April 9, 2010

Don’t count out dialog in games.

Someone please enlighten me: what is with indie game designers who come out with one visually pleasing game, then decide that they are the Lords of Game Design, with the authority to insist that every game must rely on visuals to communicate its underlying message?

I quote from a recent article by the Superbrothers, in which they privilege visuals and audio above text (they refer to text, somewhat inarticulately, as “talk”):

with videogames — a primarily audiovisual style of communication — talk can be disruptive, it can undermine. In this context, talk is noise.

This was the native language of videogames: synesthetic audiovisual expressing a meaning, where sound and image and logic come together and feel right, where the communication is nonverbal but nonetheless articulate, where you understand what’s going on the same way you ‘get’ the communication of a song, the same way you can be blown away by a painting or a piece of sculpture.

This argument is founded almost entirely on the unsupported assertion that words appeal to a tiny sliver of brain called “intellect,” while visuals and audio appeal to Everything Else. It’s almost as if the authors weren’t aware that songs have, you know, lyrics. Or that you can be blown away by prose and poetry, not just by a painting or a piece of sculpture.

Sure, video games are primarily audio-visual. So what? So are movies. And yet, dialog is terribly important in film. Imagine watching Citizen Kane with no dialog. You could probably get a vague handle on the plot, and who some of the characters were, and what they were feeling at any given point in time. But there’s no way that you’d come away from it understanding the central point of the film.

To be fair, the Superbrothers do suggest that text has some place in games: it’s just such a tiny place that it might not as well exist. It is dangerous to go alone. According to the Superbrothers, this phrase “tickles the intellect just enough for it to stir, but not enough to irritate it.” What an oversensitive intellect these fellows must have! What would irritate the intellect, I wonder? A second clause? Character development? God only knows what would happen to the Superbrothers if they played a game like Planescape: Torment. They might suffer a full-on brain hemorrhage.

Let me be blunt: some ideas are too abstract to explain economically with visuals alone. I’m making a game right now that explores subtle philosophical questions. Is the mind something separate from the body, or is it purely our experience of the workings of the brain? Can we trust our minds? Does God exist, and if so, are we bound to obey him? It’s a little difficult to come up with a discrete “synesthetic audiovisual” representing, for instance, the idea that the brain invents memories and rationalizations to make sense of other things we experience as real or true. These simply aren’t issues you can address by generating a world with mushrooms, turtles, blocks and coins and letting the player run around stomping on things.

The image is a blunt instrument–the written word, a scalpel. If games are ever to be a vehicle for seriously considering our lives, the state of the world, and the truth of our existence, we cannot just casually toss out the window our most subtle tools for exploration of those ideas. We’ll just end up crunched up against a telephone pole that way.

  • mageus

    Personally text depends on the game being played. On some games the text does add a certain feel to it that is lacking when it is left out. Yet in other games adding the text to it only takes away from the brilliance of the game.

  • Amos

    I think the superbrothers are right in the sense that, where possible, it is best to represent an idea audiovisually in a game: to show instead of telling. However, as you point out, there are many situations where such things cannot express what you want to say, and that is where text shines. Aside from interactivity, the greatest strength of video games as an artform is their ability to simultaneously bring together pretty much every other artform. They are each useful in some places, and not as useful in others. Throwing any one out completely would be a huge mistake.

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  • As Amos suggests, I think this proposition is considered to be the game equivalent of the writing adage “show don’t tell”.

    But this new axiom does seem to miss the really quite obvious point that there have been many good games which are noted and applauded for their narrative and dialogue.

    I’m not sure I would argue the image is a blunt instrument – I think the image can tell remarkably subtle stories in the right hands.

  • If the ideas are too abstract to be explained by graphics, maybe they don’t really belong in a game context? Maybe they’re more suited to a movie or book, or IF.

    Personally I feel like “good enough for Doom/Super Mario Bros/Pac-Man, good enough for me”.

    For all the text in e.g Oblivion, it’s merely flowery window-dressing that could just as easily be replaced by bullet-points: “talk to A, kill B, go to C and collect D”. I’d prefer such an honest approach, since the real information — the salient facts — would be conveyed without any annoying pretension at trying to draw me into the stupid diegesis.

  • The Superbrothers are wrong to suggest that any way is inherently the best, but they have a point: the more text is in a game, the less of a game it is. Interactive fiction is the border case here, in the grey area between game and literature. Planescape: Torment is a wonderful game, but it works more like a book and less like a game than, say, Chime. That’s not a value judgement, just an observation – I love Planescape.

    “It’s a little difficult to come up with a discrete “synesthetic audiovisual” representing, for instance, the idea that the brain invents memories and rationalizations to make sense of other things we experience as real or true.”

