When a dialogue tree has too many leaves.


Shepherd. Wait... did that wrong.
Dialogue? Yeah, spell check. Dialogue. 
 
After weeks and months of stalling and procrastination, I finally got the courage to play Mass Effect. Perhaps you've never heard of it. Mass Effect is a small video game made by Bioware, a tiny, independent group of ragtag nerds with a love for speaking and the occasional action. It's about aliens and spaceships and going pew pew pew with your fancy space gun. But it's not your ordinary space shooter, it's a game with a grossly expansive universe with lots of attention to the tiniest details. For example, did you know the Salarians live relatively short lives due to their metabolism? Did you also know the average Krogan can bench press 600 pounds? And that the SSV Normandy was not named for the World War II battle, but after Normandy Mining, a former mining company based in Australia? Well when you talk to people like I do in Mass Effect, you can find all sorts of useless information on various alien species, class hierarchy, eating habits, hygiene, favorite color, and more. I've played through several hours of the game and I feel I've barely scratched the surface not just because I take my fucking time sightseeing like I always do in games of this scope, but because I have to talk to everything that moves. It's an unfortunate side affect of my completionist syndrome. Of course the game doesn't help since conversations can last a really long time. I'm expected at one point in the game to run into one of the maintenance workers at the Citadel and ask him in detail about his race, job, favorite football team, and last sexual encounter because I would not be surprised. 

Mass Effect: the book?
But I do exaggerate just a smidge... or I'm playing it wrong. Mass Effect is a very talkative game with the inability to shut up when I'm in control. I guess if you're trying to build a universe from scratch, one way is to have it in your face all the time, and people totally dig that. From my point of view, as long as the dialogue is good and in no way hokey, go ahead and talk my ear off because getting to know the various groups, races, and their history will undoubtedly help understanding the entire story when it's time to blow up the Death Star or whatever happens at the end. There's an entire universe to explore filled with some odd creatures that all speak English. Star Trek, much? 
 
Where's the "Get back in the kitchen, woman!" option?
What I'm trying to say is that while the choices aren't detrimental to the game, maybe games should consider cutting some unnecessary branches on some of those dialogue trees or even streamlining some of the options. Too often I go to a crew member or complete stranger and we chat for a second... and then Shepard gets all inquisitive. And so 6 different questions show up. Sometimes I wish there was an "all of the above" choice where the morality portion is not involved just to save my mouse a few clicks. The alternative would be to avoid everyone at all costs and just stick to the essentials, but I fear there's something I'll be missing if I say nothing at all so will continue to speak to the most trivial members of society gaining as much knowledge as I can. 
 
So that's my Mass Effect experience in a nutshell so far, but you might be wondering if I have some vendetta against dialogue trees. Well, not really. The whole point of a dialogue tree is not just to inform or decide between a good and bad outcome, but also to increase the replay value of a game. In the case of Mass Effect, Bioware's goal was for the player (that's me... and probably you) to try out every possible scenario and choose Shepard's past, present, and future. It's like reading a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book over and over reading every possible outcome. Right now I'm attempting to create a good Shepard because that's how I always roll, but a part of me wants to create asshole Shepard for the hell of it. 

Maybe?
Now with that out of the way, I was trying to find out what the last game I played at length that had dialogue in tree form. The Sam & Max games come to mind, but that's typical of that genre. Before that, I believe it was Persona 4... and I remember their dialogue trees making a huge difference in how Charlie Tunoku's year would turn out with all the intimacy, popularity, and Social Links. Unfortunately that also means 98% of normal gamers will never get a unique experience due to the 60-100 hours of actual game... that's a lot of JRPG to swallow. That means parts of the game will forever be unknown to me because I doubt I'll touch Persona 4 again. 
 
I think I'm finally out of things to say so I guess this is the part of the blog where I ask a question about what you think about dialogue trees. 
 
  1. What's your opinion on dialogue trees?
  2. Is there a game out there with the perfect dialogue tree construct?
  3. Do you love having dialogue trees as a means to make decisions?
  4. Are you indifferent towards them?
  5. Do you hate them with a passion because you think it's a poor way to tell a story or because you think predetermining your own fate is stupid?
  6. Goodbye.
 
Choose wisely!?
19 Comments
20 Comments
Edited by Dalai

Shepherd. Wait... did that wrong.
Dialogue? Yeah, spell check. Dialogue. 
 
