Dialogue Trees: A Mentospective

Hey guys. It's a new blog talking about a video game thing. I swear I'll do a new Old vs. New at some point. I just need to start playing Dragon Age 2 proper for snark fuel.

In the meanwhile, and related to DA2, I'll discuss dialogue trees. They've been present in video games as far back as text adventures and most of the time have two specific uses from a gameplay perspective:
 
1) It allows the player to gather information.
2) It allows the player to roleplay their character's chosen traits and personality, treating NPCs how they'd likely treat them. 

Dialogue Trees have a massive effect (so sorry) on how people in your video game machine talk to each other.
Once again, Giant Bomb saves me a job by conveniently having an elucidating wiki article about the phenomenon, allowing me to skip most of the explanation and go straight into the opinion stuff. I love opinion stuff.
 
First, I want to discuss Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (the graphic adventure game). LucasArts would end up creating many a fantastic adventure game throughout the 90s, as anyone who has played a SCUMM engine game can attest to, but for the purposes of this article I will contain my admiration to a few choice examples that used dialogue trees in a particularly interesting way. For the Indy license game, this is the whole chapter when you're sneaking into the Nazi-owned castle to rescue Henry Sr.
 
This section is a bit like an homage to the original Castle Wolfenstein where you ran through rooms and corridors in a top-down view either avoiding Nazis or killing them. Like in that game, Indy does not have an endless fount of health with which to fight his way past them all, and the fighting sub-game isn't exactly easy to win in the first place. More often than not, Indy had to trick the guards into letting him past. Indy had a choice of dialogue starters with which to fool the guards, and only one branch worked for each guard (including the now infamous "I'm selling these fine leather jackets" excuse for his decidedly non-Nazi clothing). Some Nazis couldn't be tricked by the dialogue no matter what, while others could be snuck by or be done away with with regular adventure game puzzle logic - such as getting one particularly beefy guy incredibly drunk to reduce his health for an easy KO. While choosing the right responses for these encounters were often a crapshoot, they tended to be amusingly written enough to be worth trying again and again regardless. 
 
My second example from the LucasArts canon is the very well known Secret of Monkey Island insult-fighting, which future games in that series attempted to build on with mixed results. Insults could be learned from random fights all over the island, and by using the correct rhyming response one could trounce their opponent. There's no reward or huge meta-game element to it, it was just necessary for one of the recruitment puzzles. At no point is the player expected to do any of the fighting themselves (unlike in the Indy example), as the dialogue choices dictated the entire process.
 
Since the rule of three is always in full effect for these blogs, my final example of a dialogue system done well in a game - one that wasn't particularly as well thought out in its other aspects - are the interrogations in Fahrenheit (or Indigo Prophecy, if you live in a region where the game was named after a band in the New Romantics era for whatever reason). In this, the player is presented with a few topics and a countdown timer: The player could only ask the most pertinent things in the small time allotted, because that's mostly how conversations go in real life. A person won't sit there while you stare at them with your cold, dead mannequin eyes (I'm picking on Bioware games again, sorry) trying to decide between sarcasm, being a goody-too-shoes or asking the wizard how strange the situation appears to be. You'll generally get a brief window to squeeze a few questions in before the witness is too overcome with shock to continue, or runs out of things to say. The same is true for answering a question: You get a few seconds to say "yes" or "no" before your cop friend decides he's not waiting around forever to hear if you want a coffee and donut too.
 
When one considers how dialogue trees in the more action-oriented WRPGs of today have been reduced to mere info-gathering and "I'm good/evil! Deal with it!", it sort of makes me pine for the days when they were more than that. The writing's as good as its ever been, but the trees feel like they're treated as some compulsory feature a designer has to work around to deliver the script, rather than fully embrace with an intelligent new twist or gameplay application. Adventure games are coming back, though, so maybe there's still hope.
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Posted by Mento

Hey guys. It's a new blog talking about a video game thing. I swear I'll do a new Old vs. New at some point. I just need to start playing Dragon Age 2 proper for snark fuel.

