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July 21, 2008

Conversation: They're All Talking (About It)

I guess conversation is where it's at these days. Recently I began a series of blogs on conversation mechanics and how interactive fiction games can perhaps show the mainstream game industry how to do better dialogue (starting here, continuing here, and most recently here). Others have also recently jumped in on the action.

Over on Gamasutra, an article written by Brent Ellison popped up not long ago to define dialog systems because, as he says, "very little literature has addressed the mechanics behind character interaction in games."

Ellison essentially covers the basic mechanics of different dialogue systems in games, including branching and non-branching dialogue, hub-and-spokes dialogue, and even parser-driven dialogue. He does a fair enough job of summarizing the more common systems, although he seems to focus primarily on interface and doesn't quite venture into the more interesting territory of the mechanics required to produce smooth, immersive, dynamic dialogue. It's more of a top-level view, which is fine, but I'd really like to see more people talking about how to make dialogue better through more carefully designed mechanics. It's kind of like describing Galatea as simply an example of an ASK/TELL dialogue system, without getting into the finer details under the hood that make the game shine.

Speaking of which, I found it especially disappointing that his description of parser-driven systems never made any mention of interactive fiction; his only two examples of this type of system were Eliza and Façade. It's fair enough to discuss Eliza as a pioneering example of parser-driven interaction, but Façade, while a fascinating experiment, did not exactly come across as a shining example of the power of parser-driven input. I found Façade to be a success in many aspects, although the parser was not one of them. It's unfortunate that Ellison failed to mention any of the great examples of dialogue in interactive fiction in an article like this since, as I've said, I think a lot of mainstream games could learn some important lessons about conversation from IF.

Around the same time, over on the Iron Tower Studio forum, Vince D. Weller tossed some ideas around with Gareth Fouche and came up with an interesting post that summarized dialogue systems in RPG games (thanks to Scorpia for pointing it out). It starts out with a nod to the adventure game genre (its current 'comatose husk' notwithstanding) and the use of keyword (or topic-based) interaction, and proceeding from there to describe typical dialogue tree structure. What's nice about the post is that he goes into some detail about the strengths and weaknesses of the different approaches, including a familiar discussion about the different shortcomings of topic-based and dialogue tree systems. He also includes a mention of a system that incorporates expressive tone with keywords, such as was tried with the game Daggerfall (which I have not played). Although it sounds like it did not fully succeed at this, it is interesting how this mirrors the approach used in some IF games, like Adam Cadre’s Varicella from 1999. Although it would have been nice to see some cross-genre discussion, it was nevertheless a nice discussion of dialogue as it relates specifically to the RPG genre. With some additional research, it would make a nice complement to the Gamasutra article.

Dialogue systems are an interesting aspect of computer games that, for the most part, use similar interfaces and follow similar mechanics across different genres. I think developers and players are beginning to long for systems that produce more dynamic, nuanced conversations, and yet IF is a genre that continues to be largely overlooked. Although the adventure game genre (and IF in particular) is perhaps not what it used to be, I wouldn't quite call it "comatose", as there are still some creative authors out there making games that push boundaries and test new systems. Some work well and some don't. One of the main reasons for this series of blogs is to explore some of those experiments in IF, including how authors have taken the basic systems and tinkered with them to generate more dynamic conversations that flow smoothly and account for changing context. These systems can easily work in genres outside of IF, as long as the skill and effort are there.

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