Ran across an interesting post from Krystian Majewski on design problems with multiple choice dialogue, which, among other things, draws on some play-testing reports on Emerald City Confidential:
[Playfirst] did a user test of the indie point-and-click adventure Emerald City Confidential and they described how casual gamers reacted when they first encountered a multiple choice dialogue. You might think that point-and-click adventures are a good match for “casual players”. Well, when faced with their first multiple choice dialogue, most players simply froze in panic. They assumed that one of the answer as “correct” while others would lead to failure. From the kind if information they received, they couldn’t really anticipate what would happen. Even worse, after they decided, they didn’t receive a clear feedback on what effect their choice had. They were used to the transparent feedback schemes of most casual games and weren’t able to cope with the uncertainty.
I found this really interesting, because I would have assumed, in general, that a simple multiple-choice presentation would be more accessible to casual players than some other mode of interaction.
Majewski goes on to argue in favor of consistent verbs representing standard strategies usable at every dialogue point. At any given time (for instance) the player might have the option to respond intellectually, sensually, or in a religious way — a strategy that reminded me a little of the dialogue system in Forever Always.
I’m not sure how much application this has from an IF perspective. Certainly the core IF audience tends to have different expectations about how dialogue will work, so is probably not completely frozen by a menu. Moreover, it’s possible to write menu dialogue in such a way that it gives more of a hint about the likely effects; the writing and cluing of the player determines, to a large degree, how much agency it feels like one has. At the same time, I generally agree that menu dialogue feels more distancing (to me) than parser-based dialogue, even if the latter is heavily clued with hints about what the player can say.
One of Majewski’s commenters adds:
Real dialogue flow should be such that no specific choice matters too much, but the sum of the choices does. But as you’ve mentioned this is just a nightmare from a design perspective.
I’m not sure it has to be so bad a nightmare as all that, and it’s been done. To pick the obvious example, in Blue Lacuna… (very mild spoilers, and discussion of a WIP of my own, follow the cut)
…my relationship with Progue was clearly reacting to a wide range of different inputs including both dialogue and action. (The relationship with Rume seems a little more cut-and-dried, but even there there are a number of events that allow the player to express some kind of reaction.)
What’s more, many of the choices I made were things that at least seemed (from the context of the story) as though they might well be significant, such as treating Progue well or badly, taking something that belonged to him, or breaking into his private space. Finally, the game at several points articulates the causality after the fact, by having Progue mention, “Oh, I realized this about you because you did X”, and so on.
So the interaction density here is higher, because the NPC pays attention to both action and dialogue; the dialogue itself is not exactly menu dialogue (though because one is usually picking keywords from a list of available options, it bears some resemblance to menu dialogues); and the sense of agency is heightened, if after the fact, by the way the story picks up and comments on past actions.
I’ve been thinking about these design issues a lot, because one of my WIPs (not Alabaster, but using the same conversation engine) is also structured around the idea of gradual rather than abrupt articulation of character relationships.
Many of the scenes are meant to put a particular aspect of character relationships in tension. For instance, in one early scene, a sister is irritated by her brother because he doesn’t show enough respect for her privacy and independence. She can choose to put up with this or challenge him on it, but that choice is expressed over the whole course of the scene rather than in a single A-or-B option. It may be articulated in actions as well as words: she could choose to verbally challenge him, but she could also choose to hide or show a private possession. Or she could choose neither to challenge nor confide in him, but instead express resentment by being rude to him without saying why. By the end of the scene, the relationship between the characters has been refined in a way that will affect later play.
This is an experiment and I have no idea how well it will prove to work. It’s definitely an approach that comes from thinking about the design as narrative + interaction, rather than gameplay as such: instead of considering winning or losing, or challenges to give to the player, I thought about
- what are the major conflicts between the characters?
- how might these be expressed (and resolved) over the course of the plot?
- in each particular scene within the plot, which conflict is most important? (sometimes more than one, but some care is required not to make this too confusing)
- how do I indicate which interpersonal issue dominates during a given scene? (mostly a writing challenge)
- how do I signal to the player what options exist for expressing a reaction to this conflict? (mostly a design challenge, though the scene also has to be written in such a way as to create the cues)
Usually there are no right and wrong answers about how to resolve conflicts, and becoming closer to one character often means distancing another. Moreover, there’s no way to lose the game. Even so, there are occasions when one course of action might seem wiser than another, so I also think about
- how do I square the player’s urge to “win” with the protagonist’s urge to make emotional decisions? Say the protagonist is tempted to be rude or teasing to another character even though that might have negative repercussions. If the interaction is poorly written, the player will experience no temptation to follow the protagonist’s irrational impulses. So part of the challenge, through writing and interaction design, is to create motivation to act in character and explore the feelings of the protagonist instead of focusing on gaming the system.
I suspect, incidentally, that the casual playtesters of Emerald City Confidential would hate this, because though there is feedback from characters about how they feel about your actions, there is no message that says “YES YOU JUST CHOSE RIGHT!!”.
So another critical point will be to package this in such a way that it’s clear it’s a story, there’s not a single right answer, and no choice you can make will prevent the completion of the game.