Narrascope 2019 - Julius Kuschke - How Dialogue Systems Make or Break Player Engagement
.Julius Kuschke, Chief Product officer at RTC creates tools for game writers. RTC makes Artists Draft, a software to create branching stories. In this talk he reviews highlights from the ways that previous games have ensured what Julius sees as the four secrets of a good dialogue:
Previously, in a hub dialogue system, you could choose all the options offered in turn,. And that's very unnatural. It's also very much like an interrogation, because only the player is driving the whole dialogue. This turns NPCs into information wending machines, where the player feels obligated to punch every button, just to get each available tidbit of data.
So, this is why I think waterfall structures are so popular today because they feel so much more natural. Players understand that each option not chosen is gone forever, they don't have a second chance. The conversation will move on.
Just as an example for that, let's take a look at Assassin's Creed Odyssey.
“Tell me mysterious. Did you learn anything worthwhile in your dealings with the world?”
“I'm done talking, I should tell you where you stand.”
“They said you'd be different. And blood is blood, I suppose.”
So, even though it's clearly a waterfall structure, without reoccurring hops, the dialogue often feels slow and artificial. Whenever there's a choice, everything stands still and the game waits for your input.
The most simple solution for this problem is to have time decisions and Telltale Games in particular made that system very popular.
Timers are great to create tension, and they reduce that weird awkward silence in between choices. They can be very difficult for non-native speakers or just slow readers, however. So most games offer a short preview of texts that hopefully can be understood instantly – but that can create more problems again because unclear options making the player character behave in unwanted ways or options leading to the exact same line of dialogue are frustrating, so frustrating even that one of the most downloaded mods for Fallout 4 replaced these short preview texts with a complete line of dialogue.
So, just to keep in mind, if you shorten your choice texts to be able to do something like time decisions, clarity is always more important than reading speed.
If we don't think that the characters are believable, chances are very low that we are interested in what they're saying.
Oftentimes when we talk about games, it's more about the illusion of choice. It's not about real choice all the time. …It doesn't have to be real agency either as long as it is believable.
I don't think that we need a completely advanced AI. We just need to give NPC the illusion of agency by creating more believable characters.
One way to do that is to give them their own agenda. Basically, to give them a life of their own and great example for that are the NPC conversations in the camp in Red Dead Redemption 2.
“Come on, Jack.”
“I'm hungry Mama.”
“We're all hungry son. Just try reading later.”
“Gotta get some to eat Arthur.”
So this scene would also happen without the players standing so close. But the last sentence is only triggered if player's are positioned close by and that really impacts.
The feeling that the NPCs are aware of my presence, they know that I'm there. So I as a player make a difference. But what is more important is that I'm not in the center of everything. The NPCs they have their own worries, they have their own thoughts and feelings, and they just talk to each other.
In real life, many things happen at once. You can't be everywhere or experience everything that's just not possible. In The Last Express a game released back in 1997 by Jordan Magna, the creator of Prince of Persia things happen whether you're there or not. The NPCs have their own schedule, they sleep, they get up, they go to the dining carriage, and they have conversations there. And if you don't go there, they still do that. It still happens, the story progresses anyway. And this really elevates NPCs from being marionettes only reacting to the player to believable acting personalities.
A simpler approach to make NPCs feel more alive is to just let them actively seek interaction with a player. And I would call that mixed initiative, with just a simple timer in the background paired with a few variable triggers, it can seem as if the characters have a will of their own because it was not predictable when they will do that.
So if you always ignore them, if you always decide against what they are proposing, they can also just leave you. They can tell you at some point, Okay, I'm done with you. If you don't listen to me, I’ll go my own way.
But to be honest, there was one thing that could lead to really awkward situations and that was because the characters didn't have a really good knowledge about the game world, or what has happened so far. …but a game that does that so much better is again Firewatch because they have a system where the characters know quite a lot about the game world. They know everything that has happened so far. And that really influences how they behave and what dialogue choices they have. In Firewatch dialogue lines are selected by a system that tries to find the line with the most matching requirements, so they don't have a traditional dialogue tree, they have a completely different system. And how that works is, I think best explained with an example. On day two of the game, the NPC Delilah would start a conversation with a player. But it makes a huge difference how much the player already told her about his wife Julia. If Delilah knows nothing about Julia, you get a pretty generic statement about relationships. But if the player had spoken about Julia and also told them that Delilah wasn’t feeling well they heard a more fitting response. “What does she have?” And the magic about the system is that players probably won't even notice its complexity. It's very invisible in a way. But still, it really makes me feel that all the choices I make matter, and they have consequences. And the NPC respond to me in a very natural way.
Without conflict, there is no drama.
Agency is the level of control the player has over the game world. It's the feeling that my choices matter. Usually NPCs have no agency. They respond in pre-programmed ways, and this makes them feel like marionettes, which destroys the illusion of interacting with another character.
Kuschke, Julius. 2019. Narrascope 2019 - Julius Kuschke - How Dialogue Systems Make or Break Player Engagement. U.S.: Narrascope 2019.
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