It is no longer a choice between knowing and not knowing, now it is a choice between telling the truth or lying but placed in a context where a choosing to lie or not to lie is not salient: Who cares whether the character admits to having heard about a guy?

The logic at work here is obvious: The verbatim style necessitates that the player knows what the character knows.

So in general, the verbatim style makes it harder for the player character to deliver exposition naturally, which might go some distance towards explaining why in many old-school CRPGs (that employed the verbatim style) the player character is either a foreigner (Fallout 1 & 2, Arcanum, Pillars of Eternity ) or an amnesiac (Planescape: Torment, Torment: Tides of Numenera). An amnesiac or a foreigner protagonist can ask random strangers to explain everyday concepts without inviting a groan from the players.

On the other hand, the strength of the implied style is precisely in its ability to dole out exposition naturally and without overwhelming the player. Consider the success of Witcher 3, a game that many (including yours truly) first played without having played its prequels, which nevertheless succeeds in presenting a complex world chock full of characters with intricate relationships in a way that is coherent enough to follow, and all the while having the story start in medias res.

That constitutes a minor miracle, in my book. One of the ways the game managed this is by having the characters, and the protagonist, in particular, know things that the player doesn’t, and by trusting the player to make decisions based on incomplete information.

Geralt of Rivia starts off knowing the entire context of the plot while the player doesn’t, but the pacing of the game and the distribution of the exposition allows the player to catch up with the protagonist slowly and steadily.

There is some subtle alchemy lost when the dialogue options are not presented fully to the player

None of this is to say that the implied style is a direct improvement on the verbatim style. There is some subtle alchemy lost when the dialogue options are not presented fully to the player. It is hard to imagine that Disco Elysium could have been made in the implied style. There can be a certain poetry in how the various options relate to one another, in how they rhyme, or contrast, or escalate.

See here what I mean, and example from Disco Elysium:

Dialogue example from Disco Elysium

Chills, man. Chills.

But where does that leave Trip the Ark Fantastic? Which style have we decided on? As always in the design process, we are allowing our thinking to evolve, but currently, the implied style is what we are using. After all, our protagonist, Charles, is both renowned in his world and a knowledgeable scholar, so it only makes sense for us to present his know-how and worldliness in as natural as way as possible.

But who knows what approaches we’ll discover cutting our way through the weeds? Either way, it’s always a pleasure having you along for the trip, Dear Reader.

Jan Juracic, Lead Writer.

Make sure to follow our development on Discord, Facebook, Twitter or our newsletter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *