The art of conversation




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Presenting the previous work

Appendix A represents a lot of the groundwork involved in the present study. We will be referring to this when necessary, but we will also be expanding not only the game analysis but also observations in connection with computer games and conversations/dialogue.


The general idea behind Appendix A was to try and discern whether or not a framework concerning conversations in games could be observed when analyzing games. The framework put forward is by no means perfect, and is therefore also discussed in Appendix A, but we will nevertheless be using the framework when analyzing games in this paper.

Continued analysis of games and conversations

In this section we will expand on the analysis in Appendix A. We decided to add Gothic 3 to our survey, because it’s sort of in between Oblivion (Bethesda Softworks; 2006) and Neverwinter Nights 2 (Obsidian Entertainment; 2006), concerning the dialogue-structure, yet it’s different, and might therefore yield interesting results. But obviously this means that we also have to subject them to the same analysis as in Appendix A.



Gothic 3 (2006)




Gothic 3 (Piranha Bytes, 2006), like Oblivion, casts you in a vast and epic 3D-game-world, richly detailed with lush graphics and changing scenery. From the cold and icy north (Nordmaar) to the Midlands (Myrtana), all the way down south to the warm and beautiful desert (Varant), the game-world is extremely vast and beautiful.

Also like Oblivion, you can go off on many different quests ignoring the main plot completely. The main plot revolves around the Orcs of the north having taken over the Midlands, and you can then decide to join them, the rebels or other factions.
The game suffered heavily from bugs and flaws when released, and the game-play especially suffered from a concept known now to Gothic 3 players as “stun-locking”: when fighting some animals like wild boars or wolves, these animals could lock the player in a permanent state of damage and back-pedalling that would more often than not lead to death, which would not have been so horrible, had not the load time for a saved game been between 1 and 2 minutes, even on state-of-the-art machines. In general it is a very unforgiving (and even masochistic) game.
The dialogue options in Gothic 3 tend to be quite elaborate, but since you are cast as the “nameless hero”, and there is no choice of background, the dialogue options only change according to Avatar Behaviour and Development (p. 23 Appendix A). Also the statistics dimensions (interior and exterior) do not really influence the dialogue. This is quite different from contemporary “role-playing” games like Vampire: Bloodlines (Troika Games, 2003) or Neverwinter Nights 2.
You do get options in the conversations to learn certain skills (like handling large two-handed weapons), and these choices obviously disappear when you have said skill, but this isn’t really a conversation choice (“learn to use humongous 300 pound spiked club”) per see.

Consequence versus inconsequence in conversations




Overall speaking, conversations in games can be divided into these two areas: consequential and non-consequential. However, no game is totally consequential while there are games that have totally non-consequential conversations. We still feel it is valid to shed some light on this area as consequential conversations can have a big impact on the way the games are played and how the experience is perceived.

Consequential conversations




By consequential conversation we mean a conversation in-game where you have one go at the conversation and then the result is as-is. In the above screenshot from Vampire: Bloodlines for example, you are able to decide if the schizophrenic woman pictured should either choose one of her personalities or stay the same.

Also where you are able to influence the way NPC’s behave towards your avatar by your choices in the conversation trees or the conversation has other impact on the game world as a result of your conversation choices.


In games such as Baldur’s Gate I and II (BioWare, 1998/2000) you find consequential conversation as you are able to make other members of your party so mad that they attack you or each other. Conversations with NPC’s can also be a one-shot as you will not be able to redo that conversation (unless you save and load a lot). This can mean a change in the game-world leading to certain NPC’s not wanting to speak with you or indeed attack you on sight. It goes the other way as well as you can also make NPC’s like you thus unlocking certain conversation possibilities that would otherwise not be available.

Very few games (we actually only know of one game) has 100% consequential conversation trees throughout the game as that is virtually impossible and would require an almost human-like AI to come up with continuous dynamic conversation tree’s based on the players actions. It is also necessary that the player has the option of redoing the conversations that contain vital information, such as directions to certain locations etc.



Even though very few games are completely consequential in regards to its conversation we still feel it is valid to make this distinction.
However if the game is simplistic enough it can actually be 100% consequential and our best example (and the only one we know of) is Law of the West from 1985. This game is very consequential, but the game is also very simple as it has no other options than talking (choose dialogue options) and shooting. The game is centred on conversation and players can choose to be either a bad sheriff or a good sheriff only based on their dialogue options and there is no morale “compass” or score system in the game to encourage players to be good.
Games that fall into this category are games that work with both non-consequential and consequential conversation, where the consequential conversations play a big role on how the game is played.

