‘Well, duh,’ she opined.

250px-don_draper_wikiI 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.

17 thoughts on “‘Well, duh,’ she opined.”

  1. Another problem is that in America, voice talent in film and often television is done by visual stars, which probably jacks up the price and often doesn’t really add anything. (I just watched Kung Fu Panda, which hired, and wasted, Jackie Chan, Angelina Jolie, Lucy Liu, and David Cross. But Dreamworks probably has more money than the average game studio).

    On the other hand, most games through game history, particularly dialogue-heavy games, have not been entirely voice-acted.

  2. I cringed when I heard front row promo’ing a talk about video games, but then I heard you introduced and brightened up. Bar the host’s assertion that Lara Croft is a strong female character, it was a good discussion.

    I enjoyed Marjorie Blackman (spelling?) squirming while trying to explain WoW in a sentence. :)

  3. Vocap might sort out some of these issues – an exemplar being Dark Athena. Starbreeze did full-body and voice capture, often in groups so the actors could react to one another. The results are superb, but I also feel that competent direction had something to do with it. Writing and directing dialogue is often something done by design leads and I’m not sure design and directorial skillsets often coincide. Even then, I doubt all the capture tech and good direction in the world would have rescued Infamous’ godawful script.

  4. Love the Mad men.

    Naughty Dog and Starbreeze seem to have got it right most recently. I also enjoyed the cheesy delivery in L4D.

    I think a major factor is that the problem of capturing and presenting a performance is not something that tops most developers’ minds.

    Oh sure, we all like to talk about it but the reality is that many teams feel there are more pressing issues to deal with – nailing gameplay, visual polish, getting those nasty multiplayer glitches ironed out.

    Then, suddenly, attention turns to story and – shit! – it’s too late. The talent (if you have real talent) is busy, or otherwise committed. “We need to re-record everything!” but your star is off on Broadway, or filming in Alaska. Tough shit, better make do with what you’ve got.

    Game developers make shitty storytellers, often times this is compounded because they are shitty game developers as well.

  5. That was a great scene, but I came to a different conclusion about this problem. Novels and comic books are two forms of media that tell perfectly good stories with credible dialog as long as they are written by talented authors.

    Perhaps the problem isn’t the absences of a flesh and blood actor, but rather the presence of voice acting. Planescape Torment had what is probably several thousand pages worth of dialog, but most of it was written rather than spoken, and if anything that aided me in suspending disbeleif.

  6. I’m late to this party, but…

    Aside from all the excellent points made above I think there’s also a problem of expectation; something both developers and gamers are equally guilty of, though to get to the kernel of an explanation you have to dig deep and think about how dialogue functions across media.

    When you watch almost any TV show (okay, let’s discount The Wire / Sopranos straight off) you’ll notice the cadence and metre of dialogue differs significantly from that of film. Lines are delivered in a less naturalistic manner, either because writers and actors are aware events have to be wrapped up within a 50 / 30 minute time frame, or, conversely, because they know they’ll be able to make a line reverberate three or four eps along (think Lost). So long as dialogue is faithful to the overall logic of the narrative the audience’ll likely swallow it. Over years and years audiences become accustomed to hearing this strange configuration of unnatural language and accept it as natural, even though it differs immensely from the humdrum banter they hear in Starbucks, or wherever.

    Feature films can generally afford a few more layers of naturalism, mostly because there are fewer demands on the pace of narrative. It’s still grossly unnatural – you’d laugh yourself sick if you got on a train and overheard a conversation so carefully staged – but it’s a different way of speaking to that of dramatic television… more aware of its own linearity and finality. Again, we accept it mostly through convention, just because decades of movie going has convinced us that that’s just how it is.

    There are as many modes of dialogue as there are media. When you see a video game character open their flickering putty mouth you (unconsciously) expect them to sound a certain way; to carry the words in that stunted, unreal, Saturday morning cartoon manner gamers have become accustomed to. Bad dialogue / delivery becomes inertia for both developer and audience. It’s the way it’s “meant” to be. Tellingly, localised anime tends to suffer the same fate.

    Strong writing, rendering and acting are all necessary for breaking out of this mode, though liberation will come at the cost of a hell of a lot of what Don Draper calls “nostalgia”. That is, more pretentiously, the aural baggage of video gaming we think we want to lose but might actually want to reclaim. Who would have thought the likes of Final Fantasy X could one day become our His Girl Friday?

  7. I completely agree.
    Playing Planescape: Torment this year reminded me of how there’s “dialogue” in games, and there’s amazingly engaging writing in games.
    Nowadays, with so much reliance on voice acting and other cinematic touches, audio plays an even bigger role.

    For me Grim Fandango, Half-Life 2 and its episodes remain the pinnacle of acting in games. You don’t hear any voice straining, exaggerated accents or bad delivery in the voices (unlike, say, David Hayter in post-MGS1 games), the dialogue (admittedly well written) flows naturally and holds depth and charm beyond the usual purpose of informing you where to go next.

    I’m also very fond of Michael Ironside in the Splinter Cell games, specially the first three. The games’ plots were pretty hokum, but they managed to make Sam a properly cool, smart, charming character (Don Jordan’s Lambert too, come to think of it), making a lot of the game’s dialogue far more entertaining.

  8. There’s also something to be said for games with writing that doesn’t treat the player like an idiot. The best game writing I’ve seen was in Deus Ex, because it actually tried to challenge the player with discussions of the ethics of government.

