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It seems lately there is a growing number of people clamoring for non-violent games. Now obviously there are a large number of non-violent games already, from Tetris to Candy Crush. However violent games are usually the best selling and most profitable. And it’s not hard to understand why, the struggle between life and death carries a dramatic weight that’s hard to match.

However there are numerous stories that can be just as compelling. A prosecutor, who dispenses justice not through the barrel of a gun, but with compelling arguments made in court. An entrepreneur, whose success depends on negotiating the right deals. Or a close presidential race, where two opposing ideologies clash for control of a nation.

These stories can carry serious dramatic weight and can use entirely non-violent mechanics, and conversation mechanics would be a key part of it. There have been several election simulation games in recent years, which do an okay job of modeling things like raising funds and targeting ads, but every one of them fails to capture the drama of a political debate, and this is where a good system of conversation mechanics would be useful.

The simplest and most common conversation mechanic is a dialogue choice. The player character simply has two or more choices of what to say which will lead to different outcomes. This can be extended into a dialogue tree where each dialogue choice selected branches off into another choice, and this continues until the conversation reaches some sort of conclusion.

Dialogue trees have a serious weakness: they are static and predictable. They are more akin to taking a multiple choice test, than actually interacting with an intelligent human. I think dialogue trees can have their place, if you are just gathering information or learning the backstory of the game’s world. But for really dramatic moments, dialogue trees are inadequate, and don’t do justice to tense negotiation or debate.

dragon-age-wheel

Instead of having static characters, let’s have dynamic ones, that respond differently to the player based on how they feel about him. Lets refer to this generically as disposition. Final Fantasy VII had affection points that would accumulate for different characters throughout the game based on dialogue choices, which would affect a major scene in the game. The Dragon Age series keeps track of various characters’ approval of the player character’s actions. The indie game Unrest takes this concept even further with 3 different disposition values: friendship, respect, and fear.

Now conversation becomes far more interesting than simply finding the right choice. Failure instead becomes a matter of degrees rather than  simple pass/fail as disposition rises and falls throughout the conversation. You can even have complex situations where you must balance the disposition of multiple characters, which is perfect for negotiation scenarios.

A recent trend for dialogue mechanics is to systematize dialogue choices. What this means is that your available dialogue choices will fall into several types which recur regularly, and there is often one type that is appropriate for the situation. This is best characterized in the interrogations of L.A. Noire. There are always 3 options: to accept what the witness has said is truthful, to doubt them and press them for more information, or to outright accuse them of lying. There is always a single correct choice.

The dialogue wheel used in Mass Effect and later Dragon Age games is somewhat similar, there are different types of dialogue choices arranged by location on the wheel. Originally you had good choices at the top right, and bad choices at the bottom right, investigation on the left and so on. This system has changed little since it was introduced in the first Mass Effect, although in many cases there is no “correct” choice, unlike L.A. Noire, leaving the decision primarily to player expression.

This systematization aids the player by providing predictability. Just as in an JRPG battle you can decide whether to attack, use magic, or use an item based on the situation, this systematization of dialogue choices allows you make an informed decision about a particular dialogue choice. It might be based on the character’s facial expression as is the case in L.A. Noire, or it might be based on information you learned about the character, or some other factors.

lie

Another powerful but often overlooked tool would be to remove choices from the player in certain situations. The best example of this would probably be Depression Quest. It doesn’t deal with dialogue choices specifically, but it is along similar lines to what’s being discussed in this article so I think its worth looking into. The idea of removing choices could be very powerful indeed.

Depression Quest tracks a variable that determines which choices are crossed out and unavailable, which fits in pretty well with what I’ve talked about previously. We already have disposition variables for NPCs so why not have them for the player character as well. That specific game was tracking how depressed the player character was, but the same idea can be used in many ways. You can imagine a conversation tree where an NPC says something that makes the player character outraged, and removes dialogue choices to respond calmly.

What I consider to be the biggest failing of every conversation system, in every game that I have played, is that there is not really any kind of AI behind it. In almost every genre, from FPS to RPG to RTS, we have AI that react to the player and tries to counter them. It is far more compelling to compete against an AI opponent than a static system. So here’s how I would imagine the next evolutionary step forward from today’s conversation mechanics.