Non-consequential conversations.




By non-consequential conversation we mean the type of conversation where you can exhaust the conversation options again and again and again without it having any impact on the game world in any way. Most games function this way as it is indeed the easiest way to construct conversation trees and most conversations in this spectrum work only as an information giver (as seen above in Oblivion) e.g. give the player directions to a certain location, or give the player information that can lead to a quest being solved.
Sometimes it can play out a bit odd though. In Temple of Elemental Evil (Troika Games, 2003) you can give your characters various stats that alter the way they talk to NPC’s (diplomacy, bluff etc). Early on in this game you are able to accuse two merchants of being thieves, if your character has the right stats, as their prices are very high. They do respond to that by telling you to go away together with a note saying “he suddenly fiddles with a knife in his hand”. However, nothing happens. You can keep on accusing them of being thieves over and over again and the result is the same, i.e. they fiddle a lot with their knives but there is no consequence to this accusation.
A game that has absolutely no consequence in the conversations is Agatha Christie: Murder on the Orient Express (DreamCatcher Interactive, 2006). Even IGN reflects on this in their review of the game where they write:
Such conversations make sense within the context of the game, since Antoinette is investigating a murder committed onboard the train and needs to collect everyone's alibis. The conversations would have been far more interesting if they offered more in the way of consequence. As it is, a conversation involves clicking on a character and exhausting conversation options one at a time. Information gleaned from suspects is always the same, regardless of what order you ask the questions. […]Had there been an opportunity to choose conversation branches that had varying affects on how subsequent events played out, this could have been more engaging. 1

The game is a murder-mystery game where the player has to solve a murder based on the famous story. In this game you can exhaust the conversation tree’s over and over again to gain information on discoveries. For example, if the player discovers foot prints outside the train, he will be able to ask Mr. Poirot about them and get some replies, but they will be standard one-way information that the player can use, but there is no consequence to it. These murder-mystery games can suffer hard from this. Another example is the CSI series (Ubisoft, various dates) where a player can have connected all the right dots to be able to point out the murderer, based on conversations and evidence, but some obscure connection have to be made in the game mechanics, before the game will allow the player to actually arrest and interrogate the suspect.


If conversation in a game is non-consequential it can have the impact that the player loses the illusion and simply views the conversations as just another puzzle or piece of the game mechanics that has to be cracked instead of trying to be in character and ask the right questions, of course if there are no “wrong” questions to ask, then it becomes a matter of just clicking the right combination.

On the other hand, if the conversation choices actually have an impact on the game it can imply a usage of “wrong” choices which can lead to e.g. the barkeep becoming very upset with you and kicking you out of his inn, so you have no place to stay (fictitious example).


So what does this talk of consequence mean?




It can definitely be argued that a consequential conversation structure will yield a higher feeling of actually influencing the game rather than being influenced. The difference can be compared to one-way communication versus two-way communication. It is usually more interesting when it is possible to influence the game so the player actually feel that he/she is influencing and altering the game world instead of just experiencing it.

But it can be hard to implement. As mentioned earlier it requires a lot from the AI programming.


It also has the drawback that once you cut the player off from other paths than the one chosen, some player types are likely to feel sort of cheated because they want to experience all of the game, not only the paths that emerge from their choices. They will desire to explore all the content of the game.

According to the DGD1 questionnaire we’ve used for our own questionnaire the wanderer play style is defined as:


The feeling that something new is just around the corner, an involving story, or a beautiful world which is a pleasure just to look at are all draws for players preferring this play style.
Looking at this description we can deduct the above statement, that wanderers are inclined to try a consequential conversation over and over again just too explore the possibilities and consequences. This type is similar to the “Explorer” play type as described by Richard Bartle.

Others might want to experiment with every encounter in order to find the best possible outcome which leaves them saving and loading all the time. These players will try to beat all aspects of the game, which will involve a lot of trying to find the best outcome of any conversation. If the conversation has consequences, then a lot of saving and loading is required. As opposed to the aforementioned, these players will desire to conquer/defeat all the content of the game.

According to the DGD1 questionnaire we’ve used for our own questionnaire the conqueror play style is described as:
This play style is highly patient with frustration, because they know if they stick with it, they can win. Players who prefer this play style often aim to utterly defeat games they play - and they tend to finish games they start.
It should be noted than when we make the comparison between consequential/non-consequential conversation and one-way/two-way communication it is only in regards to the conversations in the games and the effect of those, not in any way related to other aspects of games and game mechanics.

