Writing for Games: Character Dialogue

One place that writing happens in modern computer RPGs is in character dialogue. There are as many ways to do this as there are CRPGs, but your goals are the same; reveal character, without resorting to exposition, and still provide an interactive experience.

Doing Dialogue

Two prime modes exist for dialogue in CRPGs; cinematic, and dialogue trees. A cinematic is basically a short movie that happens between moments of action governed by the player. These show up in games like Titanfall or Call of Duty. A dialogue tree, by contrast, is a back and forth between a character in the game, and the player. The player chooses lines for their character, and the in-game characters reply. This is similar to games like the Dragon Age or Mass Effect series.

Your goal is to write one of these two options. Pick one you like, and write that.

Cinematic

  • A Cinematic will be like a movie. Set dialogue will occur, said by characters, and stage directions will reference when the characters move. Here’s a decent sample of what a screenplay should look like.
  • Something you’ll need to do here is make sure you understand what makes a good cinematic in your “stage directions.” Cinematic should be action scenes. Fighting, moving, running, building, etc. If you can describe what your characters are doing with a word ending in “ing” (that isn’t talking), it’s probably a Cinematic. Be sure you clearly describe the action. The action here advances the story.
  • Dialogue still needs to reveal character.,Suppose your Cinematic features a helicopter being shot down. It crash lands, the player and several characters spill out. One of them, a marine sergeant, is wounded. He could say:
    • “MEDIC! I’m hit! Oh god, I’m gonna die!”
    • “Hold your ground! Smith, get that medkit! Nelson, bring that gun around! Return fire you maggots!”
    • “Look out! They’ll come around for another pass! Find cover and dig in!”

Notice that each option implies a slightly different character, but none of them explicitly say what kind of character (a coward, a snarling marshal, a shrewd commander). Obviously each is also going to imply a different kind of action as well.

  • Cinematic dialogue should have stakes, or “something that the player stands to lose” or “something that is at risk in the game world.” In general, because a Cinematic is setting up action that the player will take place in, it should establish stakes, but rarely resolve them.
  • Action should invest the player in it. Meaning the player should have a sense of urgency that they must play the game to resolve the tension created by the stakes.

Dialogue Tree

  • A dialogue tree will focus only on talking. If you’ve read a “Choose your own Adventure” book, you’ve got the idea here. The player chooses Option 2, the non-player character (NPC) replies with Option C.
  • One important challenge here is to make sure that all the NPC dialogue options lead to a limited number of options within 5 or 6 steps. It won’t do to have the entire NPC’s life story in one dialogue tree.
  • A good rule is to have one statement that reveals character nested against another that advances story. So, a character might say “Oh those guys, they smelled terrible. That’s not why I killed them, obviously, though the stench was nearly bad enough.I needed to get through the gate.”
  • Dialogue trees should have stakes, or “something that the player stands to lose” or “something that is at risk in the game world.” Maybe it’s the respect of the speaker, maybe it’s love, maybe it’s the risk of the dialogue devolving into violence.
  • Action should invest the player in it. Meaning the player should have a sense of urgency that they must play the game to resolve the tension created by the stakes.

Assignment Rubric

To complete this assignment successfully a student must

  1. Select one of the options given and produce at least 3 pages of dialogue, or a complete scene, whichever is longer.
  2. All writing will be in a reasonable 12-point font, no more than double spaced, with appropriate line length and devoid of obvious attempts at skipping work through formatting wizardry.
  3. Have dialogue which reveals character
  4. Have action which invests a potential game player in the action
  5. Have action which has stakes
  6. Be fun. Remember this is dialogue for a game. You should reasonably expect an audience of some kind to be entertained by reading it. Having a character read the phone book isn’t engaging, nor is it fun.

Extra credit will be given for (see syllabus for explanation of extra credit)

  1. Creating a Dialogue Tree in the Neverwinter Nights module editor and submitting the mod file with your assignment.
  2. Create a cinematic in any video editor of your choice.

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