The player and the AIs have systematized dialogue options. The player has some way of gaining information on the AI characters to determine how they would react to different dialogue approaches. It doesn’t have to be precise but at least enough information for the player to make informed decision. The player and the AI take turns making dialogue choices to try and change each other’s disposition, which would be made up of several different variables. Based on the disposition certain options will become unavailable. After this battle of wits has concluded, the final disposition of both parties will determine whether the outcome is positive or not.

This idea heavily depends on well written dialogue that can cover many different dialogue pathways, but if executed well it would really capture the feeling of tense negotiations, and more importantly would capture the feeling that the person you are talking to is a living being working towards goals opposed to your own.

Feel free to leave your own thoughts on conversation mechanics below.


Max Michael

Senior Writer

I’m a technology reporter located near the Innovation District of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario.



  • Mark Andrew Edwards

    A conversation system where the outcome doesn’t matter and your response are just ‘style’, ala Mass Effect is unsatisfying. Likewise, the dialog options need to give you an idea of what you’re character is trying to say and what they’re trying to achieve.

    In a scene, each character should be trying to ‘win’ something. That’s conflict and that can drive a story. The result of the conversation should drive the rest of the character’s interactions. Mass Effect 2 did this pretty well, at least with Jack. You could fuck her pretty early in the plot, but if you did, it tainted your relationship with her for the rest of the game. I’m not sure I like that kind of irrecoverable failure state for a long-term companion but it was something.

    The final confrontation/trial in The Wolf Among Us comes pretty close to what you’re wanting and I enjoyed it. But it seemed like the outcome was always pre-determined. But they did make it possible for the Crooked Man to sway the other citizens with his arguments.

  • coboney

    Alpha Protocol did this well I think – everything matters for how people judge you – and conversation is part of that.

  • coboney

    A general point – for the dialogue wheel i think that Dreamfall Chapters improved it with having the character giving their thoughts over each option – IE if you select this way its because the character was thinking that. It deals with the issue of different things then what you meant quite well imo – far better then expression faces.

  • Brad Sherard

    Mass effect is the posterchild for how not to do RPG dialogue. The “choose top option on selection wheel to gain positive karma points” is so devoid of any engagement by the player that the game might as well just let you pick the outcome of the conversation.

    A good RPG conversation requires thought. The player must actually engage with the subject to make the right choice. Even then, unforseen consequences can throw a wrench in the player’s plans to control things. This is entirely opposed to the systematized dialogue wheel of modern day RPGs. It is one of the reasons why I praise games like Torment so much. There is no colored text that tells you what the outcome will be; you have to figure that out yourself.

  • Agt_Pendergast

    Does anyone else feel that the Bioware dialogue wheel have some misleading options sometimes? I remember playing through Mass Effect and picking some dialogue that looked good in the brief description, but then what was actually said didn’t seem to match up with it.

  • Tabitha Dickerson

    I was with you right up until Depression Quest. That game offended me greatly as a sufferer of major depression and is not a good example of a conversation system. I think limiting options is just as bad as providing too many or too many that are the same. The illusion of choice is better than just taking it away.

  • Tabitha Dickerson

    No, but I get annoyed when in a few games every choice is more or less the same. It’s the illusion of choice.

  • Tabitha Dickerson

    As to that comment about people clamoring for non violent games. No one is clamoring for anything. There’s a small sector of gamers who seem to be against sexism of any kind, regardless if it fits the story. Most people want games to be inclusive sure, but they don’t want quality to suffer in return.

  • NoName

    No mention of Alpha Protocol? For shame!

  • Max

    Unfortunately I haven’t actually played Alpha Protocol. However, from what I’ve seen of it, it does look like a pretty good way of handling conversations.

  • Ellen J Miller

    The introduction of the dialogue wheel was what started my turn away from Bioware games. I grew up with their Infinity Engine games and prefer a vast choice of conversation options without the cost constraint of voice acting everything.

