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Branching Conversation Systems and the Working Writer, Part 1: Introduction
by Alexander Freed on 09/02/14 10:18:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

This is the first part in a multi-part series on branching conversation systems. See “This Blog Series” (below) for an overview of each part; experienced game writers may wish to skim early posts and jump directly into later segments as they’re added.

Video games are bad at handling conversations. Video games are especially bad at handling interactive conversations. There’s a reason most classic games are remembered for their gameplay or atmosphere rather than their dialogue: talking isn’t a strength of the medium.

But dialogue is a powerful and versatile storytelling tool–it characterizes, it builds relationships, it turns subtext into text, it gives rhythm and pacing to scenes, it creates an “index” of key words and phrases to a narrative, it brings drama into quiet moments… and so on. Foregoing dialogue altogether enormously limits the kinds of stories a video game can tell. So we’ve been using it from almost the beginning, despite our better judgment.

Basic non-interactive dialogue is easy. Screens of text or lines of voiceover are simple to deliver. Yet this approach inevitably turns the Player (the person behind the screen, as opposed to the in-game Player character) into a passive consumer of content.

In many cases, this is sufficient–but interactivity is one of the strengths of the medium. Thus, the dream of a truly reactive conversation, where a Player can engage in a compelling back-and-forth with non-player-characters, approaching them in different ways according to the Player’s whims while still producing witty and dramatic lines appropriate to the situation. We’ve been trying to do this almost from the beginning as well. We’ve come up with new tricks over time, but for the most part, games like Mass Effect and The Walking Dead use systems awfully similar to ones pioneered in the 1980s.

Star Control 2

A dialogue screen from 1992′s greatest action / adventure / strategy game, Star Control 2.

Branching dialogue trees are clumsy, difficult to write and unrealistic. I’m one of the Players who loves them. I’m a writer who loves them. Because they’re the best we’ve got.

This Blog Series

When I say “difficult to write,” I mean it. We’ll get into more detail below, but writing for video games in general requires training and skills exclusive to the medium; branching dialogue trees are a medium within a medium, and they require a whole additional skillset to master. You can’t write strong branching dialogue without understanding game narrative, and you can’t understand game narrative without practice and experience. I suspect the number of writers in the game industry who can truly produce great work with dialogue trees is less than several dozen.

I’ve spent a lot of time working with dialogue trees–writing them, editing them, and training junior writers to use them. And like I said, I enjoy games with branching dialogue. I like to see them done well. (I like to see them done at all–they’re a relatively rare breed nowadays.)

Maybe this series will help.

My goal is to walk through both high-level considerations–how to design a branching dialogue system, when to use one and for what kinds of games–as well as techniques for actual dialogue writing. By the time I’m done, hopefully we’ll have a solid introductory manual to this weird, weird art.

At the moment, my plan is to break the series into five parts, as follows:

Part 1: You’re reading it now. We define “branching dialogue,” list reasons to use or not use it in a game, and discuss major pitfalls.

Part 2: The basics of designing a branching dialogue system, from interface to the choice of voiceover vs. text to integration of non-conversational game mechanics.

Part 3: Fundamentals of structure–how to build a dialogue tree that’s easy to understand and easy to maintain.

Part 4: High-level principles of branching dialogue writing. e.g., keeping scenes Player-focused, making choices “matter,” and handling Players disinterested in narrative.

Part 5: Tips for handling branching dialogue on a line-by-line level–differentiating Player responses, maintaining voiceover flow across branches, etc.

I encourage readers to post questions and comments here or e-mail me directly at alexanderfreed.com. If there’s enough dense discussion material, I may add a sixth part to cover new topics.

Baldur's Gate 2

Baldur’s Gate 2, from 2000–eight years later, but very similar. (This is the “enhanced edition” update.)

One thing I won’t cover is dialogue writing tips that generally hold true across multiple media. Differentiating character voices, keeping a scene moving briskly, writing for actors vs. writing for the page… these are important topics, but they’re covered in hundreds of other “how to” guides for fiction writing. Our focus is exclusively on interactive media.

