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:
- The samples are not necessarily representative of the actual line spoken.
- The samples are not necessarily representative of conversational intent.
- The samples are not necessarily representative of physical intent.
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.