Tobold's Blog
Friday, May 03, 2013
Games as a conversation

I have mentioned repeatedly my model of what a game is: Repeating units, like combat, held together by content (cut-scenes, quest text). So I was very interested when via Raph Koster's website I found this GDC talk by Matthias Worch which explains games with a very similar model: Bits of dialogue in which the player interacts with the computer and bits of monologue in which the computer (or rather the dev who programmed it) talks alone. The video is nearly 50 minutes long, but well worth watching if you are interested in the theory of games.

Once you've understood Worch's model, it becomes very clear why we can get into heated discussions about games like Mass Effect 3, where I was saying that the dialogue parts of the game were lacking, but others praised the game for its monologue parts. Or where I accepted the ending as being a monologue, and thus an expression of the authorship of whoever wrote that ending, and others disagreed with that expression, or would have liked a more dialogue-like structure allowing them to influence the ending more.

Ultimately it all comes down to the question of what percentage of monologue you want in your games. Do you want a Dragon's Lair like game which is mostly monologue? Or a game like Civilization which is mostly dialogue? Or something in between like the modern "action adventures" which have monologue cut-scenes between dialogue gameplay sequences?

Where I very much agree with Matthias Worch is when he remarks that the new PS4 will have a "Share" button on the controller, but people will generally want to share their great dialogue moments of the game, and not the great monologue moments which are the same for everybody. Games which are heavy on monologue also suffer from poor replayability, although that is probably a concept that is outdated anyway, and we are getting to a state where the big triple-A games are meant to be played only once, at least in single-player mode, just like watching a movie.

Note that dialogues and monologues don't need to be mutually exclusive. Like with Mass Effect 3 or the original Fallout. Player does X, Y and Z, and sees direct effects within the gameplay. But at the end the gameplay stops and we switch into monologue mode. The author sums up the impact of the player's actions in the larger context of the game's setting and it's historic trends. Unfortunately, the effort of evaluating each permutation's effect can be prohibitive. The Mass Effect 3 team found this out the hard way.
I tried to replay "Prince of Persia - Sands of Time" in order to enjoy the story again. Unfortunately the repetitive combat sequences made this difficult.
It's great that you applied the thinking to Mass Effect 3 - for the longest time, I had that game in the talk as an example of an extreme clash between monologue and dialogue.
Great video indeed. Lots of great insights from Matthias.

I think the next step would be to apply the same concept to MMO and assess the dialogues not only the player and the game but between the players themselves. In games which emphasize solo gameplays, players don't "speak" much to each other as the influence of each player on the game is limited. On the other hand, games with significant "community" (e.g. EVE) will have a lot of dialogue between the players as one player can significant affect the gameplay of the other

The true challenge for developers is how to make the dialogue between players constructive and positive because by definition the developers do not have real control on how this dialogue evolves.

Games which "penalize" group play have a bad design because they make the dialogue between players negative and hence encourage players to play solo.
How to build the game universe and rules to promote both positive and interesting (which is even harder) dialog between players is clearly the major challenge the industry faces today.
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