Definitions and Examples

What do I mean when I refer to a “branching conversation” or “branching dialogue tree”? I mean a system where a Player character and one or more non-player characters engage in a simulated conversation in which:

a) The NPC says something.

b) The Player is presented with a limited set of options indicating ways to respond.

c) If the Player’s chosen response is not a literal line of dialogue (e.g., if the Player selects from a set of symbols), the literal result is displayed after the response is chosen. If the response options displayed are lines of dialogue already, we can skip this step.

d) The NPC replies according to the Player’s chosen response. (The conversation “branches” according to the Player’s decision.)

e) The Player is presented with a new set of response options distinct from the previous set. (Response options may be repeated in certain cases.)

There are many variations and different levels of complexity that can be involved, but that’s the core loop that defines a branching dialogue tree. While a proper history is outside the scope of this post (maybe another time–and if you’ve got examples of more pre-1990 games with conversation trees, please get in touch or post in the comments!), a few games that use such a system include:

  • Space Rogue, Origin Systems, 1989
  • The Secret of Monkey Island, Lucasfilm Games, 1990
  • Star Control 2, Toys for Bob, 1992
  • Wing Commander III, Origin Systems, 1994
  • Fallout, Interplay Entertainment, 1997
  • The Longest Journey, Funcom, 1999
  • Deus Ex, Ion Storm, 2000
  • Knights of the Old Republic, BioWare, 2003
  • The Witcher, CD Projekt RED, 2007
  • Alpha Protocol, Obsidian Entertainment, 2010
  • The Walking Dead, Telltale Games, 2012
  • The Banner Saga, Stoic, 2014

These games tend to be categorized as role-playing games or adventure games, or at least action or strategy games with RPG “elements” (Wing Commander III, generally considered a “pure” space combat game, is the major exception on this list). Note that many of these games were critically acclaimed at the time of publication and remain fondly remembered for their narrative. Games with conversation trees have staying power.

Why To Use Branching Dialogue Trees

What sorts of games and game narratives benefit from using a branching dialogue system? Generally speaking, branching dialogue trees benefit:

Character Emphasis. Any dialogue-heavy game allows the opportunity for extensive character development, of course, but interactive dialogue increases a Player’s engagement with the text; it forces a Player to think deeply about NPC interaction and makes understanding NPC and Player character personalities a part of gameplay.

The Walking Dead, Season 2

The Walking Dead, Season 2, from 2014. The protagonist–a young girl–is predefined to an extent, but the Player can shape her personality, if not her background.

Player Character Customization. By allowing a Player character to speak according to the Player’s choices, a branching dialogue system allows unparalled agency and ownership of Player characters by Players. Players tend to feel more attached to and interested in the game’s protagonist.

Branching Narratives. Branching dialogue allows for a clear and simple means of branching a game’s overall storyline. If you’ve already decided to use a branching narrative, adding branching dialogue is a logical next step. (The same is true in reverse, as well.)

Complex Storylines. By focusing the Player’s attention and putting the Player in charge of learning about the setting and interrogating NPCs, a branching dialogue system supports complex, detail-driven plotlines. Uncovering the storyline becomes part of the gameplay rather than simply the result of gameplay, and the Player can absorb new information at her own pace. (This is, of course, the classic argument for hands-on learning over classroom lectures.)

Why Not To Use Branching Dialogue Trees

On the other hand, there are some games where a branching dialogue system is a poor fit. Generally speaking, branching dialogue trees don’t match with:

Predefined Player Characters. Does the Player character have a clearly and narrowly defined personality? Is the Player character intended to experience a specific emotional arc (e.g., a redemption story)? Branching dialogue puts enormous control in the hands of the Player to define the protagonist, and while Player options can be limited under a branching dialogue system (it’s possible to create a game with branching dialogue in which, in all branches, the Player is funny or patriotic or what-have-you) the options can’t be nonexistent.

Some traditional, puzzle-oriented adventure games allow no Player control of the Player character’s “inner life” or personality while still using branching dialogue; in these cases, the branching dialogue is typically focused on puzzle-solving and information-gathering rather than character development. Branching dialogue trees as puzzles is something I won’t discuss much in this series, but the approach is worth remembering.

Predefined Storyline and Quests. If a Player’s dialogue choices have no impact on the larger storyline and gameplay sequences outside of conversation, the result may be a letdown. Branching dialogue is best matched with a narrative that supports multiple stories and outcomes.

