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Let's Talk

Journal is an adventure game, one that forgoes typical gaming puzzles to focus on character interaction. That is to say there will be a lot of talking in the game. I would say the most common two methods of dealing with conversation in any story based game is either to have the entire conversation pre-defined or to give the player dialogue trees. As the conversation is the main gameplay mechanic I can't just have the player travel around triggering story cutscenes or I might as well be writing a book. So that leaves me with dialogue trees, ropey old dialogue trees.

Grinding Conversation

The first thing that bothers me about the typical approach to dialogue trees is that you're not really presenting the player with must choice. In most games it's more about letting player work their way through a bunch of pointless branches until they hit the correct route through the conversation. It's discussion by trial and error and to some degree breaks the reality of the game. How often do you have a conversation with someone and when it goes badly you just break out and start the whole thing over again.

The best implementation I've seen is probably Mass Effect, here conversations are a mostly a flowing thing. You go through them once and are forced to make choices along the way that will affect the outcome of the discussion. They even allow you to pick your next choice slightly in advance to keep the dialogue flowing. They do actually have some elements of old style dialogue trees in there if you want to pump someone for deeper information but most story conversations happen once and there's no second chance without reloading.

So for these reasons in Journal conversations about a specific topic will largely be a one shot deal, you go through that dialogue with a character and unless you find something new from another person to advance the conversation any more you can't go back for a redo. This is something BioWare are leading the way on and I'm happy to follow.

Illusion of Choice

The next big problem I have with traditional dialogue trees is you get loads of choices but essentially you have no choice as to how the game will play out. There's only really one or two correct ways through the conversation you can't really change things and inject much of how you want it to play out. The basic reasoning being that if you let the players say what they want you've got to create lots of additional branches to the storyline.

A lot of games deal with this by giving you fake choices, where if you go back and revisit the various options you were given they all in fact result in the same response. Bethesda's Fallout 3 deals with this tremendously simply by doing all the ground work it takes to accommodate quests being completed in lots of different ways.

Not wanting to trick players with hollow decisions and not having Bethesda's budget I've decided to try something slightly different. In Journal you can make choices in each conversation that will affect how you interact with the other character, and so the conversation will play out differently depending on what you choose. However rather than branching the game's storyline based on each player choice, it will instead just affect how that other character sees the player. More like a reputation system I guess, that will then affect other elements of the game down the line.

Ideas Not Words

Finally not so much a problem with normal dialogue trees but I guess more a personal preference again inspired by Mass Effect. When a character talks to you most games bring you up a list of responses you can reply with, with is fairly logical however in Mass Effect you've usually just given a couple of words, hinting at the mood or an action that you character will say without being so explicit. I liked this a lot because the way the conversation plays out is still a surprise to the player and instead of trying to analyse what each choice of phrase will lead to you're instead picking a mood or a tone of how your character is behaving.

Taking this approach really allowed me to simple down the conversation interface in Journal. Rather than having lots of text on screen I instead just use a simple row of icons at the bottom of the screen. These icons can represent either topics of conversation, or a moods for replying with. So for example when you first open up a conversation with a character you'll get icons for various topics that you've learnt about so far, but when the other character expects a response from you your choices could be nasty or nice, lie or truth.

I'm Going To Have To Stop You There

I'm hoping the system I'm describing is something players will get into. In my ideal world players will quickly learn what they think of the other characters in the world of Journal and make conversation choices based on the emotions of how they feel towards them.

Having said all this I don't think my way is a "superior" or "correct" approach. I just think these are the type of conversation I enjoy most in games and think suit what I'm trying to achieve with Journal the best. Greatly looking forward to see what choices people will be making in the eventual play testing sessions.

Welcome to the home of Locked Door Puzzle, the independent game development studio of Richard Perrin located in Bristol.

My primary focus is on creating expressive games that explore different forms of interactive storytelling.

For contact details check the about page.