  9. The best voiced (as well as written) dialogue in any game to date, in my opinion, is Vampire: the Masquerade – Bloodlines.

    Delivered breathtakingly well by voice actors who gave their characters life that lingered long after the game’s release, Bloodlines is the pinnacle of active voice as a tool of storytelling in the inherently visual and interactive artform that games is.

    Lines about S&M culture, vampirism, et al evoked horror and setting ambience instead of coming off like teenage writers trying to sound like Big Boys. It’s a rare find in games, and still worth the play through.

  10. The problem with much game dialogue is that many game writers don’t seem to understand that good dialogue can only come from properly developed characters. It’s not about the actors but the characters the actors are playing. With good characters dialogue flows much more naturally and believably. Grim Fandango and Psychonauts were so good for me because the characters were wonderful and the dialogue they spoke fit them perfectly.

  11. I’d go more macro than this.

    In games, the tone is often wrong. The conception is wrong. The conventions aren’t understood. The purpose of a line of dialogue is not understood.

    Mainly, there’s no agreement between the actor and the listener about the artifice required to get the job done … so it’s not about the quality (as in good / bad) of the writing or the acting but the quality (timbre) of both that and the *direction.*

    — In theatre I (the actor) am up on the stage. You (the listener) are at the back of a large boomy room. This is an even larger impediment than your actor-avatar having no tongue — but it works. It works because we both conspire to *permit* the exigencies required so you can hear what I’m saying. I’m not talking to my fellow actors, I’m talking to you, in a loud voice. Actors, listeners, writers, directors understand this.

    — In film, when I talk it’s supposed to end up on screen like a like a coloured version of how two people really talk to each other, although of course it’s just as unreal as theatre. There’s a different set of agreements that lets us ignore the departure from reality. Sometimes a camera frame puts your eyes two inches away from my eyebrow and can see the twitch which makes you know I’m happy without me saying anything. Actors, listeners, writers, directors understand this.

    — In games, what agreements should we make so I can depart from reality and you’ll allow me to do so? What sort of voice should I use? How should the lines be approached? How are we colluding (literally, ‘playing together’) to make a great game?

    Most often, games where the dialogue is important to gameplay get it right — because the dialogue has a purpose related to the entire artefact if something doesn’t work it’s not a cringy line, but a *bug.* And where the dialogue’s purpose is about immersion of the player in a fiction to make o game more or … dunno … ‘fun,’ game designers / directors don’t ask the right questions.

    I don’t deny there’s a million and one brute-force necessities of game audio creation (such as ensuring the player doesn’t hear the same line 1000 times in the pursuit of a goal) but more often than not it’s an issue of philosophy more than talent of writers or actors. After all, I can go to an off-off-off-West End production and enjoy a bunch of actors no-one’s heard of.

    Why not in games?

  12. Just look at Ghostbusters, you don’t get voice talent better suited to the roles as that, yet, despite whatever time and money the spent on recording that they then, seemingly, handed it over to some far from top level editors and animators.

    Glassy, wandering eyes, awkward pauses, excess body movement, over enthusiastic eyebrows, these all contricute to killing the performances. As mentioned, Naughty Dog are getting there though, and I do think it’s the animation that’s helping it.

  13. Who is talking to whom and why: to what specific end?

    In theatre, that’s the challenge for actors (and director and writer), beat by beat, scene by scene.

    In games, where does the player exist in the scene? Because if they are suddenly relegated to a listener after being an actor, that’s awkward. And how are you otherwise present in the question?

    [I don’t know much about cutting-edge console games, I’m at best an educated idiot here, so be kind]

    Agree also that it’s tough to act your way out of the uncanny valley. Better surely to acknowledge and incorporate the constraints of representation.

    Famous name actors are only valuable for their names. That’s actually true in theatre too, but certainly in games.

  14. I think that the nature of game narrative makes this discussion on the lack of quality dialog unnecessary, but it is a well-written critique. The main issue, in my opinion, is that game developers are unwilling or simply cannot, at this stage of AI development, design stories that take advantage of the fact that gaming is an interactive medium. Gamers tend to use the broad brushes provided by the internet to insist that Japanese designers are incapable of creating a narrative arc worth witnessing, while consistently praising the incredibly thinly-veiled “Choose Your Own Adventure” conversations found within Western RPGs. The actual issue is that, for all its charm, Psychonauts is a TV series that allows you to incinerate and levitate in between episodes. Metal Gear Solid is a fever dream of a film that is not improved by the short rope of agency given to the player. Dragon Age: Origins is equivalent to flipping through your average “dark fantasy” novel and realizing, to your surprise, that the protagonist’s dialog hasn’t yet been written in, even though every response has been prefabricated. People also like to cite Half-Life 2 as a great example of interactive storytelling, but, strangely, a lot of these people specifically target JRPGs as being some of the worst offenders in game storytelling, a genre awash with silent protagonists that often have no agency whatsoever. You could easily name your protagonist “Gordon” and the protagonist’s incredibly unlikely love interest “Alyx” and, surprise, she still falls for Mr. Crowbar, though I’m still unsure why…

  15. Seconding Bloodlines as an example of dialog done right, and adding in that on top of books and comics, visual novels, of both the silent and voiced type, often have good writing as well. It really is strange how few games, even good ones, have horrid dialog. I mean, Silent Hill 2 was brilliant, but the writing was undeniably retarded at points. And maybe that’s part of the problem, that dialog really isn’t a requirement in most games (apart from adventure ones), and so it’s not focused on?

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