Pure Gameplay Focus. While branching conversation sequences don’t need to be lengthy and can match fast-paced gameplay, they can distract a Player from the flow of other elements. Branching dialogue might add narrative interest to Tetris, but it would probably detract from the overall feel.

Perils and Pitfalls

Suppose your game is a strong match for a branching conversation system. There are still a number of factors to consider before proceeding.

High Level of Skill Required. As previously emphasized, branching dialogue is very difficult to write well. If your team isn’t familiar with the medium, you may run into a number of unexpected problems and end up with a suboptimal result.

Tool Requirements. Good branching dialogue requires a dedicated tool to write and additional tools for implementation by audio, cinematics, and other departments. Microsoft Word or Excel won’t cut it. A few commercial toolsets are available but may not be appropriate for your needs. Be sure you have adequate programming support! We’ll talk a little more about available and example tools in a later post.

Preparing VO Scripts
Instructions on “Preparing a dialog for recording” in the Dragon Age toolset from the official toolset wiki. Branching makes no one’s life easier.

Expense. Aside from tool programming and writing costs, consider the additional expense of implementing branches (whether done by a writer, programmer, or scripter), testing branching content, and any voiceover costs. Cinematics can become substantially more time-consuming to develop. Analyze the expense of branching dialogue to every department before moving forward.

Alternative Systems

While there are far too many potential alternative conversation systems to list here, a few common ones follow.

Non-Interactive Dialogue. Pure non-interactive dialogue–conveyed through text, cutscenes and voiceover, or another means–is implemented in most modern games. As a system, it’s unspectacular, and still requires a thorough understanding of techniques unique to game narrative. It can nonetheless be engaging and entertaining when used correctly.

Simple Choice. Rather than full branching dialogue trees, games that offer a “simple choice” present multiple options for how to approach a conversation upfront (e.g., “Threaten” or “Diplomacy”), then show the result. This type of dialogue is often seen in strategy games or role-playing games without much emphasis on story. It allows a degree of Player control and works well for scenarios where the entire conversation doesn’t need to be heard or shown word-for-word (allowing the conversation to be summed up in narration).

Simple Hub. A simple conversation hub allows a Player to choose from a list of topics (often questions) and provides a different NPC response to each. However, the conversation does not branch or present “layers” of additional responses–often, the optimal way for a Player to use a simple hub is to choose each topic in sequence until every one has been exhausted. Depending on how new topics are added (through interactions with other NPCs, entering topics manually via keyboard), a simple hub can give the Player a sense of thoroughly investigating a subject or a mystery.

Coming Up Next

We talk about designing your branching dialogue system and what’s appropriate for your game. Topics will include voiceover, interface, and “waterfalls” vs. “hubs.” (If you’re eager to get to the nitty-gritty of dialogue writing, all I can do is urge patience. We’ll get there…)


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Comments


Matthias Rigling
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"b) The Player is presented with a limited set of options indicating ways to respond."
"d) The NPC replies according to the Player’s chosen response. (The conversation “branches” according to the Player’s decision.)"

How do non-dialogue decisions play into this? For instance, a player may choose to show mercy instead of delivering sweet justice up to their evil foes – when confronting an NPC afterwards they are presented with different dialogue (options) acknowledging this choice. (The same applies for other conditions such as karma-levels, I guess.) Would this fall under the category of 'branching dialogue', even though it does not involve a direct/deliberate choice of dialogue options, but still results in branching dialogue (at least on the part of implementation, I'd presume)? Or would you argue that this is an example of a branching narrative, instead, because the branching condition is not linked to player choice part of the given conversation?

I'm looking forward to Part 2!

Alexander Freed
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Hi, Matthias!

I definitely think that non-dialogue gameplay choices that cause conversations to branch are a natural and useful part of a branching conversation system. But unless there are also opportunities for the Player to make choices in dialogue, I don't think non-dialogue gameplay choices, even with dialogue impact, fit the category under discussion.

That was pretty much incomprehensible, wasn't it? Let me try an example:

Imagine a BioShock-like shooter with choices that emerge naturally in gameplay. Non-interactive cutscene conversations might reference these choices, but I wouldn't consider those conversations to be "branching dialogue." (I mean, yes, it's technically dialogue that branches, but the writing techniques used to build those conversations would be very different than the techniques used in an interactive conversation, the style would be different, etc.)

