Now that we’re almost done with the first closed beta build of TNM, it’s time to kick back and pat ourselves on the back until the bug reports start rolling in as an unstoppable tide (or trickle, if you’re more optimistically inclined). It’s also time to start thinking more abstractly about game design again.
As part of an ongoing discussion with Shane about the quality of Mass Effect‘s dialogue, he gave me what is probably the greatest compliment I’ve ever received: That TNM’s dialogue is better because it flows more naturally. I don’t think I’d agree with that, but it did get me thinking about the different ways to use interactive dialogue in games.
Bioware’s games always put quite a lot of agency in their dialogue, meaning a lot of the choices you make in Bioware RPGs are made through dialogue options. In Mass Effect, this usually manifests itself in the form of coloured options that are unlocked if your Intimidate or Charm talents meet the requirements. Sometimes you can go so far as to execute an NPC by selecting the dialogue option that makes Shepard shoot him in the face, and often you will use the dialogue to make important decisions concerning the direction of the storyline.
Conversely, in Deus Ex (and by extension TNM) the dialogue has far less agency but far more reactivity. The dialogue options are pretty limited, usually used to let you buy items from NPCs or ask about optional subjects that are irrelevant or incidental to the plot. Instead, the options that affect the plot are placed in the gameplay, and the dialogue automatically changes to reflect these choices. For example, probably the most important choice in Deus Ex until the endgame is whether or not to save your brother, and this decision is made by either fleeing out the window like a coward or staying in his room to fight like a man. For the rest of the game, the dialogue will occasionally change to reflect whether or not Paul is still alive.
The enormous advantage of Deus Ex’s ethos is that the dialogue is a lot less detached from the gameplay. Sometimes, the dialogue in Mass Effect and other Bioware games has a tendency to feel like another game tacked onto the actual game. It has a hint of the same detachment from the gameplay that cutscenes suffer from. To counter this, Bioware often makes your dialogue choices influence the gameplay by eg. making enemies hostile or spawning or removing them depending on your choices. Arguably, however, actions should speak louder than words, and in Deus Ex they do.
A disadvantage to Deus Ex’s method is that it’s generally completely impossible to interpret the player’s intentions with sufficient nuance to inform the dialogue. The example I usually employ is the Battery Park Station hostage situation in Deus Ex: If you mess up the mission and get the hostages killed, JC will act completely brash and unconcerned about it when questioned by his brother, even if the player is feeling a bit remorseful or ashamed about the whole thing. The game can easily tell that you failed to save the hostages, but it has no idea why. If you make the game monitor the situation closely enough, you can make a more educated guess (if the player directly shot at the terrorists’ explosives or even threw a grenade down there to clean the station out, it’s a safe bet he didn’t mean to save the hostages, for example), but this can get very complicated very fast.
Deus Ex is pretty uncompromisingly reactive in its use of dialogue, but Bioware’s games often let the dialogue change a bit depending on the player’s gameplay choices. As with most aspects of game design, I think the best solution is a compromise. In TNM, we’ve maintained the Deus Ex ethos, but mixed in some dialogue options for nuance. I’m sure it can be taken even further though, and given the chance, I’ll be experimenting with that in the future.