Choose Your Language

Monday, 18 July 2011

The Art of Conversation (POLL: How Will You Be Playing?)

How much time will a player want to spend talking to a character when playing a module? That's just one question I consider when writing a conversation for one of my characters. This question, however, soon opens into a branch of others:-

1) Should a conversation be succinct or verbose?
2) Should there be many options to choose from or only a few?
3) Is there an option to avoid conversation altogether?
4) Is a conversation even the correct response in a given situation?

Keep To The Point

My wife likes playing adventure games, and I like to join in now and then. Recently, we were playing "The Longest Journey" (which came highly recommended within the adventuring community, scoring around 90%), and I found myself disappointed with the rather wordy and often unnecessary crass comments made by the characters in this game. I suppose some people may consider the responses as "background filling" and "gritty reality", but both my wife and I found them somewhat boring and tedious to work through just to get to the piece of information we needed.

Don't misunderstand me, I enjoy some background conversations, especially if they help me to understand something about the gameplay. However, I believe there is a definite distinction between being verbose (I would even say "babbling on") as I found in The Longest Journey, and giving the player a useful background in as fewer words as possible.

In Better The Demon, background information in conversations is kept to a minimum to avoid "data overload" for the player just trying to get around the environment. However, when it has been "neccessary", I have tried to allow a player to choose options that appeal to them or allow an early exit if possible. Furthermore, I include books (using my Readable Books format) that also cover different sections of background that players can read or ignore as they choose.

Avoid Too Many Choices

Another personal misgiving that I have encountered in many games, is when a conversation starts to branch out in more directions than I can easily remember ... or really need. I know the idea is that the game is offering as much "choice" as the player wants, but there is a danger in this design. For example, many conversations are designed to help move the plot forward and set "flags" along the way to ensure the game moves along as it should. However, if a conversation is both tedious to read and has many branches and options to go down, a critical plot changing flag may be lost somewhere deep within one of the conversation's many branches and be easily missed.

In my opinion, forcing a player to take a certain conversation option to locate a critical piece of information to set a flag and move the game forward can be a real game stopper. Therefore, each option that a player is given should "go somewhere" and not require the player to have to repeat the conversation just to find the option they needed. Of course, there is a proviso here, in that a conversation line that is obviously different from another is not to be considered a "dead option". The guideline here, is to keep conversations focussed on the topic at hand and directly related to what the player is doing or really wants to know. As an example, The Longest Journey also fails in this area, as it often has options where a player can ask characters about each other, and even about themselves! I don't want to read about this sort of thing. This information should be obvious just from my interaction with them. The problem is, as a player, we are forced to follow these lines of conversation because we do not know if the game hides an important piece of information buried deeply down the many layers of conversation.

In Better The Demon, choices are kept to a minimum and cater for skills and/or different plot paths only. In other words, all choices will be relevant to what the PC needs to know, all be it approached by different paths, as opposed to different paths leading to verbose uninteresting babblings ... unless this is a personality trait of the NPC, which the player is trying to "defeat". The point being, the conversation choices will be obvious as to their effectiveness and importance to the situation, and the player will not be overloaded with choices that lead nowhere, or simply try to impart spurious information.

I Don't Want To Talk!

Sometimes, a player may feel like they know what they need to do, and talking is not even an option they want to entertain. In my opionion, if possible, a game should be able to adjust to a player's preferences. In many situations, "talking" should be the default course of interaction between player and non-player character (NPC), to allow the player to flesh out their adventure by learning more about the world in which they are adventuring. However, if during the course of their adventure they have already drawn a conclusion about an NPC and believe a fight to the death is the answer, then hopefully, a system can be included to allow the player to avoid a conversation, be it as direct combat or an option in the conversation simply to say something along the lines of "Attack Mr X". And what about players playing evil PCs, where "killing" and "taking" what they need from an NPC is easier than "talking" and "doing a task" for them?

Now, I am sure any builder worth their salt will recognise that building a module that caters for both good and evil aligned PCs is extremely difficult - especially with respect to such things as conversations and providing the player with the information they need. After all, what happens when a player playing an evil PC kills an NPC before some critical information has been imparted to the player? Regular readers of this blog will know I have touched upon this problem in the past.

In Better The Demon, I have taken as much care as possible to allow as much choice as possible, including the "total avoidance" path wherever possible. This has taken extra time and consideration, and can only be applied to around 90% of conversations. Even then, a player set out to "kill" rather than "talk" will lose out on some XP, simply because they would end up "killing the goose that laid the golden egg". However, for the remaining 10% of conversations where "talking" is required, I have tried to offer a more succinct path where possible.