Which isn't to say that such a game wouldn't be interesting--it could be a really excellent approach for certain types of games.

On the other hand, I think most "traditional" branching conversation games could benefit from more recognition of gameplay choices. e.g., a Mass Effect-like game where NPCs react to the Player differently depending on how many enemies are killed preceding the conversation.

So, uh, the short answer to your question: Yes, I'd consider that branching narrative more than branching conversation, but a form of branching narrative that pairs very naturally with branching conversation systems.

Matthias Rigling
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Thanks a lot for your detailed input and clearing that up, Alexander!

I would have imagined that a lot of the required writing techniques were very similar, at least if the gameplay choices were complex/meaningful enough to basically non-verbally communicate personality or imply/mimic a dialogue choice (in an 'actions speak louder than words' kind of way). But it really just shows how well branching narrative and dialogue can play together!

Alexander Freed
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I think the philosophy behind "what makes a strong choice" is probably fairly similar in either case, but the conversation construction is a different beast. When we get around to part four in a few weeks, it'll be clearer what I'm getting at. (Which isn't to say I'm right--feel free to debate then!)

Thanks for the thoughtful discussion!

Amir Barak
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I'm actually in the process of writing a conversation system; what a headache :P
Thanks for the article, can't wait to read the other parts!

Valentine Kozin
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This is very relevant to my interests, looking forward to reading through the rest of this series!

I've made a couple of branching dialogue systems for personal projects now - generally by finding an appropriate external editor and simply writing a parser for the output. Being a fan of Twine, the last one I've written essentially parses TweeCode as a simple scripting language, allowing Twine to function as the de facto dialogue editing interface.

I've been pretty happy with that, but I'd be really curious to see what kinds of tools are used in larger and more serious productions these days.

Alexander Freed
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I'll be covering tools in part three, in a few weeks. Alas, I'm not aware of many publicly available branching conversation editors that can be used in professional projects--there are a number of editors out there included with existing games (e.g., Neverwinter Nights, Shadowrun Returns), but those obviously aren't appropriate if you're making something original. It seems like everyone ends up reinventing the wheel (but just as wheels tend to be round, toolsets tend to share a lot of similarities).

If anyone can vouch for full toolsets usable for commercial projects, feel free to post about 'em here.

Rafael Kanka
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"Branching dialogue trees are clumsy, difficult to write and unrealistic. I’m one of the Players who loves them."

Exactly. Precisely. Indeed. So True.

As a side project I'm working on an RPG framework for Unity3D, taking Infinity Engine, and it's successors as an inspiration. Obviously dialogue tree editor would be a part of it. I already have a dialogue tree editor, more less like in Dragon Age Toolset manner (guessing on screenshots on the wiki mentioned in Your link). That is - a foldable tree of statements with jump nodes.

Did You guys have an opportunity to work with graph based tools (nodes on a flat plane linked by noodles) for dialogue? If so, do You think it would be worth investing some time to develop such a graph editor?

Thanks, Looking forward to part 3

John Maurer
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The idea of a toolset for progression of any kind, conversation or otherwise, is a neat idea. Particularly as a QA tool.

Interesting read man, looking forward to the rest of your series!

Tony Li
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Commercial projects such as Leisure Suit Larry Reloaded have used Urban Brain Studios' Chat Mapper, which can export XML as well as screenplay-format documents for voice actors. There's also Nevigo's articy:draft, as well as some engine-specific toolsets (e.g., for Unity3D).

Tony Li
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[sorry, this was a double post]

Tim Knauf
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The Banner Saga apparently used inklewriter as an authoring tool, and inkle seem keen to attract other developers: http://www.inklestudios.com/inklewriter/game-developers/

Edit: Love the article, by the way! Am excited about this series.

Valentine Kozin
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I recall someone also made a standalone version of the NWN1 dialogue editor that would spew out XML files, which is also very useful for development when you don't have much else. But at the moment I'd say that visual, node-based systems are definitely the better way to go, particularly if you want things that are larger and more complicated, where the tree-structure of the NWN1 editor fails a bit at visualising, since it really doesn't do links or loops well.

