Monday, December 28, 2009

Branching Dialog and in Game Choices

Today I'm going to reflect on in-game dialog choices. In some games they're just thrown in to give the user an illusion of choice. If done poorly they can take out the immersible quality of the game. This is mostly inspired by me playing lots of Bioware games and thinking back on dialog choices in other games. So I'll start with those.

-Sample Games-
Neverwinter Nights 2 (Obsidian)
Knights of the Old Republic (Bioware)
Harvest Moon Island of Happiness (Natsume)
Harvest Moon Sunshine Islands (Natsume)
Legend of Zelda Twilight Princess (Nintendo)

Okay here are the five games I'm going to look at for this post. We're going to start from the bottom and take a look at Zelda (from here on LOZ).
LOZ is notorious for having false choices in the game dialogs. One of the more famed examples is in Ocarina of Time (N64) when Zelda first asks Link for help. You have the choice of saying "no" but what happens is you go through this endless loop of Zelda asking for help until you say "yes".

They still do this a little in LOZ, except they hide it a little better. If you say 'no', you get some dialog and are allowed to roam free again.
In any sense, LOZ is a good example of BAD choice handling in games.

Next the newer Harvest Moon games for the Nintendo DS. (HM from now on.)
There are sequences where you can make choices in conversation with the villager you are "dating". In HM: Island of Happiness, a single sequence could have up to 3 choices.
In the newer HM: Sunshine Islands a single sequence only has 2. One is obviously positive and the other obviously negative.

The older version (HM:IoH) was more fun because not all the choices were black and white. There was more mystery and excitement associated with choices made. Not to mention that even some negative choices could open up opportunities to see "hidden" sequences.

NWN2 and KOTOR are both examples of mostly the same clothe. There are some subtle differences. Both games have in game choice dialog that affects multiple factors. Both games usually give multiple choices to a question. How the effects of the choices are presented are what differ in these two games. KOTOR has a pop-up screen announcing that you made a "Light Side" or "Dark Side" choice. NWN2 keeps it in a "live feed" that is always on screen. The player is not alerted to the choice's consequences as it were.

-Choice Styles-
So these game examples illustrate some of the various styles or methods used to give player's an element of choice in the game.
LOZ uses a yes/no approach and really gives an illusion of choice. There is only one path for the story to follow.

HM is different in that there is no story only a premise and some goals. It follows the lines of a dating sim when it comes to conversation choices. One of them falls into the LOZ trap of a black and white choice for an answer. The other has Black, Grey and White. (Or Good Bad Neutral). It was also sneaky in that sometimes giving a "bad" or neutral answer was more interesting than giving a "good" one.

NWN2 and such are very immersive. The choices are not always clear cut. It does affect the direction and flow of the story (Branching paths). This in a sense makes the player feel like an author. However, it is still limited by the choices it offers.

Now, I'm going to go over the Pros and Cons of using this style of choice in games.

-Black/White Style-
Pros -
  • Easy to program/script
  • Keeps on one track
  • Easy to Write
  • Obvious affect
The beauty of this one is the ease of use for both player and developer. It is usually a clear cut choice and the overall affect is obvious to the player. It's not necessarily always "yes" or "no". For instance, it could affect which ending you get for for the game.

  • Boring in terms of choice
  • Not helpful for immersion
  • Risk the Forced Choice (e.g. You must answer yes or the question keeps looping).
  • Keeps on one track
The drawbacks all relate to the fact that the choice is just not very interesting to a player. And my academic nerd classes taught me that "games are a series of interesting choices". The more variance the choice seems to have the more fun it seems.

-Dating Sim Style-
If your game as an aspect that does not affect the game story or your game does not have a one track story then this style may be used. I call it Dating Sim because of the "style" of gameplay that has. The story does not matter. All that matters is that you end up with the girl/boy you choose.

  • Player reward is obvious
  • Usually more than 2 choices
  • Usually the affect is obvious
  • Does not have to affect a one track story
This is usually a bit more interesting than just yes or no answers. Granted some may be obviously black and white choices. But the effect is usually instant. Many RPGs use this if they have any "friendship" systems in the game. For example, Summon Night use this to affect character responses in certain cut-scenes. It does not change the story's ending but it does give the player their "own ending" with the character they had the highest friendship with.

  • Too Black and White
  • Simplistic Choices
  • Can be tricky to track
This still can run the risk of being a boring choice. Do you compliment the girl or insult her? The outcome just seems so obvious.

-Branching Dialog/Choose your own Adventure-
Pros -
  • Immersion
  • Interesting choices
  • Can be subtle
  • player feels like they can affect the story's flow
Cons -
  • Difficult to plan and write
  • Outcome of choice not always readily obvious
  • Can still be cut and dry
  • Choice really does NOT affect story flow
I look at these a bit like those choose-your-own adventure books where you turn to the page of the choice you made. To some the unclear nature of what is affecting the game or not can bother people. For example, I'll get four responses to a character. One of them I know will illicit a hilarious response and be more of what I WOULD say in that situation. However, I also want to attain a certain goal in the game and I'm concerned that the sassy remark would ruin that outcome.

At the same time there are cases where it seems like a choice but really the author's intended story gets told anyway. If done well this is a true illusion of choice. If not done well, the player feels cheated and resentful of the game.

On top of that the planning and organizing of the writing can be a pain. There is a crap-ton of dialog in Bioware games. A couple novels worth you know.

Designing your Own
The choices you give players in the game need to be accounted for. And each style can appear in one game. What you want to consider is this: How much of an illusion is choice?
If the player really has no control over the ending sequence that should be reflected in the choices.
LOZ only has one ending in mind thus there really is not much in dialog choices.
A Dating Sim has several endings to choose from.
Branching Dialog can either all lead to one or two endings or have many.

-Software to Help-
There are a few software options to help organize branches in branching dialog. It's good to have a flow chart or timeline.