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In a post sketching out an Indiana Jones game I’d like to play, I mentioned that I’d like to see it incorporate “conversations that count.” This isn’t an innovative idea, I know, except maybe for the implication that it fits into the kind of game we’d want from Indiana Jones or Lara Croft or Nathan Drake. To me, conversations with meaningful — even if modest — ramifications in gameplay go a long way to adding contextual nuance and player ownership over the game’s narrative.

Some games call for rich conversation webs with major, persistent ramifications. The Mass Effects and Walking Deads of the world seem to make great use of dialogue choices and effects. I don’t think what I’m seeking in my action/adventure games is revolutionary but its underutilized so let’s talk about it some more.

Weirdly, to my mind, conversations are considered the stuff of RPGs. If Mass Effect 3 didn’t have robust dialogue, it’d be a shooter with character-customization mechanics. When you add NPC interaction and consequences to dialogue choices, that’s often considered an inherited feature from, or defining feature of, RPGs.

Why aren’t inter-character interactions a feature of more narrative games? Why aren’t they just a feature of play?

Frankly, I think it’s an arbitrary thing. I think it’s about whether or not a character is thought to be drawn with detail by the developers (as with your Sam Fishers, Lara Crofts, and Nathan Drakes) or whether the character is meant to be a sketched gesture or blank slate filled in by the player (as with your Commander Shepards and your Hawkes). In actual practice, the play through any game changes every character a bit, drifting him or her from one identity towards another. My Sam Fisher from Chaos Theory may be a more measured, less violent man than yours, for example.

What matters most to me is that we can add non-violent character interactions to all sorts of games to give them additional play, options, and layers of text, subtext, and context. Consider the impact of documents and overheard conversations in stealth games like Splinter Cell and Thief or the way fixed exchanges of dialogue contextualize what you do in a Halo game. Dialogues and monologues are precious tools for narrative and world-building already. And these are games. So why aren’t more conversations even modestly interactive?

The Simplest Interactivity

The simplest interactions are those where the added info or dialogue is just an optional on/off switch. In Halo, you walk up to UNSC soldiers and they maybe talk to you. In Tomb Raider, you press a button to converse with an NPC without making a whole cutscene out of it. These are slight expansions of the game world, small doses of additional fiction, but they count. Suddenly one soldier is nervous and another’s a jerk. Gradually your involvement in the characters deepens… or doesn’t. You control the toggle (hear the dialogue or skip it) and interpret the result (like an NPC more or less, down to and including not giving a damn either way).

These interactions are fine. Sometimes they’re all that’s needed. They draw us in because we had to act, because we know not everyone heard the exchange we just did, even though the exchange was scripted and a lot of people did hear it just like we did. We glimpse the alternate play path where that exchange didn’t happen, where that content went unheard.

Richer Consequences

So, what can a conversation do to count in play, to make a change that doesn’t require the developer to design whole swaths of the game that occur only if you choose one dialogue path? What can a conversation do in addition to offering different endings?

Again, these aren’t revolutionary thoughts, but what I’d like to see more often:

  • Adjust Difficulty: Allow the player to adjust difficulty on the fly during play by expressing to an NPC something like, “Bring ’em on, I’d prefer a fair fight to all this sneaking around,” or, “Sounds tough; I hope we don’t encounter too much resistance.” This has an added ramification of personifying the character differently based on the player’s play style, though — because it becomes objectively harder to play a cocky character than a more cautious one — but that’s fine for some games.
  • Environmental Choices: Enable the player to alter certain environmental variables in an upcoming level with options like: “We’ll go in at night, try to sneak around,” or, “Strike when the convoy arrives at noon so we can capture more weapons,” or, “Attack at dawn.”
  • Enemy Forces: Define the nature of the enemy forces as a result of a conversation. While conversing with the villain, the PC can lie about the approach they’ll take and then gear up at the loading screen for a different kind of gambit. “I’ll do to your fortress just what we did to the Gauls back when we were still fighting as Romans.” Thus the player gets the game to stock a level with scouts or brutes or snipers and then goes in with the right tools to take them out.
  • Enemy Reactions: Let the player badmouth the NPCs in a conversation so the NPC AIs prove more reckless, more cautious, or quicker to summon reinforcements (worth precious XP). “I’m not afraid of your soldiers. They should be afraid of mine.”
  • Choice of Hints: NPCs can reveal clues in certain dialogue branches that, say, put different clues into Nathan Drake’s journal or come back as voiceover bits in later puzzle scenes. Or perhaps their guidance causes either relics, documents, or ammo caches to appear on your map for the next level — but not all three.
  • Limited Supplies: NPCs who can’t part with much offer to share any one of food, medicine, or ammo with the player’s character. Through conversation, it’s possible to get any two of the three, maybe.
  • Skip A Fight: Whole sequences or encounters can be bypassed, so that instead of fighting a slew of hired thugs, you can intimidate them. Consider the fight scene that didn’t happen in Raiders of the Lost Ark because Indy kept Belloq talking in that bar in Cairo. Indy didn’t draw his weapon until just the moment when the children arrived. That’s a decision point right there. So what if Indy and the audience missed a big fight scene there. The player got to choose. That’s even better.
  • NPC Allies: Conversation is how the PC convinces NPCs to come into the Tombs of Peril with him. Is the player willing to lie to avoid going in there alone? Or will he lie to keep a loyal NPC away and alive for a later mission?

Notice that, because I still spend a lot of my time with action games (and direct most of my non-action-oriented play toward tabletop RPG play), most of these conversations are still about battles or action. Little steps. By adding conversations that count into action games, we add facets to them that could make Indiana Jones and the Game of Destiny more than just a puzzling shooter.

Notice, too, that these options can be done well or poorly — just implementing them’s not enough. Some of these choices should exist two or three levels deep in a conversation or be alluded to rather than discussed directly. Subtext is a lot of fun! Characters fronting and posturing can be a lot of fun, too.

Rather than providing dialogue only to define sketched-out RPG characters, and put meat on their bones, give us two or three ways to put our spin on your franchise’s hero or heroine. Otherwise you’ve got a movie character in a video game. That’s okay but it’s not the most robust use of the medium.

Some day, when time permits, I’ll write more about conversations in tabletop RPG play and how to add non-violent challenges to games of all sorts. Until then.