The one thing I'd say is missing in the more commercially available ones like Twine is a good way of debugging and keeping track of the story variables you create, which I suspect makes it less viable for very large and intertwined projects. I'd really be curious to see some of Bioware's tools and what they do to keep track of the very, very many variables and branching points they accumulate over multi-game franchises.

David Paris
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I'm looking forward to seeing what else you have to say. Any article that headlines with a SC2 picture is off to a good start.

Theresa Catalano
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I agree with most of what you wrote in the article, but I disagree with the premise: "Video games are bad at handling conversations. Video games are especially bad at handling interactive conversations"

Videogames are equally as good at handling conversations as any other medium. Obviously they are bad at "interactive" conversations... an A.I. smart enough to have meaningful interactive conversations doesn't exist. Choose your own adventure text is always going to be limited.

This is not necessarily a limitation of video games, though. Conversations don't necessarily need to be interactive. There's no reason they can't just be written, the way they would be in a movie or any other medium. Then it just comes down to good writing, and on that front video games can be just as advanced as any other medium, if we put in the effort.

BobbyK Richardson
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Actually I don't believe this is entirely true that it "just comes down to good writing", I think gamers who have experienced branching dialogue on the line of Mass Effect, Chris Avellone's works, and and Telltale Games have found that vastly preferable to "sit down and watch and do nothing. I've edited 17 feature films (you know, those non-interactive things) and I can't stand games any longer where a writer gets so caught up in their writing (even if written well) that my interaction as a gamer has no place in the narrative they're trying to tell. To me in RPGS the biggest culprits are games like Divinity II, where a lot of the time the writer is so caught up in using big words and setting up elaborate lore and my "dialogue" options literally mean nothing, and console games such as Beyond Two Souls, where it is literally an interactive movie with some of Hollywood's most talented actors - but seriously, the interaction - is little more than a bunch of QTE's. Good writing is great, but I personally don't go to the gaming medium to be fed a narrative - I go to games to see my own decisions make a difference. And I think that's what who this article is targeted towards, both in terms of gamers and designers.

Alexander Freed
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I think both of you make good points. You can take conversations from, say, a television show, a play, and a video game, put them side by side, and judge them on quality of writing alone. In this sense, there's nothing special about video game writing (for non-interactive conversations)--the skill of the writer is what matters.

But every medium has its unique challenges. Non-interactive video game conversations need to be mindful of the expectations of the audience. A game that involves the Player making moment-to-moment decisions throughout the rest of the game, then goes non-interactive for a lengthy dialogue sequence, is failing to meet an implicit promise on the part of the game designers: a promise to keep the Player involved at all times. (This isn't a hard and fast rule, of course, but you see what I'm getting at.) Of course, a game that establishes lengthy "breaks" as its style and sets audience expectations upfront may do just fine with lengthy non-interactive conversations.

That's why a game writer always needs to understand the kind of game she's trying to write and tailor her approach accordingly. Game writers--or narrative designers, or whatever you want to call them--must sit down with a team and figure out what the intended game experience is and how best to convey it.

Theresa Catalano
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Thanks for at least saying that it's not a hard and fast rule, but I strongly disagree that it's a rule at all. There is absolutely no good reason why the game designer needs to let the player interact at all times. In fact, this is poisonous to the ability of a writer to tell a story.

I think many players have unreasonable expectations when it comes to stories in games. We demand interactivity at all times, yet we also demand compelling and interesting narratives. There's a huge friction between those two ideas. If all you care about is role playing a character, and not story quality, then it makes sense to always demand interactivity. But if you care about story quality, then I think it behooves you to have a more open minded attitude.

I think you'll find that giving up some interactivity in order to let the writer tell you a compelling story is a worthy trade.

Tim Knauf
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Hmm, I think Alexander might be getting at that same point in his second and third paragraphs above. As in, it's not bad to have long stretches without interactivity — as long as the game has worked to set the player's expectations appropriately from the start. A good example to me would be something like The Longest Journey. There are some loooong non-interactive sections (and okay, some are just info-dumps that could use serious editing), but the game's languid and thoughtful style sets you up for those right from the first hour of play.

