Opinion: Bad lines
Dialogue in games is terrible. I can say this because I have personally written tens of thousands of words of game dialogue. I have, in the past, both championed and condemned game dialogue writing. I have played games with terrible dialogue and games with less terrible dialogue, and have seen games of both sorts win awards for their terrible writing. I, myself, have won awards for writing games accused of having terrible dialogue. If I am not qualified to make the assertion that game dialogue is terrible, then no one is.
But blasting game dialogue, and the game writers who have devoted themselves to getting it right (and who could be making a lot more money writing equally bad dialogue for other media), is somewhat pointless. More useful would be to ask why game dialogue is terrible, and to see if there is anything to be done about it.
One theory for why game dialogue is terrible is that game writers are bad writers. Having worked with many writers in and across different media, I promise you this is not true. Of course there are bad game writers, but there are also average ones, good ones and a few great ones. As a group, from what I have seen, they conform to a normalised curve. Anyone who asserts that game dialogue is bad because game writers are bad has not given the problem enough thought.
Another argument for why game dialogue is bad is that the writers don’t understand the medium. That might be true, but I would argue that no one in any discipline has yet achieved a deep or sophisticated understanding of our medium. From the standpoint of overall cultural comprehension, we’re just not there yet. The average game writer, in my experience, does not demonstrate a greater or lesser understanding of the medium than does your average game designer or game programmer. I would counter ?by saying that the primary reason we consider game dialogue to be terrible is that writers do ?in fact understand the medium, and that good game dialogue almost automatically sounds like bad dialogue to our ears.
You’ve all been here: you are sneaking past ?a guard in a stealth game. You accidentally drop down off of a crate and make too much noise on your landing. The guard leaves his patrol and looks toward the crates in the shadows and? barks: “Is someone hiding over there?”
We criticise the line as trite and on the ?nose and symptomatic of bad game dialogue writing. The guard’s question is purely rhetorical;? if no one else is there to hear it, we ask who ?he is talking to, and if another guard is present, he usually does not acknowledge the bark. How? can such terrible, stilted, wooden dialogue ?make it into a shipped game, especially when ?it is clear that the same line in a film script? would be excised, and the story beat covered?by a reaction shot from the actor playing the guard? No terrible dialogue required.
But is the line bad dialogue? Is “Who are those guys?” bad dialogue? How about “You talkin’ to me?” How about “Is it safe?” Or how about “What are you doing, Dave?”
Of course not. It’s absurd to think that these lines of film dialogue are bad in and of themselves. So what is it about game dialogue that makes it so susceptible to criticism? The answer seems to lie in the fact that filmic and ?ludic dialogue serve different purposes.
Functionally, film dialogue must never say anything that is visually apparent. This is what the cinematic axiom ‘show don’t tell’ means. But game dialogue is different. Game dialogue is a form of feedback, and as feedback, its very purpose is to clearly indicate that a game state has changed. In the case of the guard, his line of dialogue is a clear indicator that he has detected a sound, but has not visually acquired the player and that he is about to begin a dangerous search behaviour. No reaction shot required.
So, really, when we say game dialogue is terrible what we’re really saying is that it simply does not sound the way our cultural expectations tell us it should sound. In a sense, it is like saying radio writing is bad writing. Of course radio writing is bad writing… for film. But it’s not for film, it’s for radio, which has different rules and different functions to serve comprehension by the listener. Ultimately, then, the reason we say game dialogue is terrible is that we have a cultural predisposition to appreciating filmic dialogue, which is a form of dialogue that has evolved in service of a different functional requirement.
So how do we fix bad game dialogue?
We play more games. We play more games until our cultural sensibilities change and our expectation of what good dialogue is evolves ?to include the kinds of lines we hear every day ?in games – lines that are in service of player comprehension of the game state, lines that empower players to play intentionally and have? a meaningful sense of agency in our worlds.
And if that evolution of our cultural sensibilities causes film dialogue to feel strange and old-fashioned in the way radio dialogue does to? us… then, well… sorry, film.