I promise I’ll stop talking about story sometime soon, but I woke up today with an actual spike of How Can I Have Been So Stupid? embedded between my eyes. Often when I’m inveighing against story, I’m actually warning people off plot and dialogue, since both of these are things games often do badly. The problems with plot are pretty clear – the challenge of keeping things credible over a 10-, or 20-, or 80-hour game run, the tensions interactivity can bring, the banality that the superhero-ness of your central character often encourages – but I have been wondering of late why dialogue is so hard to get right. Dialogue is, after all, a well-understood problem. Finding good script writers is hard, certainly, but a long way from impossible, and there are agencies and commissioners with buckets of experience in pointing you to serious talent. So why – and I’m sure it’s coincidence that I’ve just been playing InFamous – is it so rare to find dialogue in games that isn’t, frankly, wretched.
I was chewing this over when I ended up on the Wikipedia page for Mad Men, which quotes Don Draper’s pitch to Kodak that so resonantly closes the first season:
It’s delicate, but potent…
Teddy told me that in Greek, nostalgia literally means the pain from an old wound.
It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone.
This device… isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine.
It goes backwards, forwards.
It takes us to a place where we ache to go again.
It’s not called the Wheel.
It’s called the Carousel.
It lets us travel the way a child travels.
Around and around and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.
It’s the killer scene in a killer episode, but on paper it’s a strange beast. Definitely closer to poetry than prose, and highly controlled and yet florid at the same time. So what makes the difference? John Hamm makes the difference. And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with games.
A good actor can save a bad line. Good actors can save an entire script full of bad lines, and film and TV actors are able to deploy their bodies and their faces as well as their voices to carry the day. Relying on voice alone is a taller order. Despite my devotion to Radio 4, and my addiction to The Archers (Woe for Matt and Lilian! Hooray for Tom and Brenda!), I find most radio drama hammy and wearing. Money Box Live is a more appealing listen than From Fact To Fiction. And these are not less talented actors (I’m not even enjoying Simon Russell Beale as Le Carré’s Smiley, for heaven’s sake), nor necessarily less talented writers. It just seems to be harder to help dialogue shine without the visual cues. (Please, don’t think for a moment I’m denigrating radio – it has an intimacy and an intensity that TV, film and theatre can never match. But scripted drama seems to be something it doesn’t do as well as it can documentary, discussion, prose and poetry.)
The trouble is, of course, that game voice actors have it even harder than radio voice actors. Our digital actors are almost universally acting against the talents of the people supplying their voices, rather than with. Gammy animation, glassy eyes, bad path-finding, tongueless mouth-holes: we still have a lot of problems to combat before we even level the playing field, let alone produce actor-avatars which can help save patchy writing.
So that, with my apologies, is the blindingly obvious revelation that I had this morning, a decade after everybody else. Dialogue is one of the single hardest things there is to write, and games are the single hardest environment to write it for. No wonder we struggle.