    Isn’t that the entire message of Braid? The text in Braid nudges the player towards this interpretation, but the idea is primarily expressed in images, audio and equally importantly game mechanics.

    I don’t think games should avoid text on principle, as the Superbrothers do. On the other hand, it’s true that the native language of games is neither spoken nor written. The article suggests the native language of games is seen and heard, but that’s not it either. The native language of games is *played*. Images, audio, text and controls all facilitate that play.

  • cstern

    @raigan: I agree that functional gameplay matters like how to proceed are oftentimes best taken care of via visual cues. I’m not really talking about that in this piece, though. I’m talking about how to convey big, central ideas. I think visuals should support theme whenever possible, but aren’t adequate to convey it alone an efficient way of getting particular ideas across in some instances, particularly where those ideas are complicated and abstract.

  • The Superbrothers’ theory can be useful, but it’s by no means holistic. Think of it this way: It’s a couple of smart, creative guys telling you why they like certain kinds of games. The point isn’t to accept or reject what they say like it’s been chipped into stone tablets. It’s to think about what it means and apply what you learn to your own theories, even if “what you learned” is that you hate everything they say 😉

    Personally, I like “talky” games–especially dialogue-driven RPGs–but I don’t find my preferences irreconcilable with the bulk of the Superbrothers’ argument. In games like Planescape, Baldurs Gate, Mass Effect and Dragon Age, I think there’s an argument to be made that the talk is the rock. In all of these, the creative intention–the “point” of the game–is to tell a story, to create a world, to transport a player to a place with rules and conventions all its own. Though combat always plays an obligatory role, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that in these, dialogue [Em]is[/Em] the game–it’s the most immediate, direct tool we’re given to explore the fictional edifice.

    But even while dialogue is the main component of the game design, it’s still just a part of a whole. Just as important is the art design, the animation, etc. Some games have minigames. Some have codexes. But all of this is still (presumably) situated around a harmonious creative intention. And so, I’ll argue, the Superbrother’s theory of the game-as-audio-visual-sculpture holds (even if they, themselves, would dissagre with me).

  • I guess my argument was just: why do you need “big” ideas in a game at all? Shouldn’t the game mechanics themselves — the rules and simulated world — BE the big central idea of any game?

    Otherwise, why not use a medium which is more conducive to communicating such ideas — if the most important aspect of a game is the ideas/text/fiction rather than the game systems themselves, then it shouldn’t be a game in the first place. Those sorts of story-driven games are akin to the film adaptations of Long Day’s Journey Into Night or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe — they’re not really proper “film”, they’re theater transposed onto a different medium. Similarly many games end up being weak films transposed into game form.

    I just don’t see the need for ideas when all they are is make-believe — if they exist only in text and not as an inherent part of the game world, then they’re not part of the game proper anyway.

    With your Citizen Kane example, I think this is a common mistake — the whole “point” of the film itself (disregarding art films or documentaries or whatever) is to present the plot, to relay the narrative to the audience, and you’re right that you would need words to understand it.

    But it doesn’t follow that the same applies to games; the “point” of a game can’t be the plot, because you could easily remove the plot and still have a perfectly playable game. The central part of any game must be the game mechanics, the behaviours and rules of the simulated world, and any plot/narrative is useless or at least unnecessary.

    A more fitting example if you want to compare Citizen Kane would be the importance of the cinematography or soundtrack to the film — neither is central but both are used in service of the central focus, the plot. Similarly, narrative in games can play a supporting role, and I would argue that if the narrative is of central importance than it’s no longer a game, it’s an interactive story of some sort.

    “Does God exist, and if so, are we bound to obey him?” is a concept, a topic that is biased towards print or film or any medium that lets you convey ideas through words. It would be just as difficult to explore this topic in a game as it would be to try and convey the sublime beauty of Go or Chess in print or film — each medium has strengths and weaknesses, and the experience of playing a game is very abstract.

  • cstern

    If you define games as something inherently not narrative-focused, then yeah, obviously you’re going to reach the conclusion that narrative is unnecessary to the medium. But I would argue that your underlying premise is faulty. Sure, the thing that makes games unique is interactivity. That doesn’t mean that game mechanics are everything, any more than the visual nature of games means graphics are everything. It’s silly and reductionist to say that all games must use the same creative tools and focus on the same thing.

    Shadow of the Colossus is a brilliant, wonderful game with a very minimal narrative and almost no dialog whatsoever. That is a game that gets huge mileage out of its visual presentation and its game mechanics. You can probably name a bunch of other games that accomplish something similar. But so what? What if I want a game where I can interact with characters in some way other than pushing them, pulling them, racing them, riding them, or killing them? What if I want a game that explores personalities, or major issues? Games can do those things, and do them in ways that literature and film can’t. A dialog tree, after all, is itself a time-tested game mechanic. But it needs text to work.

