Tuesday, March 23, 2010

ME2, pt.6: Dialogue Disconnect

Time to move on from story... kind of.

My next target of curiosity is the wheel by which dialogue choices are made, and how it affects my emotional engagement with the story of Mass Effect 2. ME2 mostly succeeds because of its interesting characters and their story arcs, but in writing my thoughts, I note that my emotional engagement my character, Shepard, is rather absent. This seems partly a result of story and partly the result of dialogue mechanics. There are three aspects of dialogue that I want to discuss: dialogue disconnect, social letdown, and illusive freedom.

The Dialogue Disconnect
The dialogue wheel offers players text samples of what Shepard is about to say and has them make selections based on that preview. The system as implemented has a few notable problems:
  1. The samples are not necessarily representative of the actual line spoken.
  2. The samples are not necessarily representative of conversational intent.
  3. The samples are not necessarily representative of physical intent.
What results is Shepard often acting unpredictably, and sometimes with greatly undesirable consequence that seems avoidable, "if only it acted out the way I pictured." Following is an example that I noted in my personal blog after playing ME1, in which Shepard actually kills someone I had no intention of killing:
During a conversation with a character that did something horrible, the dialogue option, "You should die for the things you've done," appeared. I thought, "Yeah! I'm taking this guy to prison, but he should know how terrible I think his actions were." So I made the selection and watched in horror as my character shot him dead at point blank range.
Not all of the incidents end as extremely as this, but I was actually surprised by how often Shepard conversation went in a direction I never intended through my choices. The net result is a disconnect between me and Shepard, where I begin to devalue the time I spend making choices, and instead try to find another axis upon which to predict the results of conversation (e.g., acquiring Paragon / Renegade points).

My first instinct for an alternative would be to not represent dialogue at all, but only intent. For example, rather than have a line of dialogue directed at Bob that might read, "You should die for the things you've done," it would instead read, "Express disgust and murder Bob."

I know other players that were disappointed to suddenly see Shepard not being able to pursue sex when that intent was really there. Instead of two choices that push for or reject sex that read something like, "Come on, you know it's right," appearing disrespectful of the other character's wishes, and "I understand," appearing sympathetic yet unintentionally signally disinterest; the samples may instead read, "Express understanding but interest," and "Express understanding and disinterest."

Of course, there are other potential options the player might desire. For example, players may want to hold on the sex-talk, but be able to come back later, still interested. But options will always be limited no matter the approach.

One could complain that this approach seems more detached and I would understand, but I think this is already a hidden cost of not offering one-to-one dialogue, and I happen to think the cost of not being invested in Shepard at all is too high. Tending toward dialogue representative of the actual line spoken might seem like a reasonable alternative solution, but it still does nothing to give away physical intent or conversation intent through inflection and subsequent lines. The designers may have great reasons based on experience for why the above samples may not work, but it's fun to ponder about since the current system seemed to push me from accepting responsibility for actions I had unpredictable control over.


  1. enjoying reading these, but little to say other than thanks :)

  2. i don't play console games, but really enjoy vicariously seeing how far game design has come since I stopped paying attention.

    Also, your example of the dialog disconnect reminds me of reading chose your own adventure books. The illusion of control is frustrating!

  3. Tom: thanks for the note!!!
    annie: you too! I like your example. One could call this problem "preferable fantasy."

    Another interesting example of this is Gladiator. I hate the ending of Gladiator because the director teases the audience with the possibility that Maximus will escape with enough of his army to launch a coup to exact revenge on Commodus. Maximus fails, and instead Commodus stupidly decides to get into the ring with a poisoned Maximus, the ending of which was quite deflating. Note that little was said about the strength of the army or a coup in the movie, but Ridley Scott hinted at just enough story to entice my mind with possibilities, not unlike a particular option in a Choose Your Own Adventure book or Mass Effect. I fantasize an outcome then continue the journey, but if the hint you insert inspires a fantasy more enticing than the subsequent reality, you get disconnect. It's good for creators to be aware of this in stories, though the more fragmented your choices are (like a CYOA book or ME2), the harder it becomes to manage.

    Oh, and ME2 is available on PC. ;-)

  4. Another quick note: after re-reading my bit about "intent" being too detached, I actually wondered if putting the option in players' hands would also do the trick. They can, by default, read a bit of dialogue as it already exists, but pressing a toggle would replace text with the conversational and physical intent, and players could choose whichever they prefer.

  5. Or have physical intent in parenthesis following the dialogue as it exists... or if there isn't enough space, make your toggle button something you can do any time during a conversation so you can still see both aspects before choosing.

    ...Yes, I'm just now getting around to reading these. : )