You know, I once met a real pirate. I mean, he was working at Disneyland in Anaheim (California), but he was convincing enough that I let go of my cynicism and distrust of Disney, posed beside him for a picture, and just briefly was tempted to bellow "YAAARGH!" at the top of my lungs. As such, I consider him as real a pirate as I might ever hope to meet. After all, those Somali pirates don't count; they don't have beards, quaint names and speak English. Nor do they swab decks. They just steal cargo ships. And then fail to burry them on desert islands.
Anyway, pirate references aside, I be Nick Brakespear. Yes, real surname. If you're a PC Zone forum lurker, you might remember me from such aliases as Brax and Flatline. If not, consider me a nobody for the time being, for my ascension to godhood is not yet at hand.
Now that the introduction is done and dusted, I can proceed with the more important issues. Namely, dialogue. Is it just me, or has the evolution of dialogue disappeared up its own arse and begun feeding on itself, becoming a rather malnourished but admittedly highly-polished pile of crap? My apologies for the rather unseemly imagery there.
As an example, I present to you two games of different ages, by the same developer. Firmly entrenched in the "good old days", we have the Baldur's Gate franchise (and in particular, Baldur's Gate 2). And there, prancing about in, as my mother would say, a fur coat and no knickers we have Mass Effect. Both games of course developed by Bioware.
In Baldur's Gate 2, the lines of dialogue are beautifully written. Some are given a voice-over, but the game never feels the need to voice every single line of text. Much like an illustrated story doesn't feel the need to feature a picture that corresponds to every minor action within the narrative; the lines that are voiced simply serve to gently prod your imagination, to feed your internal recreation of the game world. And, once prodded, you are able to read following lines of text and hear the voice without ever actually hearing it.
A specific example; Minsc, the deranged ranger with pet hamster called Boo. All we needed to hear from him is one or two classic exclamations, such as "Go for the eyes Boo! GO FOR THE EYES!", and from then on anything written beside his name was enhanced by that auditory mental image we had created of his character.
This more old-fashioned approach to dialogue not only stimulated the imagination and allowed us (or at least, allowed me) to connect with the story on a more meaningful level...but it also meant that characters could say a hell of a lot more, with a hell of a lot more variety, and with a hell of a lot more interaction from the player.
Fast-forward to the days of Mass Effect, and we are presented with a new era of "cinematic" (*cough*console*cough) gaming, in which our imaginations are not prodded at all. True to the experience of sitting in front of a television, we switch off and let the game wash over us, our interaction with it reduced to dialogue trees that seem arbitrary at best, generic responses that have clearly been tailored to serve a multitude of possible queries, and secondary characters whose minds seem capable of holding onto nothing more than simple one liners reminiscent of "this door is locked" gameplay mechanics.
Yes, it's rather fancy having a character talk to us. But when our interaction is sacrificed, it becomes less a matter of the character talking to us, less a matter of us engaging with a character, and more a matter of us watching a glorified cut scene.
I would like to put forth the notion that perhaps a return to older ways would be nice. That perhaps -at least until voice emulation, language recognition software and artificial intelligence have evolved to a state where we can in fact talk in real-time in our own words to a character- we might ditch this rather silly idea that all dialogue must be voiced.
Perhaps I'm getting old and grumpy, as I find myself wanting to add; that perhaps graphics too could do with a return to the traditional. That perhaps immersion does not correlate with polygon count. That perhaps the simplest of visuals can be the most evocative.
Defcon had the right idea.
- Nick Brakespear