Xavier Penin
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Very interesting topic. I think lots of experiments have been done and that there is still room for more. I have my own favorite topics when it comes to that:

- Alpha protocol and its time limited answers provided an incredible thrill to interactive dialogs, but also kind of killed the player's control. A bold choice, though;

- Mass Effect offers choices that are not "exactly" what your character will say. As a result some choices can be misinterpreted. Also, choices with too obvious gameplay results are arguably good for the experience (good guy answer / bad guy answer).

- I like the topic about text vs voice over. If you have text only, you can have NPC talk to your character using his user-generated name. Again, Mass Effect did a good job at circumventing the problem, but sometimes you wished some character would call you by your firstname.

- Locked answers related to your advancement in certain stats (Mass Effect Paragon/Renegade) : that means you cannot make your character evolve or maintain it balanced without being robbed of some options, a shame. Fallout also added choices according to charisma and/or intelligence ratings. Nice, but players cannot measure the impact of those stats without seeing what they're losing. Debatable choice.

Can't wait for your next articles.

Alexander Freed
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You're a step ahead of me--we'll be covering all those topics in part two! I'll save detailed discussion for then, but one touch I love in Mass Effect is the way Paragon / Renegade options are grayed out (instead of hidden altogether) when unavailable. It's a small reminder to the Player that character-building choices matter and an incentive to try other paths in another playthrough. With a game like Fallout, there may be (say) a world of Gambling-skill based options I'm not aware of--but the game never nudges me to explore that path, and so I remain oblivious to options not taken.

Ian Barkley-Yeung
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I'm surprised you didn't mention Planescape: Torment. Large amount of branching dialogue, which has significant impacts on the direction of the game and your character. You can close off entire sections of the game depending on which choices you make.

For instance, the amount you lie determines how Chaotic your character is. IIRC, there's one companion who will only join you if you are Lawful Good. But, of course, sometimes the Chaotic answers make your life easier. The personality of Nameless, the protagonist, is largely determined by your conversation choices, at least as much as by your actions.

It's also the only game I know of where, in one conversation point, your choices include both "[Truth] Promise to do X" and "[Lie] Promise to do X". Same verbal response, the only difference is in the protagonist's head.

Also, your list of choices is actually determined by your character. For example, some conversation options are only available to you if you have a high enough Intelligence or Wisdom to think of them, and some lies will only work if you have enough Charisma to pull them off. Even though you start as a fighter, and Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma has little or no combat value, this is one game where Charisma is not a dump stat -- it's far more important to be able to talk well than to fight well.

Anyways, great game. Some of the best video game writing around.

Tim Knauf
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Seeing a "[Truth] Promise to do X" vs. "[Lie] Promise to do X" type of choice in Torment for the first time was a stand-out moment in an already amazing game — especially since nearly every branch has massive implications. Thanks for bringing this excellent game into the discussion!

Larry Carney
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I was wondering if you might discuss how these optional choices are incorporated by the rest of the dev team: the ways in which these optional choices can work within the budget yet still create an experience that immerses the audience in the game, and which offers enough other unique content to make it feel as if their choices do matter (which you stated would be a general topic you'll cover).

Seems like this will be a fun series!

Alexander Freed
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Hi, Larry.

We'll definitely be talking about the philosophy behind "meaningful choices" and the cost-benefit analysis of branching in part four. Most of the focus is going to be on the conversation side of things, though, rather than where and how to use big gameplay branches. Not because there isn't a lot to say and argue about on that subject, but simply because that's a larger narrative design topic that isn't necessarily tied to branching conversations.

I also touch on the subject--but don't really get into detail--in another article: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/188950/developing_meaningfu
l_player_.php

If there's interest, I could certainly put a post together on "cheap thrills"--that is, various ways to make choices feel consequential without busting the team's art / level design / etc. budget. Everything from occasional mentions in dialogue (cheap--and we'll cover that here) to spawning a level with different-but-similarly-balanced foes (cheap-ish for design, less cheap for art) to taking the Player to entirely different areas (expensive!) to nuanced use of ethics / faction meters (individual choices downplayed in favor of an overall weight of decision). There's plenty to talk about there...

Tim Knauf
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Count me in for interest in a "cheap thrills"/"smoke and mirrors" type post! Sounds like you have a lot you could say on the matter.

Josh Wilson
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I would definitely be interested in the "cheap thrills," although more to understand the possible choices that the team can make and the implications of those decisions than for the cost-cutting aspect.


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