  • “What if I want a game that explores personalities, or major issues? Games can do those things, and do them in ways that literature and film can’t. A dialog tree, after all, is itself a time-tested game mechanic. But it needs text to work.”

    I agree that this is a huge and amazing *potentiality*, but aside from Facade I don’t know of any games which have actually engaged with the narrative in any real way.

    Unless you’re modeling those personalities/major issues explicitly in the game systems, then they are merely window-dressing and not part of the actual game per-se. And if you *are* modelling such things in the game, I suspect that there will always be a visual non-text-based UI metaphor that’s going to be much more effective/direct at conveying the game state to the player (i.e graphs or something, in the case of personalities and relationships).

    I guess my point is: until we have natural language processing, it’s impossible to argue that the story of a game will ever be an integral part of a game the way that it is in narrative films.

    Until the game itself can deal with and work on the narrative, why bother *pretending* to make it more complex than that?

    Most games have an understanding of the narrative which rarely goes beyond lock-key type behaviours — the game itself doesn’t comprehend the story in any real way, the “story” as it exists in the simulated world is a much more simplistic model (i.e talk to A, kill B). Which prose isn’t necessary, icons or bullet-points could just as easily convey the salient information (i.e the game state and the relationships between actions and results: you need to talk to X to unlock door Y).

    Dialog trees: digitized choose-your-own-adventures — maybe you could argue that such books are a type of game, but they’re hardly of the same ilk as the “pure” games I mentioned (Doom, Pac-Man, Mario, etc.).

    I’m not saying games should or must focus on the same things, I’m just pointing out that if the story itself doesn’t live in the game rules/systems, then it’s not properly part of the game — it’s like a movie poster or album art, it is packaging which might inform the work or flavour the experience of the audience, but isn’t an integral part of the work itself; the narrative is isolated from the game world and thus isn’t part of the “intrinsic essence” of game-qua-game. Or whatever..

  • Also, dialogue trees absolutely don’t need text to work; each node in the tree has 0 or more “actions” (an action is anything that changes the state of the world: maybe you anger someone or are given some item, etc.), you could use pictograms or icons or some other non-text-based method to depict the consequences of the actions.

    I personally don’t even bother reading the dialogue in such trees because it doesn’t actually matter: you can just mash A and when everyone shuts up, you consult your quest menu for the salient facts — the facts that matter to the game world.

    So long as the actual “dialogue” in the tree isn’t understood by the game and can’t be manipulated or worked on by the game systems, it has no actual gameplay-based use and it’s just fluff.

    The “gameplay” of a dialogue tree is actually just the player performing a depth-first or breadth-first or whatever type of search trying to find the node of the tree which moves things forward.. not very interesting 🙁

  • On reflection, I had a think about what Superbrothers were saying and they are right.

    There is too much talk in a lot of AAA games – I’m playing Lost Planet at present and it does… go on. Some games can’t shut their yap when you just want to get on and play. Particularly if the story is drivel and then it *is* noise, noise that obstructs fun. Not every game is Thief, System Shock or Half-Life when it comes to optimised and well-integrated narrative.

    I don’t think they were really saying that text and yap-yap is out completely – just that there is a little problem here of bloat, of a default position that a game must carry many words to provide meaning. To condemn some of our greatest game works to the dustbin simply because they had more than ten words in them would be foolish on an epic scale.

  • Fireblasto

    Look, at the end of the day everyone has their different views and opinions. And, also at the end of the day, this is subject that you all are generally right about. There are different ways to do a game, but it depends on what the developer wants, and what the market wants. Simple business. Why are people here making games?

    1. They enjoy making them, self-explanatory.
    2. They make them because it is a business opportunity ( take psy arena 2) Games are here to make MONEY!

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  • Incidentally, I’m not really sure what the Superbrothers thesis is; my interpretation was “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”, applied to games.

  • mageus

    I have been thinking on this subject over the weekend and found an interesting area. Anyone who has ever played God of War knows that there is a complex storyline within the game. Now even though the gameplay is exceptional, would it really have been such a masterpeice if the storyline had not been included it would have just been a button smashing game. On the otherside of the argument you have a game such as Star Wars Battlefront. I know it is not a world class game but stay with me. The game uses clips and some storyline from the movies that unless you have seen and know every movie they only serve as filler and have no real place in the games. So, using dialogue in a game is dependent on the game, and what will work in one game does not work in another so to say that dialogue has a place in games or doesn’t have a place in games is pointless and shows a lack of complex imagination

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  • As Amos suggests, I think this proposition is considered to be the game equivalent of the writing adage “show don’t tell”.

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