Narrative Analysis: Next Steps
As the primary method of communication between characters, dialogue is an essential component in almost every narrative. At its best, dialogue propels the story forward while providing insight into the characters and setting; at its worst, it pulls audiences out of the narrative, reminding them that they are being told a story. Dialogue is also one of the trickiest things to write well, as audiences have spent their lives developing an ear for conversations and will notice when they ring false. Good writers balance audience expectations with the narrative’s demands, ensuring that dialogue develops the story and its characters without disrupting its flow.
Video games incorporate dialogue for the same reasons as other forms of narrative: to advance the plot or develop the characters and setting. Video games also incorporate dialogue for an additional reason, unique to the medium: to explain the mechanics and controls. Occasionally, games will integrate the existence of the player and their controller into the narrative, but the majority of games will have characters explain the mechanics without explicitly acknowledging they’re in a game. In either case, mechanical dialogue performs a unique function and has its own set of rules as a result. Dialogue that doesn’t perform this function, or narrative dialogue, serves the same purpose as it does in other forms of narrative media. As a result, game writers must strike that same balance between realism and efficiency to meet the demands of both the audience and the story.
Realistic vs. Real
Game Discussed: Half-Life 2 (Valve)
To satisfy an audience’s desire for authentic-sounding dialogue, writers must first recognize the difference between ‘realistic’ and real. Allison Amend of the Gotham Writers’ Workshop summarizes the disparity as follows: “…[The] realism of good dialogue is something of an illusion…Fictional dialogue needs to have more impact, focus, relevance, than ordinary conversation.“1 Real dialogue—the exchanges people have in real life—is often unfocused and meandering, peppered with speech disfluencies like ‘um’ and ‘ah’. Protracted conversations also have a way of drifting from the topic at hand, leaving the initial discussion unresolved. While dialogue that incorporates these elements can be technically accurate, it risks boring audiences who expect stories to move at an efficient pace.
One example of a game that balances authenticity and efficiency in its dialogue is the first-person shooter Half-Life 2 (Valve, 2004). In Half-Life 2, players control Gordon Freeman, a scientist-slash-silent protagonist who has been in stasis for decades. Shortly after waking, Gordon is reunited with two of his former colleagues, Barney Calhoun and Dr. Isaac Kliener. At the same time, he meets Alyx, the daughter of another colleague. Together, the three of them have been working on an important experiment, and Gordon has arrived just in time to help. The following dialogue is an exchange from shortly after his arrival:
Barney: We can’t keep [Gordon] here long, Doc. It’ll jeopardize everything we’ve worked for.
Alyx: Don’t worry, he’s coming with me.
Dr. Kliener: That’s right, Barney. This is a red-letter day: we’ll inaugurate the new teleporter with a double transmission.
Barney: You mean it’s working? For real this time? Because I still have nightmares about that cat.
Dr. Kliener: Now, now, there is nothing to be worried about—
Alyx: What cat?
Dr. Kliener: —we’ve made major strides since then. Major strides.
Alyx: What cat?
Barney: Doc, since he’s not taking the streets, you might as well get him out of his civvies.
Dr. Kliener: What? Oh dear, you’re right, I almost forgot.
The dialogue above walks the line between authenticity and efficiency by borrowing familiar aspects of conversational speech while advancing the narrative. The first half of the exchange, which centers around the problem of Gordon’s presence, is purely focused on advancing the plot. The conversation switches gears when Barney brings up ‘the cat’. In real life, introducing such loaded subject matter would almost certainly derail the discussion, as Alyx attempts to do, but Dr. Kliener and Barney keep the conversation on track. This portion of exchange not only maintains narrative momentum but also develops the characters. Dr. Kliener is goal-oriented, even in the face of danger; Barney is practical but cautious; Alyx is curious yet out of the loop. Each of these three characters has a distinct outlook on the same set of circumstances, and their unique attitudes come through in their dialogue. Such well-paced, focused dialogue keeps audiences invested in the story, even though it is not a fully accurate representation of real life.
Game Discussed: Persona 5 (ATLUS)
Another element of realistic dialogue is the concept of voice. In the real world, people’s speech patterns can reveal a great deal about them, whether it’s where they’re from (accent), their level of education (vocabulary), or their mood (emotion). Good dialogue utilizes these same elements to give individual characters their own voices, setting them apart from other speakers in the conversation. “Every person in life speaks in a somewhat unique fashion,” says Amend. “[The] same should be true for fictional characters.”2 When characters have powerful voices, audiences will even be able to recognize their dialogue without attribution, which is especially important in forms of media without voice-acting, like printed books, magazine articles, and early video games.
The role-playing game Persona 5 (Atlus, 2016) provides several solid examples of characters with distinct voices. In Persona 5, players are in control of Joker, a high school boy who can enter another dimension to change the hearts of criminals. By the game’s midpoint, Joker has recruited three friends—Yusuke, Ryuji, and Ann—to help him in his quest, but their work is threatened when they’re discovered by a classmate. The following dialogue shows their reactions to the discovery:
Yusuke: You were careless. I don’t think you truly understood how high the stakes were. Anything to say, Ryuji?
