Choosing Words

I recently played through Alpha Protocol, which is an experience I don’t know whether or not to recommend. It is not a good stealth game, but it is a hilarious stealth game: Once you actually level up your character the gameplay largely consists of turning invisible and jogging around punching guys in the throat while they stand next to you yelling “where did he go!?”

Anyway.

Alpha Protocol’s most notable features aside from that are its branching narrative and timed dialogue system, both of which went on to inspire Telltale’s The Walking Dead, and thereby basically every game made by Telltale since, as they’ve adopted that model as just the way they make games now. There’s one huge difference between the two dialogue systems, though: In The Walking Dead, the default dialogue option is always to just remain silent and let the conversation go on without you, and in Alpha Protocol the default option is always to say… something. I’m not sure how much of this is an intended effect, but combined with the way the main character of Alpha Protocol is written – an obnoxious jerk – the end effect is that Alpha Protocol’s weird dialogue system ends up really effectively conveying the experience of being an impulsive idiot. It is incredibly easy to end up saying something crass and ignorant or accidentally hitting on someone or just going ahead and making out with a coworker just because the timer for dialogue is so short and some of the choices are labeled extremely ambiguously – and, with a bit of distance from the momentary frustration caused by accidentally doing the wrong thing, I can appreciate the characterization created by these systems.

I can’t say how much of this was intentional on the part of the designers, but it’s intriguing how different the Alpha Protocol and The Walking Dead dialogue systems end up feeling, all while being essentially identical. A relaxed timer, letting a natural amount of time elapse between dialogue beats before prompting response, simulates the pressure to keep up a discussion, while the faster timer suggests a pressure to say something ANYTHING the very moment the person you’re talking to stops talking for even one moment. The addition of the option of saying nothing, along with generally more generous timers, sell the idea of Lee, the protagonist of The Walking Dead, as a calm and thoughtful person being overtaken by events outside of his control – while Alpha Protocol’s Mike Thorton inevitably ends up coming across as a walking HR complaint waiting to happen.

This raises the question of how else dialogue systems can express the personality of the speaking character – that is, how character is expressed by the way we choose what to say, as distinct from what is actually said. The timing and defaults of The Walking Dead express someone pensive and reserved while systems of Alpha Protocol express someone reckless and boorish, so what do other dialogue systems suggest? Most adventure game dialogue systems, such as that used in the Monkey Island series, suggest alternately either a clever character backed by a team of writers, selecting the choicest rejoinders, or an inspector with some sort of predetermined checklist to get through. RPGs like Fallout are similar, except the choiceness of those rejoinders and number of inspection points tend to vary based on your character’s stats.

Though these dialogue systems became a bit rote after a while, you occasionally get flashes of how they could be used much more expressively – even if these expressions usually come in the form of one-off gags in the Monkey Island games. In the first game, when one of your mutinous crew asks if the word ‘keelhaul’ means anything to you, you have the dialogue choice of either saying “I see your point” or of reciting the dictionary definition: Whichever one you choose, the main character says “I see your point” and the conversation ends. In the second game, in one scene you have a choice between four dialogue options, pictured below:

Differing from each other only in emphasis in a moment of impotent anger. And, in the third game, you have a clearly unwise dialogue choice in a conversation with a reformed cannibal, and if you hover your mouse over it a secondary dialogue pops up next to it saying “not that one, it will be the death of you!” and other similar warnings – only for it to be essentially ignored by the character you’re talking to if you actually say it, since they’re off on their own tangent by then.

All of those are amusing and expressive moments, but they all involve making you unable to do something – unable to say what you want or be heard when you say something stupid. This is kind of the opposite of the problem that Mike Thorton has, of saying stupid bullshit given a moment’s opportunity, and well-expresses the more nebbish personality of Guybrush Threepwood. A similar approach is used to much less humorous effect in the game Depression Quest, where the deeper you fall into depression the more productive and healthy choices are locked off to you. Even at the beginning of the game, where you’re still feeling mostly okay, the most sociable and lively choices are unavailable – which is certainly something I can appreciate as someone constitutionally unsuitable towards being the life of a party. Not only is Depression Quest’s approach to conveying depression similar to the techniques Monkey Island uses for jokes, but those specific jokes could easily be repurposed towards more such dramatic ends. Having whatever you try to say come out differently than intended; only being able to express yourself with emphasis while being stuck saying essentially the same rote thing; being unable to stop intrusive second thoughts when thinking of something to say, and then being ignored when you finally do speak – all of these are things that real people experience all the time, frequently to a painful degree.

There are other ways we might tweak existing dialogue systems to express character, or even do so dynamically. The Alpha Protocol system could be leveraged in a game like The Walking Dead, where as a conversation gets more heated the timer begins to shorten and more neutral options start to disappear – perhaps Telltale has explored this already, I haven’t kept up on their games. Or maybe dialogue options could change over time, so the player is pushed to balance between a rushed and imperfect line or a more thought-out line that is perhaps said too late. It may seem absurd, but perhaps dialogue could even be a mini-game, a frantic scrabble to, in an emotional moment, dig the right words out of a pit of brusque idiocy and callous vapidity.

For now, we mostly just go through the check list – and, though this expresses a character, maybe it’s not the character we’re actually trying to create.

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