After weeks and months of stalling and procrastination, I finally got the courage to play Mass Effect. Perhaps you've never heard of it. Mass Effect is a small video game made by Bioware, a tiny, independent group of ragtag nerds with a love for speaking and the occasional action. It's about aliens and spaceships and going pew pew pew with your fancy space gun. But it's not your ordinary space shooter, it's a game with a grossly expansive universe with lots of attention to the tiniest details. For example, did you know the Salarians live relatively short lives due to their metabolism? Did you also know the average Krogan can bench press 600 pounds? And that the SSV Normandy was not named for the World War II battle, but after Normandy Mining, a former mining company based in Australia? Well when you talk to people like I do in Mass Effect, you can find all sorts of useless information on various alien species, class hierarchy, eating habits, hygiene, favorite color, and more. I've played through several hours of the game and I feel I've barely scratched the surface not just because I take my fucking time sightseeing like I always do in games of this scope, but because I have to talk to everything that moves. It's an unfortunate side affect of my completionist syndrome. Of course the game doesn't help since conversations can last a really long time. I'm expected at one point in the game to run into one of the maintenance workers at the Citadel and ask him in detail about his race, job, favorite football team, and last sexual encounter because I would not be surprised. 

Mass Effect: the book?
But I do exaggerate just a smidge... or I'm playing it wrong. Mass Effect is a very talkative game with the inability to shut up when I'm in control. I guess if you're trying to build a universe from scratch, one way is to have it in your face all the time, and people totally dig that. From my point of view, as long as the dialogue is good and in no way hokey, go ahead and talk my ear off because getting to know the various groups, races, and their history will undoubtedly help understanding the entire story when it's time to blow up the Death Star or whatever happens at the end. There's an entire universe to explore filled with some odd creatures that all speak English. Star Trek, much? 
 
Where's the "Get back in the kitchen, woman!" option?
What I'm trying to say is that while the choices aren't detrimental to the game, maybe games should consider cutting some unnecessary branches on some of those dialogue trees or even streamlining some of the options. Too often I go to a crew member or complete stranger and we chat for a second... and then Shepard gets all inquisitive. And so 6 different questions show up. Sometimes I wish there was an "all of the above" choice where the morality portion is not involved just to save my mouse a few clicks. The alternative would be to avoid everyone at all costs and just stick to the essentials, but I fear there's something I'll be missing if I say nothing at all so will continue to speak to the most trivial members of society gaining as much knowledge as I can. 
 
So that's my Mass Effect experience in a nutshell so far, but you might be wondering if I have some vendetta against dialogue trees. Well, not really. The whole point of a dialogue tree is not just to inform or decide between a good and bad outcome, but also to increase the replay value of a game. In the case of Mass Effect, Bioware's goal was for the player (that's me... and probably you) to try out every possible scenario and choose Shepard's past, present, and future. It's like reading a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book over and over reading every possible outcome. Right now I'm attempting to create a good Shepard because that's how I always roll, but a part of me wants to create asshole Shepard for the hell of it. 

Maybe?
Now with that out of the way, I was trying to find out what the last game I played at length that had dialogue in tree form. The Sam & Max games come to mind, but that's typical of that genre. Before that, I believe it was Persona 4... and I remember their dialogue trees making a huge difference in how Charlie Tunoku's year would turn out with all the intimacy, popularity, and Social Links. Unfortunately that also means 98% of normal gamers will never get a unique experience due to the 60-100 hours of actual game... that's a lot of JRPG to swallow. That means parts of the game will forever be unknown to me because I doubt I'll touch Persona 4 again. 
 
I think I'm finally out of things to say so I guess this is the part of the blog where I ask a question about what you think about dialogue trees. 
 
  1. What's your opinion on dialogue trees?
  2. Is there a game out there with the perfect dialogue tree construct?
  3. Do you love having dialogue trees as a means to make decisions?
  4. Are you indifferent towards them?
  5. Do you hate them with a passion because you think it's a poor way to tell a story or because you think predetermining your own fate is stupid?
  6. Goodbye.
 
Choose wisely!?
Edited by CL60

I really like the dialogue trees in Alpha Protocol. They have a sense of urgency to them, so you're not standing there looking into eachothers eyes for an awkward amount of time.

