Talking in Video Games

Patrick Holleman has a really smart article over at The Game Design Forum titled “Because It’s There: Collected Thoughts on Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim.” I would suggest that you go read the whole thing, but if that isn’t your bag, let me do a quick breakdown for you.

Holleman makes two arguments in his article, and both are important. The first is that there is a story behind every object and NPC in the The Elder Scrolls games. This is something I agree with, and he is smart on this point, but I don’t have anything to say about it. Go read the article if you want to know the finer points of his argument.

The second argument he makes is much more interesting to me. Holleman asserts that social situations based around talking in video games are, well, kind of boring. I will let him explain:

Conversations in the Elder Scrolls games are more like digs than webs. There’s a goal, a golden nugget of information, you just have to figure out how to get down to it, using various means of persuasion and coercion. I am probably in the minority when I say that I actually prefer The Elder Scrolls conversation system. Maybe it’s because I go to single player games when I want to avoid socialization that I really don’t like the conversation system in Dragon Age. As anyone who knows me will tell you, I am a talker (read: “he never shuts up.”) But when I come to a game, most of the time, I want a mechanical system that doesn’t tax my social skills, because I’ve had enough of that, or I’d be in the real world talking to real people. Or I’d be playing an adventure game where talking to people is all you do, because at least then the transition between talking and everything else wouldn’t be so jarring. I don’t want to keep coming back to the camp screen after every event going worrying, “Did I get everything out of the characters that I could this moment, before the opportunity to collect +1 favorability?” I want to get on a roll with the combat and/or exploration, and ride that for a while without worrying if I’m missing three lines of crucial dialogue.

I agree wholeheartedly. I played about the first two hours of Dragon Age before I quit due to massive boredom. I think this might be a part of a larger systemic problem for me: RPG stories, and the methods they use to tell those stories, are bad. I have been an ardent defender of the genre in the past, and I still think that a large, free-form RPG space could be amazing–I mean, come on, it is a giant novel that you can play! But that doesn’t change the fact that the older I get, the less I enjoy RPG stories.

I think the heart of it might be the massive amount of terrible text conversations that I have to sit through and read. I have recently been trying to play through the “golden age” of computer RPGs, and so far I have “played” the first two Fallout games and Planescape: Torment, and the main complaint that I have is that there is way too much focus on conversation. In those games, the the player has one way of “touching” the game world: longform text-based conversations. There were several instances in Fallout where I picked the wrong dialogue option and was immediately attacked and killed by a random character–I wasn’t a combat-oriented character.

The point that I’m trying to make is that I agree with Holleman. I think that when I play a game I should be able to “touch” the world in a number of ways, and the primacy of language should be downplayed in RPG games. Skyrim, and the other Bethesda games, make great strides forward in this. The method of conversation “digging” seems, to me at least, to be a core ethic of the way that games should be played–games exist because they create goals. While I am a longtime critic of games that “railroad” players, I don’t understand why there can’t simply be multiple pieces of “gold” in a conversation, each one leading the player in a different direction. I understand the thinking behind huge amounts of text that characters can say–it makes the world “bigger,” gives those characters life, and so on. But that doesn’t change the fact that it creates a mediating effect between the player and the world–instead of understanding the game world proper, you understand the subjective way that NPC understands the world they live in, and if this is your main method of getting information, you really end up with fractional understandings.

Maybe this is why so many games of the time had to devolve down to cosmic or all-powerful beings as end-game enemies and allies. They were able to create a stable, no-lies, “this is the Truth of the World” statements that the player would be happy with. Maybe that is the power of fewer words–we would need fewer gods.

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