There are more layers to this consequence discussion. If a conversation tree has consequences on the game world, it may be so that the player does not notice, unless the player goes back and plays through the game again; choosing other options and then notices a difference in how the game plays out. The player can miss out on game content if the conversations have different consequences depending on the choices.

This means that we can categorize the consequential conversations as having either consequence for the player (experience etc.), the computer (change in the world that is not perceived by the player) or both (change in the world that is perceived by the player).

However if the consequence happens for the computer and is not perceived by the player, it is arguable if it has any impact at all as the change will never be perceived by anything else but the algorithms and code behind the game.
It can be compared to the classical philosophical question of “if a tree falls in the wood and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” If a player experiences a consequence of a conversation but is not aware of it, can it then be classified as a consequence?

It can certainly be argued that the consequence is there, at least on the systems side but is the conversation consequential if the player does not notice it? Will the conversation first become consequential on the second play where the player realizes that the game world changes based on the choices made?


For this project we will be strict and say that the consequence is there no matter if the player realizes it or not. Furthermore it can be argued that the majority of the players will notice the consequence as it is often very apparent (the NPC actually becomes mad because of an insult) and the players often play games of this nature through more than once.

This is an open question that we will not focus on more as it is of a more philosophical nature. Interesting as the discussion may be, we will not touch further upon it.




Connecting the dots

Applying all this talk to the games we have worked with and mention we can say the following:


Law of the West

This game is very consequential as the whole game is centred on conversation and the effects of the choices made. It is a conversation game so to speak and as such it is 100% consequential


Secret of Monkey Island (Lucasfilm Games; 1990)

There is close to no consequence in this game. The sword fights where taunts are used (see appendix A, page 10; description) are all about finding the right combination of taunts, but it can give a sense of consequence i.e. you lose if you make a bad taunt.


Fallout (Black Isle Studios, 1997)

In this game you can get your avatar into fights if you insult other characters (NPC's) which means that there is a rather large amount of consequence. However it is not all NPC's that you can insult and you can always return to some of these NPC's and repeat the dialogue to view information again. For this game it is about consequence in being able to insult other characters and non-consequent in terms of gaining information from certain NPC’s.

Planescape: Torment (Black Isle Studios, 1999)

This game is a lot like Fallout in terms of conversations and consequence. It has a good balance of consequential and non-consequential conversation as mentioned above for Fallout, yet even this game sometimes falls back on a no-choice dialogue as pictured in the above screenshot and screenshots on past pages.
Baldur’s Gate II

This game is a lot like Fallout in terms of conversations and consequence. In this game however you can make your own party members mad at you and each other which might lead to fighting between you and them or among themselves.


Morrowind (Bethesda Softworks, 2002)

There is little consequence in this game. Sometimes some conversations will occur where the player has some options that can affect the attitude of the NPC towards the avatar, but usually this attitude has no effect or can be easily remedied if it is necessary. The rest of the conversations in the game are about keywords and exhausting conversation possibilities.


Vampire: Bloodlines

This game contains quite a lot of conversation consequence, similar to a game like Fallout. It does however have conversations that are not consequential (getting skill points/upgrades for free).


Oblivion

This game does contain conversations with consequence but it is not often. In the conversations that contain consequence it is often very little consequence so it is of little to no importance.


Neverwinter Nights II

There is a lot of consequence in the conversations in this game, but you can not, as opposed to Baldur’s Gate II, get party members so mad that they attack you or each other until the very end of the game where party members can switch sides if they do not like the player.


Gothic 3

There is more consequence in this game than in Oblivion but less than in Neverwinter Nights II. The consequence level is somewhere in between these two games.



Summation

Most games operate with both consequential and non-consequential conversation trees. The latter is used for information giving in the term of e.g. directions to locations. The former however is used to give the player a more immersive experience. The player is allowed to influence the content and events of the game to his liking. This is a mechanism that opens for more immersive role-playing in these role-playing games2, as the player can allow his character to behave in certain ways which in turn affects the characters surroundings.

It can of course also give a more immersive experience in games that are not role-playing games, such as adventure games (monkey island) or murder/mystery games (Agatha Christie, CSI), however there is no murder/mystery game that has this form of consequence within their dialogue (to our knowledge) as most of these games play out more as an interactive movie than a game.

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