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It’s the Little Things: Dialogue and Characterization

There’s a school of thought that says characters are defined by what they do, not what they say. This may be true, but I find it only applies to characterization in a very broad way. It’s a good way to look at a character’s overall arc in a story, but a lot of characterization in games simply stops there. Most game characters (and a lot of movie ones too, for that matter) are defined by one dominant personality trait. This is generally a result of writers thinking of characters only in terms of their role in the story and not as full-fledged people. It’s a fine place to start when you’re planning things out but ideally you don’t stop there. It’s the little details that make a character really memorable in a game where story is a major part of the experience. For that, you need dialogue.

I’ve heard from a lot of people that dialogue is one of the hardest parts of the whole game-making process to them. I’ve also heard a lot of players complain about forgettable dialogue in games. Why is this? Well, I think part of the issue is that a lot of gaming conventional wisdom inadvertently downplays the value of good dialogue. Have you ever heard someone say “I’m playing a game, not reading a book!” Obviously that’s a true statement, but you can easily take away a message that text, particularly dialogue, doesn’t need much effort since the gameplay is so much more important.

More problematic is the philosophy that “every piece of dialogue in the game should be conveying key information about playing the game to the player.” On the one hand, there’s some sense in that. We don’t want the characters endlessly babbling about minutia like some independent film. But on the other hand, have you seen what happens when this philosophy is strictly put into practice? Boring, stilted dialogue. When characters only communicate with instructions to the player, it sounds incredibly awkward because that’s not how people talk!

Dialogue is key to satisfying characterization. A game with a likeable cast will have them talk to each other in ways that offer insight into their personalities. In that sense, it does convey important information to the player, just not in regard to the actual gameplay. This takes careful thought and takes a while to learn. Practice makes perfect, but I have a few strategies to help you along in the meantime.

Pretty on the nose there.

Characters should argue. Arguing is one of the most effective tools in characterization. You can tell a lot about someone by how they argue. Are they curious to hear other points of view? Do they feel the need to shut down differing opinions immediately? Do they resort to petty insults to distract from the fact that they are losing? Do they shut down immediately due to fear of conflict? This kind of stuff gives lots of insight.

Also, I’m not talking about silly arguments like a girl getting mad at a guy because she thinks he’s checking out her butt. I’m talking about meaty arguments about tough issues in the game’s world. Our world has plenty, after all. Why do you think we discourage threads about politics or religion on the forums? Because they get people very riled up and hostile. What are the issues that provoke these reactions within your game’s world? Having your characters argue is also good for world-building.

This works for villains too, at least if you have multiple villains in your story. Rather than just sitting around gloating about how evil they are, consider having them get into disagreements. Most of us will never have to negotiate compromises with an evil cabal of conspirators. However, a lot of us have had work-related issues where we’ve been forced to work with people we didn’t like and had totally different priorities but we still needed them. Allowing a villain to show frustration makes the character feel more believable because we know the feeling.

Characters should speak differently. There’s a couple of ways to do this. One is to give your characters different accents, which is usually fun. Another is to come up with certain speech mannerisms for each of them. I’ve used this several times, with one character who called everyone “man” (regardless of gender) and another who used old-timey insults like “miscreant” or “ingrate.” Think about people you know in real life. If you’ve spent a lot of time with them, chances are you’ve noticed certain words or phrases they use a lot. Creating a sense of familiarity, like having your player think “there he goes with that phrase again, what a weirdo” or something to that effect, increases the involvement with the characters.

Think about the Star Wars prequels. One of the main complaints a lot of people had was that most of the characters all sounded like suits at a stockbroker’s meeting (except Jar Jar Binks – annoying as he was, he certainly had a memorable way of speaking). Contrast that with the original films, where you have the mixture of Luke Skywalker’s farmboy naiveté, Han Solo’s roguish wit, Princess Leia’s bossiness, C-3PO’s prissy mannerisms and two characters that communicated in growls and beeps. It was fun to watch them interact because they all spoke in distinctly different ways.

One thing to note is that the importance and potential effectiveness of these ideas increase relative to the length of a story. Obviously, some games are not long enough or story-focused enough to accommodate this level of characterization…which brings me to another point.

Edit. I’ve been encouraging you to put more thought into dialogue, but that doesn’t mean going too crazy. It’s good to develop a sense of when a scene should end. It took me a while to get good at this. I look back at some of my old stuff and while I think most of the dialogue is decent, a lot of conversations take their sweet time ending. For some reason, I felt that after the meaty stuff had been said, the conversation still had to wind down the way a lot do in real life. “Okay, I guess we’re done.” “See you at lunch.” “Right, see you.” This stuff doesn’t add anything and is just excess fat. Trim it.

If I can sum this all up in one succinct piece of advice, it would be to think of these characters as real people. If you think of them just as devices meant to meet the goal of having a storyline, then they will come off that way and not be especially interesting. However, people are very interesting with all of their different sides and contradictions. Capturing some of that for your game’s story can be an enthralling experience for those who play it.

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