Posted by JJWeatherman
  1. I like them. I think they add a very necessary feeling of control in a lot of my favorite games.
  2. Nothing is perfect. Nothing. Mass Effect's isn't bad though. It's consistent and well organized.
  3. Love? ...OK, yes.
  4. I am not indifferent towards them. See above answer.  =P
  5. No I don't hate them, and I don't see how they're predetermining your fate. I mean, yes, your fate is always predetermined in video games, but NOT having a dialog tree feels a lot more predetermined.
  6. Later gator.
Posted by BraveToaster

I didn't bother talking to everyone in ME1. I easily grow impatient and I rush to get back to the action. 
 
They definitely reduced the amount of dialogue trees in ME2.

Posted by Sweep

The chat options in Mass Effect are almost chat roulette (except without the naked guys jerking off). They lay out the guidelines, but you can never be quite sure what's actually going to happen. Sometimes I found those options almost too unpredictable. That whole thing with Wrex, for example...

Moderator
Posted by ahoodedfigure

I love the potential of dialog trees as a game mechanic. You're totally right that general inquiries shouldn't play out like that, though. Maybe they could be divided into paragraphs, or as part of story-conversation things. I guess some people like to cut to the chase, though, and just learn specific things and move on, consequences be damned. 
 
My problem is more that it leads to really goofy dialog rhythm, where they'll end their statements by "what else would you like to know?" to keep everything uniform. I just hope that other games that use such trees don't think ME's method is the only way to do this. I'm hoping someone, some day will design a conversation system that feels a bit more like human beings are having a conversation, with a beginning, middle, and end, with possibly the person getting exhausted by too many questions or needing to be GIVEN information rather than just dispense it.
 
If they reduce all choices to just the ones that have game impact, it might be telegraphing things a bit too much, but given that they already telegraph the consequences of choices with color-coding, I guess it wouldn't be too much of a stretch.

Posted by Sparky_Buzzsaw

I love all the little background details I get from characters in Mass Effect 1 & 2  I do, however, wish there were more options when it came time to picking conversation bits that affect my good/bad reputation or my influence with someone.  I'd like to see good/slightly good/neutral/slightly evil/evil choices, in order to give it a little more flavor than black/white/gray.

Moderator
Posted by Claude

Got to agree with Sweep about Mass Effect dialogue options. I believe Mass Effect was the first game I played where the options given were not necessarily what was said. I ran down the renegade path a few times, I was playing the good guy, because I picked an option only to have Shepard say something completely different than what I thought he would say. Also, Mass Effect 2's dialogue options are much easier to understand. 
 
As for your questions... I don't mind them. Each game that uses some form of dialogue choice system serves its purpose. I can't think of any perfect ones. As I said, Mass Effect 2 is better than 1 in this regard. In the end, it's all exposition... a fleshing out the story for your entertainment pleasure.

Posted by Little_Socrates

I think Mass Effect's is pretty much dead on, and while there's an absurd number of people the game will let you talk to, my Shepard has always been focused on getting his mission done. He doesn't do a ton of the side-stuff, he's focused on keeping his crew happy and completing his mission. 
 
I think that it's hard to believe that Shepard would be so inquisitive with all these people out and about the Citadel, so I have him ignore people that don't seem high-profile. If people specifically call for him, it's another story, but usually I just walk on by.

Posted by melcene
@JJWeatherman said:
"
  1. I like them. I think they add a very necessary feeling of control in a lot of my favorite games.
  2. Nothing is perfect. Nothing. Mass Effect's isn't bad though. It's consistent and well organized.
  3. Love? ...OK, yes.
  4. I am not indifferent towards them. See above answer.  =P
  5. No I don't hate them, and I don't see how they're predetermining your fate. I mean, yes, your fate is always predetermined in video games, but NOT having a dialog tree feels a lot more predetermined.
  6. Later gator.
"
LOL Pretty much all this. 
 
I like the dialogue trees, and even when they're not laid out like Mass Effect, but laid out more like Dragon Age, I still like them.  I like choices is the big thing. 
 
Also, Love the Choose your Own Adventure reference.  I loved those books as a kid.
Posted by sopachuco13

I thought your blog was pretty good. I like the way that you write.  
 
