Game characters are terrible conversationalists. I came to this conclusion after the last three games I’ve played: Fallout 3, Mass Effect 2 and Metroid: Other M.
First, we have Fallout 3‘s Lone Wanderer of the Capital Wasteland. This is a guy whose dad probably was a big fan of the sentences Don’t you interrupt me while I’m talking! and Look at me when I’m talking to you!. Years of scolding in an isolated confinement left a mark on the boy, who is now traumatized beyond belief: when talking to the Lone Wanderer, he will never interrupt you or look away. Like a robot, he will wait until the final period before starting his response.
Then we have Samus. Samus was raised a bird-like alien race that must have been similar to Mass Effect‘s Elcor race. Like the Elcor, Samus mechanically speaks irrelevances in a vapid monotone. She makes an effort to state her emotions as she probably thinks a kickass Power Suit won’t fully transmit the message of love, imaturity and brattiness she wants to spread across the galaxy.
Finally, we have Commander Shepard from Mass Effect. Dialogs in Mass Effect closely follows the standard perfected by Alfred Hitchcock: show your protagonist doing something, cut to the other person’s reaction and cut back to the protagonist’s own reaction. It is very rare to see two people talking while dividing the same frame in Mass Effect. The game’s cinematic presentation goes a long way in trying to convey am almost realistic conversation – and Mass Effect 2‘s ability to interrupt some dialogues by performing a Paragon/Renegade action only adds to that.
However, not even Mass Effect is able to present us with a fully realistic dialogue. Actually, it’s interesting to note that, like Samus and the Lone Wanderer, Shepard also has his own unique idiosyncrasies. His idea of conversation, for example, can be summed up by him saying “Tell me about this. Tell me about that.” to any NPC he encounters.
In fact, I’m yet to see any game whose characters talk like in real life. It’s almost ironic that the game series most known for its elaborated scripts, Metal Gear Solid, follows a ludicrous conversation repertoire that consists of repeating each statement said in the form of a question. In form of a question?
How long will it take for games to grasp that this is not how real dialogs works.
Dialogs don’t actually work like this:
But more like this
Games now behave pretty much like the first talked movies did back in the 1930’s. It was a director called Howard Hawks (The Big Sleep, Red River, Rio Bravo) that taught movies how people actually talked, eventually influencing Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve) who ended up influencing Quentin Tarantino.
What Hawks noted was that we almost never wait for people to finish talking. We talk over one another. What he did was simple: he wrote his dialog in a way that the beginning and ending of sentences are entirely unnecessary. Voices overlapped in a rapid-fire repartee… and it made sense. It sounded spontaneous, natural.
As games strive to tell better narratives, getting some ideas from Hawks makes perfect sense. Instead of allowing gamers to skip dialogs, allow them to interrupt the NPCs (which also implies interrupting the subtitles, which, in turn, implies in more dynamics subtitles that don’t uncover the character’s entire sentence before the sentence is actually spoken). Instead of just allowing gamers to choose what to speak, allow them to decide when to speak as well (and add some consequences for that too). Instead of hiring voice actors with head traumas that prevent them from expressing anything but the emotional state of an asparagus, hire some actual talents and record them together (as well as allowing them to improvise some of their lines).
The ultimate goal is to recreate the naturalness of the interrelationships between characters; something that game characters have yet to recreate. We need not only better dialogs, but better mechanisms to convey these dialogs. Mass Effect‘s conversational monsters/obstacles are nice and all, but it’s high time the medium as a whole evolved from that.