How incidental dialogue can make or break a game world

‘I just rolled with Polly Adler, the sweetest smelling dockfrock in Skinmarket. I guess her perfume is still clinging to me’

Don’t worry dear readers, i’m not boasting of a sexual conquest, i’m quoting the newest Thief game. The first time I heard this line I chuckled, it was rather funny, the second time I heard it, the smile was starting to fade, fast forward to the twentieth time and I’m beginning to wonder if dear Polly needs a weekend to recover from her work. This one line was said with such frequency that it completely removed me from the game world and was instead wondering how the game was programmed to allow for half the city to be boasting about their conquest of Polly.


Every man, women and child in this game has been with Polly Adler.

Incidental dialogue in games is more important than most would give it credit for. It’s the little bit of added spice to a games world that makes it feel real. Small vignettes of peoples lives, folks sharing a tale or two over a ale in the inn or the hush whispers from people aware of who you are and why you should be feared. Acting outside the main story line of a game, incidental dialogue can range from a passing pleasantries to overhearing entire life stories. A good tidbit of passing dialogue like this will have you thinking about it, long after it’s finished, a bad line will have you scratching your head at who thought that was a good thing to write.

Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls and Fallout games are among kings when it comes to incidental dialogue. The game takes note of the things the player has done and has others mention it, some will come up right to your face and congratulate you, others will spit venom at the very mention of your name. Any one who played any of the Dark Brotherhood mission’s in either Skyrim or Oblivion will know that after an assassination is complete (provided you meet certain criteria in the missions themselves) that townsfolk will usually say a thing or two about the murder. After the quest Accidents happen if the player goes in sword unshethed and ready for the targets throat, the townsfolk will later be heard saying: “Oh, have you heard? Old Baenlin is dead! They say he was murdered! Right in his own home!” but if the player is sneaky and cunning and makes the death look like an accident the you’ll be greeted by “Oh, have you heard? About old Baenlin? It was a horrible accident. A stuffed minotaur head fell off the wall and crushed him to death! Tragic…”,


Stuffed and mounted Minotaur head related deaths are becoming an epidemic.

 By adjusting a few lines of dialogue the player is made to feel that they had a lasting affect on the world as a whole. It’s one reason why the Bethesda games give the player titles such as Dragon born, the Hero of Kvatch or Courier, they build up a sort of mythos around the players actions, making each player feel special. Of course these games had their flaws when it came to generic NPCs and their dialogue, being called the Hero of Kvatch once is cool but a thousand times and it starts to grate some what.

It’s not just what other characters say that is important, what the players character says is equally important. Outside of scripted moments or cut scenes, the players character tends to be rather silent. But when they do talk it can be a rather good insight into who the character is. In Just Cause 2, my favorite insult ever written was used, ‘Pipeline Jerks’ upon the destruction of oil pipelines, it’s a stupid bit or writing but it does show that Rico is enjoying his work, he’s getting off on the destruction he brings. The players character in the Saints Row games will often exclaim of how much fun they are having. Overlooking the fact by having characters enjoying such murderous behavior does highlight them as sociopaths, it shows that these player controlled killing machines do have their own personalities. It’s a far more interesting to control a character rather than a leg mounted gun.


He’s riding a jet, of course he’s going to call you a Pipeline Jerk

So what makes bad incidental dialogue? Well as mentioned, repetition doesn’t help even the best line, hearing the same line once every two hours of gameplay would be acceptable, but every two minutes and you’re going to have a problem. In the recent zombie game State of Decay (A game I rather love) only one women is allowed on the radio and she repeats herself so much it’s unreal. Her jokes about the streets being ‘Like Zombie Pride day’ only make me wonder if she had a problem with ordinary pride marches. Radio announcers in the fallout games would often have this issue, and repeat the same newscast on a regular basis, often compelling me to go to their broadcast studio and murder them, just to see if I would hear about it on the radio. Of course it isn’t possible to have infinite lines of dialogue written for any one character, but they don’t need to have them, just have it so they only naturally occur once a in while. (What I mean by naturally in this case means, where the player isn’t trying to force a reaction, by interacting with NPC in some manner, I.E shooting, punching, groping, all that good stuff.)

Others ways to make the dialogue bad, would be for it not to make sense. This isn’t a criticism on the quality of the writing, that’s a bit more subjective, what this comes down to is how what is said, fits into the context of where it is said. For instance if a NPC is complaining about the room being cold, while being on fire, that wouldn’t make sense. Granted that is an extreme example to say the least but you should get where I’m coming from with it. In the PS2 classic Destroy All Humans the player had the ability to read minds and it became rather odd to read the mind of a solider who was currently fighting me and have him think about something other than killing me. This issue is rare one to say the least in modern gaming, seeing as how I had to look as far back as the PlayStation 2 for an example.

What good incidental dialogue needs is a dialogue between writer and programmer, each needs to know when the lines will appropriate to use and when they wouldn’t be. Maybe learning that silence for some NPCs would be a good option, no one expects the guards to Buckingham Palace to talk, so why should guards outside any other throne room do so?

By the way, in a whole essay about NPC dialogue and I never mentioned ‘Arrow to the knee’ go me!


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About PropeRob

All round song and dance man with penchant for quoting Jeeves and Wooster and Toberlone's. Known to drone on about Video Games and geeky bollocks to anyone who can't escape in time.

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