“The Last of Us” – 2013 (Image Source)
In Part One of our discussion, we identified that the secret to good video game dialogue was no dialogue wherever possible. We also examined how many video games that don’t have any dialogue at all can still achieve a high degree of storytelling success.
We’ve learned this rule so we can now look at games that break it. These games do have dialogue, yet still benefit from the secret of less is more.
Games With Dialogue
It’s important to recognize that dialogue is not the enemy. It may be difficult to write, but a lot of us, as storytellers and game developers, want and need to implement it with many of our ideas. The beauty of video games is that we can feel emotionally connected to almost any experience, as we are the ones driving that experience forward. But the beauty of storytelling is its ability to open up a whole new universe of environments, events, and, of course, characters.
Dialogue allows us to delve deeper into different individuals and how they interact with each other. As players, we often want to hear our favorite characters talk more: it enhances the bond we have with them, and the enjoyment we feel in playing the game. So when we say that the secret to good dialogue is no dialogue wherever possible, it’s not a sneer at characters who talk. It’s an anchor that we can assign ourselves in order to organize our words economically and effectively.
Here are three methods of writing better dialogue, based on the secret we’ve established.
Words: Less is More
Keep the words to a minimum. When a character says less, we hold onto their words. Like our discussion on atmosphere in Part 1, we pay more attention.
Consider the following example.
- CHARACTER 1: “Would you like to go get breakfast?”
- CHARACTER 2: “No thanks, I’m tired.”
It’s a simple example, yes, but to demonstrate how effective less dialogue can be, let’s see what happens when we change the lines.
- CHARACTER 1: “Breakfast?” *Holds up car keys.*
- CHARACTER 2: *Yawns and shakes their head.*
We have the same amount of information that we needed, but in far fewer words. The characters also feel more natural. We’ve saved time, which means we’ve decreased the risk of losing the attention of our audience. One of our characters doesn’t even speak at all, they get their point across through simple action. Remember, 60 to 90% of human communication is nonverbal.
A good example of a video game character who speaks infrequently is Master Chief from the Halo franchise. The behemoth green-armored super-soldier is well known for his deep, gravelly voice, but a big part of how bad-ass his character is comes with how he really only speaks when necessary. And when he does speak, it’s usually some of the most memorable lines from the franchise
Take this scene from the end of Halo 3 as an example. To be fair, there isn’t a lot to say, given the circumstances, but the lack of words to accompany his actions make us feel like Master Chief is thinking through a lot of different things. And when we perceive someone to be thinking, we’re more primed to hear what they have to say.
It should be noted that his silence is especially apparent when juxtaposed to his AI companion, Cortana, who often talks enough for the both of them throughout the franchise. And in some ways, that’s an important lesson, in itself. All of your characters can’t give the one-liners. Some of them have to give information or react to situations with words—many of them. In fact, some of them might be characterized as individuals who just can’t seem to stop talking. And that brings us to our second method of improving dialogue.
Choose Words Carefully
Be true to your character’s own unique voice. There’s a lot that can go into this, so let’s repurpose the question into something more linked to dialogue, specifically: choosing your words carefully.
Try asking yourself questions about what your characters might say or do in certain situations. ‘What’s their attention span?’ might influence how long or short their sentences are while ‘What level of education do they have’ could dictate whether or not they use bigger words.
Think of the vast collection of characters in the Mass Effect franchise. Visually, the characters are quite different in their design, and audibly, the games feature an impressive range of different voice actors. But more than that, the words certain characters say and the way they say them are written to be uniquely different from each other, and that’s especially important when writing individuals of different species interacting with each other.
Here’s one small example between Grunt and Garrus, two fan favorites. The way they react to the same thing in different ways says a lot about their characters, and makes us interested in exploring how the story progresses with such differing individuals.
Or this exchange between the player’s main character and Mordin, a ridiculously intelligent scientist who is so quick-minded, he doesn’t make full sentences when he talks. Not to mention, his analytical approach to a rather embarrassing and awkward topic make for a few good laughs and endear us more to his character.
Pay Attention to Pauses
One final note on improving dialogue. We’ve discussed how important it is to pay attention to the lines you use and how they are said. But it’s just as important to pay attention to the pauses between lines. Storytelling is not a series of events. It’s a fluid process—a build up. That’s true of entire plots as well as lines of dialogue.
Consider where your characters pause or hesitate. Pockets where they are thinking of what to say, or even just silently reacting to what someone else just said. If nothing else, it humanizes our characters. They’re permeable. They can misspeak. They can feel emotions so strong, they have to wait before they say anything. Your script is written out in full, from beginning to end, but your characters live and breath in the moment. And a truly incredible example of this at play is a scene from The Last of Us, a game heavily praised for its storytelling.
Take a look at this scene and pay special attention to the pauses between lines. Also, just a heads up, there’s some bad language in this one.
A large part of determining where pauses lie in dialogue might be more within the realm of performance and direction, but it can still be utilized in the writing process, as well. In fact, it can even be implemented in games where dialogue is only text, like Pokemon or The Way.
In Part One, we established something that we should now bring back to our attention: it would be wrong to say that there is a specific formula people need to follow for a story to be successful. There are too many variables that go into what makes a story good. Any kind of strict rule set just wouldn’t be useful, let alone, effective.
What we can do is observe and identify patterns. And that’s all we’ve done here. Think of this secret as a jumping off point. It’s one tool, of many, that you can use to check yourself throughout the process. It’s all just about honing in your storytelling instincts.
The secret to good dialogue can be an asset and a foundation for the rest of your storytelling process. But, as always, the torch that leads the way is all you.