How Did They Know I was Here?

The last consideration problematic for RPG's in particular, is taking into account actions made by the PC that the builder of the module may not have initially considered, such as a PC being invisible. This is a particularly awkward problem to address, but one that needs consideration if, as a game designer, we wish to ensure logical flow in the game. After all, if a player has taken the time and trouble to become invisible so as to try to sneak past an NPC, what happens if this NPC has been set to "talk" to the PC when they are within range? If the NPC suddenly runs up to the PC and begins a conversation, the logical flow of the game is spoiled.

There is not much to add to this, except to highlight it as a potential issue for all builders and that I have tried to adopt a system to cater for this within my own module, Better The Demon.

The Last Word

The final word on this, however, depends on the sort of game you are trying to build, or, as a player, want to play. However, I do believe that the above guidelines are important for all games, simply because they avoid some of the pitfalls about writing in general. Key aspects such as the following will help to keep the pace of the game flowing:

a) Write about what you know.
b) Use as few words as possible.
c) Show, don't tell.

I have read modules that boast many thousands of words in them as a sign of "depth" and as if a sign of returned hours of "enjoyment" ... which I do hope is the case. I think that as long as the number of words reflects diversion in converstion and viable choices, then the number count can only be a good thing. On the other hand, if it is meant to represent simple length of conversations, then, like The Longest Journey adventure game I describe above, I would be extremely disappointed and may find my eyes glazing over to the point where I would miss a clue at best ... or stop playing altogether.

Have Your Say!

Well, I've waffled on long enough about conversations in this post, and would now like to hear about your own experiences, whether as a player: Tell me of your worst or best experiences with game conversations. Or as a builder: How do you plan your own conversations?

Also, please take your time to answer the poll question this time around: Very simply: (Assuming you will be playing my module) How Will You Be Playing? With respect to single-player (SP), multi-player (MP) or both? And also with respect to a good aligned or an evil aligned PC?


Jclef said...

Yeah, conversations are a lot like areas to me. If they're big, that's fine, but make it enjoyable to walk/read through. When I see someone boasting about the word count in their module, I usually cringe a bit - only because I know what it's like to do what you love but to the detriment of your own creation (MS and its too many "empty" areas). :P

Personally, I like to Play games. I don't mind reading, but make those words drive my emotions and actions then be gone with ye!

My approach to writing conversations is similar to writing a poem. Each line needs to be compact, pungent and keep the player's interest - that's a really hard thing to accomplish!

Kamal said...

In Path of Evil I made talking with companions almost entirely optional. (there was one quest that you had to ask a companion about, but you could ask them before they joined the party). You could ask them about any quest, and what they thought of other companions, but only if you cared to. They might also step into regular npc conversations but that was rare.

Crimmor will allow more of these general conversations, but that's because a design goal is a living breathing city.

Really it depends on how streamlined you want to make things for the pc. Having npcs that just answer yes/no, tell you exactly what you need leads to bland npcs. Yes/no type dialog is fine in action RPGs like diablo. And it's fine for inconsequential npcs like "generic armor merchant" or if you're going for old school, but players normally want to see some personality in major npcs, and that means their should be some showing of what they think about things.

Lance Botelle (Bard of Althéa) said...

Hi Jclef,

Your response and experiences sound similar to my own. :) Hopefully, I will have the conversations about right then.

Hi Kamal,

I have mixed feelings about companion conversations. In the OC I made the effort to talk to them on occassion, but I did not really feel as though it was part of the game, simply because as they were in my party, it felt like I was talking to myself - even though I know they were companions and not extra PCs.

General comments from companions I think is a *great* idea and is something I will be doing as much as I can do, without overloading the player with spurious info. These general conversations can be exited immediately though and are supplied purely for atmosphere.

I agree that there should be a frugal use of simple yes/no answers, unless that is all that is required.


Quillmaster said...

While playing, I prefer a break from combat now and then, and a conversation can provide such a break. Having said that, I like such conversations to feel like they have a purpose. As a builder I try to do just that.

I don't like minimilistic conversations. I prefer them to give some soul and character to the person I'm talking to. Merchants who you simply address with "Let me see your wares" in my mind miss a golden opportunity to further immerse the player. By that I don't mean every merchant should recite War & Peace before opening shop, far from it, but they should have a unique greeting that defines their personality a little. No matter how tiny, a little effort in this regard works wonders. You can add flavour to merchants with just a couple of lines. I think it's essential if you want the player to believe they are in an alternate world.

