Creating a Dynamic System for Linear Dialogue - Inspiration + Research (Part 1)
Spirit Island Development Update: For my third Unity prototype, I created an "interrupt system" for the player to interact with and impact a linear dialogue chain. The goal is for the player to feel like less of an observer and more of an active participant during a dialogue scene.
Part 1: Inspiration
I had made a bold claim when I first set out to design Spirit Island.
I had decided that the majority of the storytelling would come through audio. More specifically, it would come in the form of voiceover.
I chose this for reasons both artistic and practical. I have experienced how sound design can envelop and immerse me while playing a game. Practically - and this is a big one - I have extremely limited skills when it comes to making art and animations. I do have heaps of experience with acting and lots of actor friends, however, from spending most of my life in theater.
For this prototype, I finally made a foray into testing that voiceover system. But it couldn't just be any old voiceover system. I wanted the player to stay engaged instead of passively listening. Read: I didn't want them to get bored.
So, how do games allow a player to interact with dialogue?
The most obvious answer is to allow the player to choose their responses within the dialogue, leading to a "branching narrative." I didn't want to do this. For this particular game, there in one specific story that I want to tell. I don't want to give players a chance then to decide whether they feel like being "forthright", "surly", or "timid" - as per the formula of many games that use branching dialogue choices.
Another way to do it is to allow player's to interject or otherwise interrupt a linear dialogue chain.
I had experienced this in a few games, and it stuck with me because it managed to feel like I was having an impact on linear dialogue. It felt natural, like the way people would actually talk, which upped the believability of the world.
To prepare to design my own "interruption system," I revisited Oxenfree and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy to check out what they actually did to achieve this.
The characters are almost always talking in Oxenfree, Night School Studio's adventure indie released in 2016. They chat about everything: their feelings about and for each other, the past, the future, their thoughts on their present situation, their questions and curiosities... It is an immediate and perpetual soundtrack to the game. It is so perpetual that I found myself, as the player, oftentimes only half-listening as I ran around exploring the world.
The player-character is Alex and the player is left to decide how they would like to interact with each conversation. The player can choose to politely stay quiet and listen, or to interrupt with their own thoughts on the topic.
Mark Brown of the Game Maker's Toolkit puts it perfectly in one of his videos:
"With some creative scripting, and tiny phrases like "anyway", "as I was saying", and "so, yeah", the game lets you cut off other characters - but then can return to the useful information or character building stuff that you just talked over. The result of all this is more natural conversations with the pacing and flow of a real chat - rather than the rigid turn-based debate you get in other games."
Major inspiration for this system came from the Western Ghats level in Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, and the GDC talk regarding its design by Josh Scherr (fun fact: the back of my pink head is in the video - right under the pause button!). This level uses time spent traveling in a car to build character relationships, and uses an “interrupt system” that allows players to jump in and out of dialogue neatly.
The “Western Ghats” is the first and only open space designed in the completely linear Uncharted series. Here is an in-game map from the level with objective/destination points included:
The larger lanterns are necessary to completing the primary quest, and the smaller spoked wheels are part of an optional quest. It is, as I mentioned, an open world level, which means that the player can navigate through as it they’d like. This means that there is a wide range of time that the player might be spending within the level: they might smoothly hit all three lanterns in a single, elegant triangle. Or they might (like me), pingpong across the map, getting lost constantly and obsessively visiting every spoked wheel. I spent a lot of time on that level.
The player inhabits Chloe, the protagonist of the game, and moves around by driving a Jeep with her partner Nadine riding shotgun. The game designers must have noted that all that drivetime was a great opportunity for the two characters to be chatting and building their relationship. Remember: just how much time they got to be chatting was completely reliant on how long the player actually spent in the level.
Nadine and Chloe chat about their lives, their work, their partners, and spend a lot of time discussing the mission they are currently on.
It is excellent worldbuilding and character development, but it isn’t strictly necessary that the player hears it.
It isn't necessary because we already understand our objectives and motivations - anything additional just makes the experience juicier.
What makes the conversation feel natural and dynamic is that it changes in the course of the environment. Hopping out of the car pauses the conversation. Chloe says something along the lines of “hold that thought,” and when she reenters the car, starts back in again with something like “what were we talking about again?” and the conversation picks up where it last paused. You can see that in these moments here:
The ladies are mid-conversation when they unwittingly enter a firefight. Nadine pauses the conversation immediately: “Shit, there's guys all over there!”
After they drive away to safety (this particular player choosing to leave rather than engage), Chloe quips: "She who fights and drives away lives to fight another day." Nadine replies with “Right. Pick it pick back up?” and the conversation starts up from the last natural breaking point.
There are two things that I loved about this system: it gave me juicy worldbuilding to entertain me as I traveled from point A to point B (and C and D…), and the receptive dynamism of the conversation made it feel like I was involved.
There is no branching dialogue in this game, most of it you sit back and absorb passively. In the car, driving with Nadine, I may not have been choosing my responses, but I still felt like my choices had an effect.
These games show us how a well-done interruption system within a voiceover system can add to the player experience.
Read on to Part 2 of this post to see how I used these ideas to design and implement my own prototype of this system.