Ryuji: Why’re you singlin’ me out? Ann got recorded too, y’know!
Ann: I’m so sorry…
Ryuji: Hey, what should we do? That girl’s got dirt on us…
Yusuke: A recording seems to be insufficient evidence, though. And even with that, there’s no way they could prove our methods.
Ann: Considering who we’re dealing with, I think it might be a trap.
With just two lines apiece, Yusuke, Ryuji, and Ann reveal their distinct personalities through their voices. Yusuke speaks in a formal and deliberate style, conveying intelligence and authority. In contrast, Ryuji has a much more relaxed speaking style, relying heavily on contractions and idioms. Between them is Ann, whose word choices convey a lack of self-confidence. When some of these character elements change as the story progresses, their speaking patterns change accordingly. Just like real people, characters should have the ability to grow, and their voices should grow with them.
Game Discussed: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (CD Projekt Red)
To add another layer of realism to dialogue while maintaining narrative momentum, writers can have their characters communicate through subtext. In dialogue, subtext is the hidden meaning beneath the words the characters are actually saying. This type of dual-level communication adds realism to dialogue because it is so common in real-life speech. “People often don’t say what they mean,” Amend writes regarding subtext. “Sometimes they say the opposite of what they mean. They hide insults in sugary language (or sugary feelings in insults). They don’t listen. They mishear. They don’t answer. They remain silent.”3 Each of the responses (or non-responses) has a place in realistic dialogue, as they can develop characters without sacrificing momentum. When used properly, they can be even more effective than straightforward dialogue, as the additional layers create more opportunities for development. However, too much subtext runs the risk of alienating audiences, however, as they will grow tired of parsing every conversation for hidden meanings. Like everything else in realistic dialogue, the key is to hit the right balance.
The action-RPG The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (CD Projekt Red, 2013) uses subtext in dialogue when the characters are struggling to discuss painful emotional issues. In The Witcher 3, players control Geralt, a magically-enhanced bounty hunter with a history of complicated relationships. When circumstances reunite him with one of his former lovers, Triss, Geralt struggles with the glib attitude she has about their history. The following dialogue is an excerpt from the resulting conversation:
Geralt: Knew a man once who reacted to everything, especially adversity, by mocking it.
Triss: Healthy attitude. Must’ve lived long.
Geralt: Came a day he lost both his legs in battle. He shrugged, said it was better that way — he’d never feel pain in them again.
Triss: I understand him perfectly.
Geralt: I know. Thing is, he was lying to himself.
Triss: I think he just didn’t have much of a choice…
Geralt: We all lie sometimes. But lying to yourself is running away, whereas there’s really nowhere to run.
Triss: Sometimes you have to escape to forget. Your friend might’ve dwelled on his lost legs. But it’s not like by grieving he could’ve grown another pair.
On the surface, Geralt and Triss are engaged in a conversation about a legless man, but on another level, they’re talking about Triss’s inability to confront her own feelings. Geralt brings up the story because he sees Triss using the same defense mechanisms as the legless man; Triss rebuts by arguing with Geralt’s understanding of the man in the story rather than his understanding of her. This gives them both the protection of plausible deniability. If either person says something that cuts the other too close, they can retreat by saying they were talking about the man from the story. Were it not for that layer of protection, the conversation would be too uncomfortable, and neither character would be able to air their feelings. Ironically, the only way they can talk to each other about things that matter is by pretending to talk about something else entirely. In other words, it’s only through subtext that they can really communicate.
Writing realistic dialogue can be difficult for writers in every medium, and video games are no exception. Players are more familiar with speech than other storytelling conventions, making them much more likely to notice when a story’s dialogue feels off. To satisfy players’ desire for authentic dialogue, video game writers utilize the same tools as other writers, balancing realism and efficiency with tools like voice and subtext. If used properly, these guidelines ensure well-paced, relatable dialogue that players will remember long after the game has ended.
1Amend, Allison and the Gotham Writers’ Workshop. Gotham Writers’ Workshop: Writing Fiction – Dialogue (p. 131). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
2Amend, Allison and the Gotham Writers’ Workshop. Gotham Writers’ Workshop: Writing Fiction – Dialogue (p. 139). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
3Amend, Allison and the Gotham Writers’ Workshop. Gotham Writers’ Workshop: Writing Fiction – Dialogue (p. 144). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
* Reference Script (Half-Life 2): vegetarian_onos. “Half-Life 2 – Game Script.” GameFaqs, 2007.
** Reference Script (The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt): Shotgunnova (P. Summers). “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – Game Script.” GameFaqs, 2016.
*** Reference Footage (Half-Life 2): Bolloxed. “Half-Life 2: Full Game Walkthrough.” YouTube, 2015.
**** Reference Footage (Persona 5): SphericAlpha. “PERSONA 5 – Gameplay & Walkthrough Part 22 – Team Dinner! (No Commentary).” YouTube, 2017.
***** Reference Footage (The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt): CJake3. “Triss Working a Rat Catcher in Novigrad: Geralt’s Quest for Rat Shit (Witcher 3).” YouTube, 2017.