  • hots

    That happened to me a lot in Deus Ex Human Revolution, it led to a few unintentional murders.

  • Fenrir007

    If there is one thing I hate is the black and white dialogue wheel type of conversations you get in games like Mass Effect. Conversations should be meaningful and not a simplistic binary choice of good vs evil. A game that does this right is “The Witcher”. There is another game that I always like to mention when dialogue is brought up – “Planescape Torment.” Now, that is a good approach to dialogue. You can do almost anything in the game through dialogue, even solving the final encounter through it, in multiple ways. I felt more tension in that last dialogue than in many final bosses of multiple videogames (especially those that are merely a glorified QTE like the end boss of Space Marine). It helps that it is pretty well written.

    It also helps when what is written on the screen leads to what the character will say. DAII is one of the worst offenders of this.

  • goodguya

    As MrBtongue mentioned in his latest video, Deus Ex: Human Revolution had good solutions to the standard dialogue tree. not only did it have the dialogue boss fights (which, while not great, were a good change of pace and I think were more successful than L.A Noire) but also had a dialogue wheel that wasn’t tiered. What he mentioned specifically was being able to read the full sentence that your character (Jensen) is going to say without ambiguity by simply hovering over it.

    I’ve thought very hard about systemizing dialogue through a concept in which someone gets up to do a speech. One would prepare words to say, but would have gauge the reaction of the crowd, time the lines effectively, and then answer questions which don’t contradict at the end. Would be a good design challenge.

  • God ov Hover Hand

    Current conversation mechanics in video games are growing very stale. The convo wheel found in Mass Effect and recent Dragon Ages gives little sense of challenge or difficulty. Dragon Age Origins was a great use of conversations since gaining of approval of one character was likely to offend the sensibilities of another party member. It gave rise to many questions both thematically and for your own personal self discovery. Did you value the approval of an uncaring witch with little sympathy for anything besides herself or did you desire affection of a bumbling but honorable knight? Or did carve out a set of principles for yourself that skirted the line between those two extremes. DA:O didn’t feature any sort of good/evil meter and considering many of the game’s decisions could be construed as morally grey, this was a brilliant design as to provide as much challenge into the conversation system.

    But as great as DA:O’s system is after being released 5 years ago, conversation system do need to evolve. I saw a complaint here that there’s “no artificial intelligence” when it comes to dialogue and that’s true. The current design of conversation mechanics is designed to be pre-scripted and the responses can be predictable but it is a result of the basic nature of modern conversation mechanics. I think in time, we’ll see evolutions into “metaphorical” conversations where dialogue can be actively played as a level and not just selected from a bunch of bullet points. Think of concepts in Psychonauts or Inception where you can enter someone’s mind as a level. A question about a memory becomes a physical investigation into their private property. An argument can become a task of finding paradoxes in your opponent’s beliefs turning them against each other while you take advantage of holes in their logic.

    Well, that’s my prediction. Going to wait five years and see if it happens…

  • Psichaos

    ‘Long Live the Queen’ is a game practically built on this “dynamic conversation.” For anyone who doesn’t know what it is, It’s basically a visual novel with an absurd level of stat-building, which affect the choices you can make and the outcome of events. It’s notorious for being deceptively difficult for what is a seemingly simple concept: Simply train your princess and survive until coronation, but anyone who has ever played it can attest that is no simple task.

  • bazzar

    A better example would have been Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, as your “Humanity” goes down your dialogue options become less altruistic eventually making it near impossible to regain any Humanity points without spending your XP on it.

  • Tabitha Dickerson

    Holy shit. You’re so right! Bloodlines was a fantastic example of how to do everything right in a game, including dialogue. Damn you CCP for getting our hopes up and destroying the fan remake…

  • dsadsada

    Tokyo Dark is still in development but it’s looking like it has some interesting dialogue mechanics.

    The developers have said that some dialogue options can have as many as 30 possible answers. I’m guessing this number will be trimmed down depending on the stats for the main character which appear to include Sanity, Professionalism, Investigative Skill, and Neuroticism. We’ll just have to wait for the game to be done then to see if there’s anything we can learn from it to improve conversation mechanics.