There's a pretty clever article over at Critical Gamer lamenting the state of RPG video games, and targeting the dialogue wheel in particular. The article is called The Authentic RPG and its Tragic Demise. Here's what it has to say about the dialogue wheel in Mass Effect (it goes on to talk about Dragon Age later):
Rather than picking from a list of full responses, this convention only offers a few vague remarks to choose from, and there’s no guaranteeing that Shepard’s spoken reply will be worded the way you intended it to be. The voice acting poses another problem: it becomes impossible to create a unique character. Some people may appreciate the more cinematic approach to a lead protagonist that speaks out loud like everybody else, and ordinarily I’d agree. But in this case it limits the player’s creativity and becomes somewhat less enticing.
The article is a good read, and convenient excuse for me to beat a dead Hawke - er, horse - by revisiting the subject of the dialogue wheel. Last week, I focused on how the wheel puts distance between the player and the PC. That's essentially what the author of that article is complaining about here. However, the first part - the bit about the mismatch between player intentions and PC actions - also hits on a design challenge posed by the dialogue wheel. For this post, I want to get down in the weeds and look at that issue, and a couple others. But first, I should just come out and say how I personally feel about the dialogue wheel.
From a design perspective, I think it's pretty neat. It looks much nicer than the old full-text format. It makes conversations and the game itself flow more naturally. And, I would imagine, it makes it much easier to tell a PC-centric story (as opposed to Dragon Age: Origins, which sometimes felt like The Adventures of Alistair and his Mute Companion What's-His/Her-Name).
As a player though, I hate it. Perhaps "hate" is a strong word, and I'm not sure I would go that far if it were anyone but Bioware that were using this mechanic. Heck, for Bethesda and the Elder Scrolls series, something like the dialogue wheel would be an improvement over the existing system. But Bioware is (or at least, was) considered the last hope for story-based RPGs. Dragon Age itself was supposed to carry the torch. Now they seem to be going in a different direction by embracing something that seems antithetical to roleplaying.
Anyway, here are three miscellaneous items to consider related to the dialogue wheel. The designer in me considers these "challenges" to be overcome by the game developers. The player in me calls them "gripes."
1. How do you write a three-word option that truly represents a much longer voiced line?
The options on the dialogue wheel are short so that the player can scan them and quickly decide what to say. It's inevitable that they're not always going to convey the full meaning of the actual voiced line. However, even when the content of the voiced dialogue doesn't come as a surprise to the player, the style of delivery could. After all, the voiced dialogue is supposed to contain something extra, something more than a mere rephrase.
There's a fine line to walk here. The Dragon Age 2 writers face a tough challenge trying to write lines that accurately represent what the player chose, without being dull reiterations.
2. How do you incorporate even more voice acting without railroading conversations?
Some players already complain that the dialogue choices they make don't matter - that whatever option they pick, the dialogue tree herds them to the same place anyway. Detaching the PC's dialogue from the player's choice amplifies this issue a bit. The big question is: Will the player's choice always result a unique voiced line, or will multiple options on the dialogue wheel sometimes "funnel" into the same reading?
Even if different options always produce different voiced lines, there's still the question of whether the choices produce different outcomes, or at least elicit different reactions from the NPCs with whom the PC is talking. This was often not the case in Dragon Age: Origins, and it no doubt had something to do with the cost of having every line voiced. With the PC being voiced as well, the temptation to railroad the conversations could be even greater.
|Part of a dialogue tree from DA:O. Whichever option you select, "your path is set"|
3. How do Hawke's voice actors (male and female) read the lines?
Equally important as the actual spoken words is how they are read by the voice actor. Unfortunately, the voice actor portraying the PC doesn't know if the PC is, for example, an evil psychopath, or an overall good guy who's just feeling a little irritable at a given moment.
As a result, there's a tendency for each individual dialogue option to be read as if it were the sum total of the PC's personality. If the player doesn't strictly follow a particular personality type, this can lead to a PC who comes across as unstable - alternating between growling and cooing lines of dialogue.
OK, that's all of the challenges/gripes I can think of for now. It should be interesting to see how well Bioware pulls off the dialogue wheel in Dragon Age 2 - interesting, but I'm still not sure whether I will buy a copy to find out. The designer in me says it's a must-buy. The player says wait until it hits the bargain bin.