It's also nice to have villians say a line or two occasionally rather than just blindly running around bashing everything marked as hostile. It can make a combat situation far more intimidating, and as a result, more memorable.

I suppose I'm guilty of a high word count with Chapter One of The Relbonian Chronicles, but it is a story driven mod, so in many ways that's unavoidable. I'm hoping sequels can tone down on that a little since the scene is now set.

I guess the preference comes from your personal background experience of roleplaying. As you are well aware, I am an avid tabletop roleplayer who thrives on giving my character a personality. As such, I find it nice for NPCs I encounter to have a personality too, otherwise I may as well just play Doom ;)

Lance Botelle (Bard of Althéa) said...

Hi Quillmaster/Geoff,

I understand your approach, and I think your own style is not too disimilar to my own, with yourself perhaps adding just a few more words than I might. ;) However, that is as much to do with variable handling than anything else.

However, you hit the nail on the head when you say "unique greetings" is one thing as opposed to a "war and peace" spurious background added to give so called "depth" which many games like "The Longest journey" (that I mentioned) appear to be guilty.

I like to know the nature of the NPC I am speaking to within a couple of lines - and thereafter allow me to get to the nitty gritty of the conversation while they remain in character. NPC's going off on a tangent is what I dislike.

Again, I fully appreciate story additional in conversations(when kept tight), but too much can leave the player a little daunted if they do more reading than playing ... unless that is exactly what they wanted and is highlighted in the module description. I am like Jclef when it comes to that, I prefer to "play within a story" rather than "read a story with little play". (I am paraphrasing Jclef here. I hope I have done him justice.)

The main problem we have coming from tabletop (which as you know I have done so too), is that as DM's we can adlib easily - and the spoken interaction between players and DM can pass very quickly and easily as opposed to a similar length conversation that has to be read from a computer screen.

As far as I can see, it's all about keeping the writing tight, interesting and engaging for the player.


Quillmaster said...

Yep, keeping it tight while retaining personality is obviously the goal to strive for... reminds me of a conversation escape route I wrote in a single line... "Shut yer cake'ole!" lol.

Lance Botelle (Bard of Althéa) said...

Hi Geoff,

I hope to encounter that conversation one day ... assuming it's in your NWN1 module. :)


Master Changer said...

Hi Lance, Master Changer here.

As someone who loves story and characterization, I definitely think it's not an either-or choice: either constant tl;dr (Too Long; Didn't Read) or bland, cookie-cutter NPCs. Just like any piece of writing, a few sparse conversation lines can be immersive, giving you a deep sense of the character, or they can break immersion as easily as if the character were holding up a "not yet finished" sign. The difference, unsurprisingly, is writing skill.

When I was DM'ing, I had a lot of fun striking up conversations with PCs who had assumed the NPCs around them were empty heads. I always found the interaction went best when I first asked myself, "Who is this Non-Player Character, really? How does where they live, recent events, and so on affect how they will relate to the PCs?" This way, conversation lines were consistent and effective.

Also, just like in DM'ing, timing is everything. A conversation line timed properly with a spawn, with maybe a VFX or two thrown in for atmosphere, can tell a story in itself.

Finally, a conversation has different impact depending on the setting. Jclef is too modest about the "empty areas" of Misery Stone; I don't disagree that the areas may have benefited from a greater presence of creature and/or placeables, but the areas themselves told a wonderfully nightmarish story. Such evocative environments encourage a certain frame of mind for the player to receive your words, whether as a ray of hope amid the darkness or as a blight upon an idyllic scene.

I know that you're already thinking about this kind of holistic approach from your conversations about your puzzles and mini-games; thinking about the characterization of the puzzle's designer is one way to get at this kind of integration.

I'm curious to continue reading your ruminations!

Lance Botelle (Bard of Althéa) said...

Hi MC,

Good to hear from you. :)

I understand what you are saying. From my experience, I would rather read too little than too much though. Not to say that too little is a good thing, it's just that if it is going to be bad, I would rather get it over and done with. ;)

I too like the idea of adding some effects during a conversation, but they may be a little far between encounters.

I hope I do manage to get the balance right ... and time will tell I guess.

Do keep reading and dropping your comments. They are most welcome.