Making them listen

One trend I’ve been noticing a lot in games lately is the respect they seem to be paying to their dialogue. While some titles are still following the old convention of only delivering story via cutscenes, some of the best games in the last year are bucking that trend.

Let’s look at a game that’s been rather criminally underappreciated from last year: Dead Space. If there’s been a more highly polished experience in recent memory, I’d be hard pressed to name it. Dead Space completely envelops you in its world, and it couldn’t have done so without its frequent conversation interludes.

Now, much has been made of Dead Space‘s commitment to a seamless play experience. The only HUD available to the player is on the character’s back. When you access your inventory, the game does not pause. As admirable as these conceits are, I want to focus on something that seemingly trends in the opposite direction: their decision to lock the player in place during key story moments.

It’s true — when Isaac is receiving information from his other two associates in the first part of the game, it’s impossible to get into combat or save the game. The doors surrounding the player lock, forcing them to listen to what the game has to say. Plus, the player still feels like they have control of the character in these situations because they can still walk around and look at the gorgeous environments and animation. But all the while, they’re absorbing what EA is telling them.

Another game from last year tried a different tack. In Fable II, there are several stretches during the game where characters will want to talk to the player. Whether this is just character development or information about the next quest in the main story line, the results are the same: the player listens.

This is because Lionhead slows down the player’s movement speed during these scenes. In some cases, the conversation is perfectly timed to play out over the distance that the player must walk. This, of course, feels a bit more contrived than the way Dead Space handles it. But once the initial dissonance of “hey, why am I moving slowly?” is over, focusing on what the characters are saying is easy.

Now, there are obviously some ways to address this issue that are less compelling. While Fallout 3 and Oblivion are amazing achievements, their conversation system is sometimes the enemy of immersion. They both have the occasional in-engine scripted sequence that the player can skip if they want to. But when it’s time to talk, it’s really time to talk. The outside world freezes, all other sound gets muted, and the camera zooms way in on the speaker. While this certainly gets the player’s attention, it’s a little jarring to go from freely exploring vibrant worlds like Tamriel and post-nuclear D.C. to being locked into a staring contest with an NPC.

The results are more chaotic on the other end of the spectrum. In Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the entire game is being told via flashback. The Prince’s narration (which is some of the best ever delivered in a game) can start or stop at any time. In some cases, he is providing calm, laid-back exposition while the onscreen Prince is in the middle of savage combat. But this contrast only helps the impact of the Prince’s words as the player hears them — and, most importantly, the player will hear them.

So what’s the answer? Well, there are clearly many different ways to solve this problem, and some methods are clearly more effective than others. But the most important thing is that we need to not be afraid to make them listen. We’ve got great stories to tell. Let’s make sure they get heard.

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