In the meanwhile, and related to DA2, I'll discuss dialogue trees. They've been present in video games as far back as text adventures and most of the time have two specific uses from a gameplay perspective:
 
1) It allows the player to gather information.
2) It allows the player to roleplay their character's chosen traits and personality, treating NPCs how they'd likely treat them. 

Dialogue Trees have a massive effect (so sorry) on how people in your video game machine talk to each other.
Once again, Giant Bomb saves me a job by conveniently having an elucidating wiki article about the phenomenon, allowing me to skip most of the explanation and go straight into the opinion stuff. I love opinion stuff.
 
First, I want to discuss Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (the graphic adventure game). LucasArts would end up creating many a fantastic adventure game throughout the 90s, as anyone who has played a SCUMM engine game can attest to, but for the purposes of this article I will contain my admiration to a few choice examples that used dialogue trees in a particularly interesting way. For the Indy license game, this is the whole chapter when you're sneaking into the Nazi-owned castle to rescue Henry Sr.
 
This section is a bit like an homage to the original Castle Wolfenstein where you ran through rooms and corridors in a top-down view either avoiding Nazis or killing them. Like in that game, Indy does not have an endless fount of health with which to fight his way past them all, and the fighting sub-game isn't exactly easy to win in the first place. More often than not, Indy had to trick the guards into letting him past. Indy had a choice of dialogue starters with which to fool the guards, and only one branch worked for each guard (including the now infamous "I'm selling these fine leather jackets" excuse for his decidedly non-Nazi clothing). Some Nazis couldn't be tricked by the dialogue no matter what, while others could be snuck by or be done away with with regular adventure game puzzle logic - such as getting one particularly beefy guy incredibly drunk to reduce his health for an easy KO. While choosing the right responses for these encounters were often a crapshoot, they tended to be amusingly written enough to be worth trying again and again regardless. 
 
My second example from the LucasArts canon is the very well known Secret of Monkey Island insult-fighting, which future games in that series attempted to build on with mixed results. Insults could be learned from random fights all over the island, and by using the correct rhyming response one could trounce their opponent. There's no reward or huge meta-game element to it, it was just necessary for one of the recruitment puzzles. At no point is the player expected to do any of the fighting themselves (unlike in the Indy example), as the dialogue choices dictated the entire process.
 
Since the rule of three is always in full effect for these blogs, my final example of a dialogue system done well in a game - one that wasn't particularly as well thought out in its other aspects - are the interrogations in Fahrenheit (or Indigo Prophecy, if you live in a region where the game was named after a band in the New Romantics era for whatever reason). In this, the player is presented with a few topics and a countdown timer: The player could only ask the most pertinent things in the small time allotted, because that's mostly how conversations go in real life. A person won't sit there while you stare at them with your cold, dead mannequin eyes (I'm picking on Bioware games again, sorry) trying to decide between sarcasm, being a goody-too-shoes or asking the wizard how strange the situation appears to be. You'll generally get a brief window to squeeze a few questions in before the witness is too overcome with shock to continue, or runs out of things to say. The same is true for answering a question: You get a few seconds to say "yes" or "no" before your cop friend decides he's not waiting around forever to hear if you want a coffee and donut too.
 
When one considers how dialogue trees in the more action-oriented WRPGs of today have been reduced to mere info-gathering and "I'm good/evil! Deal with it!", it sort of makes me pine for the days when they were more than that. The writing's as good as its ever been, but the trees feel like they're treated as some compulsory feature a designer has to work around to deliver the script, rather than fully embrace with an intelligent new twist or gameplay application. Adventure games are coming back, though, so maybe there's still hope.
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Posted by JJWeatherman

There should be an "Ask that wizard how strange the situation appears to be" option in literally every game with dialog options. It should be a permanent option as well.  =P 
 
I dunno, I'm kinda OK with the Mass Effect style, for example. Haven't played DA2 either, but I can't imagine all the hate over the dialog tree stuff is warranted. 
 
Interesting blog though.

Posted by Mento
@JJWeatherman:  Yeah, rereading the blog I kind of come down hard on them for a lack of originality, but they're perfectly functional and preferable to having no sway whatsoever with where the conversation's going. It just feels like a feature they haven't bothered to do something new with since Mass Effect.
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