I like dialog trees because I have the ability to approach them in any way. I can be a completionist or I can totally disreguard the dialog trees. In Mass Effect, I am more into going through as much of the dialog tree as possible. But, with JRPGs I can usually get away with the simplest of options.
Posted by Claude
@sopachuco13 said:
" I thought your blog was pretty good. I like the way that you write.   I like dialog trees because I have the ability to approach them in any way. I can be a completionist or I can totally disreguard the dialog trees. In Mass Effect, I am more into going through as much of the dialog tree as possible. But, with JRPGs I can usually get away with the simplest of options. "
Dalai is a great blogger. I enjoy his writing as well. Here's more.
Posted by TheDudeOfGaming

Hell,the more the better, the problem with most dialogue options is that no matter how you respond the person(s) you are having a conversation with respond in the same way.  

Posted by ReyGitano

1) I LOVE dialogue trees. Yeah, they have their problems, like not always translating over to what you thought you were going to say, but overall being able to put my voice into the conversation is a good way for me to feel engaged with the characters 
2) No, I don't think there's a standard yet, but there are a lot of good ideas out there. The problem is they all have their weaknesses as well. 
3) They're not always best for important decisions, because it's not always clear what your character is actually going to say, or what the text actually means. 
4)I'm not indifferent towards them 
5) nor do I hate them 
6) NO! Don't leave me T_T

Posted by Dalai
@TheDudeOfGaming said:
" Hell,the more the better, the problem with most dialogue options is that no matter how you respond the person(s) you are having a conversation with respond in the same way.   "
I can see that being a problem. I can be a total dickwad to someone, but at the end result isn't any different than if I complimented or sucked up to him/her. That's less of a dialog tree and more of a dialog detour. 
 
@sopachuco13 said:
" I thought your blog was pretty good. I like the way that you write.   I like dialog trees because I have the ability to approach them in any way. I can be a completionist or I can totally disreguard the dialog trees. In Mass Effect, I am more into going through as much of the dialog tree as possible. But, with JRPGs I can usually get away with the simplest of options. "
Flattery will get you nowhere... yet. 
 
The completionist in me has to explore and gather as much information as possible in a game, and even though it might not be necessary to ask about everything Shepard sees and hears about, I'd be pissed if I missed out on even the smallest details. Those parts should often be consolidated, in my opinion. I have no problem with more choices when it comes to making crucial moral choices, but I think the problem is the choices come down to either being awesome, being Switzerland, or being a total dick. I'd like to see more gray areas in moral choices, but in the end I always try to be good anyway.
Posted by sopachuco13
@Dalai: 
 
I agree with you that these types of games need more grey area options. The best stories always deal with walking the knifes edge.  
 
I think what you are trying to say is that because Mass Effect doesn't focus on its grey area. So, the decisions made in the grey area feel pretty useless. Leading you to think that they should have consolidated their options. But, if the multitude of dialog options meant that your character would be impacted, even in the slightest way, you would be fine with a large number of dialog options.  
 
I would like to have a character that is more like Han Solo (cliche, I know) or, sorry I can't think of a character on the other side of the coin. But, both characters would be good overall. Han leans more toward the bad guy and the other character that I can't think of would be a good character, but not an angel.
Posted by Agent47
@SlashseveN303: I used to think they were great an all when I played ME1, but ME2 made me realize they are not too great.This is only me but I feel like I am missing so much content when I choose a dialouge choice, mainly the renegade/paragon paths.(Same goes for Fallout:New Vegas)I wish there was another way to do it but I can't really think of anything.
 I understand it's to give players each a different experience, but I am one of those people that likes to finish every quest and hear all the dialouge.(Not obtain every collectible)This has forced me to do numerous playthroughs of ME2 in which I stop halfway and never finish.ME1 I played like 5 times whole.I just think maybe they should give different  dialouge outcomes and tone down the number of options.While I love the many options it drives me crazy sometimes.Ugh it is all too confusing.
Posted by kingzetta

yes 
yes
yes
no 
no
goodbye

Posted by Danbo

You can never have too many leaves

Posted by EVO
@Dalai said:
" Is there a game out there with the perfect dialogue tree construct? "
Yep, Heavy Rain.
 
There's just 2-4 leaves to any given dialogue tree and unlike Mass Effect, or any game as far as I know, you have a limited time to choose your words. This creates a natural flow to conversations and a sense of risk to each choice you make.
 
For an interactive drama, or whatever Heavy Rain is, I sure played a bigger role in it than any so called role playing game.