Considerations on flowcharts, dialogues and Design Documents
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
I consider myself to be more of a writer, a stories teller, than anything else - that, and my passion for games explain my interest in the written part of the game - writing the dialogues, the story and outline interactions with the player...
However, this area of development is still... very far from being mature. While there are games like Fallout that give you a lot of freedom to make your own decisions along with a great story, and that nowadays the number of games with great stories is increasing, it's a field with a lot of space for experimentation and new approaches - the industry itself would probably be glad if people tackled the problem of creating worlds with meaningful decisions with a straighter approach. It is very difficult to find articles on building dialogue, even nowadays - indeed, if anyone has any link to recommend, feel free to share.
While this makes things more exciting, since there is so much to be discovered, explored, mapped and analyzed, at the same time it makes me a little frustrated, as I'd like to at least know how the game developers are handling this nowadays.
I'm writing a little dialogue-based game, only to experiment with it. It's very simple, to be played in five minutes, and even then I am having problems with the dialogue tree.
Don't get me wrong - it's not that difficult to create a flowchart with options of dialogue. The hard part is that in very little time, a simple flow chart of a small dialogue can become something ... less than optimal.
To show it with a picture with a picture (blurry, because the text is not the most important thing now):
There are very little dialogue options, and it's already a mess, as you can see. We have the beginning, some options and a "convergence start", which determines the next step according to the number of points of the player. Still, as some dialogue lines can be reached from multiple paths, the lines start to intersect with each other and the flowchart starts to become confusing.
The function of a flowchart, especially in game design, is to show a flow of information, or the path that leads from point A to point B. It is a tool used in many game design documents, especially to show "macro" points of view - the big decisions that make the game.
How to write a flowchart that clearly shows a complex tree of decisions (whether made through dialogue or through actions in the game world). For example, how to show in a flowchart different actions "weights"? Differences between mandatory and non-mandatory paths, or between parallel paths mutually exclusive or not?
Not that there aren't ways of doing this with flowcharts - different box colors and sizes for different weights in different decisions, different lines for "alternative paths", a square around mandatory parallel ... so there exists a way to represent such things in a flowchart, requiring that the designer makes a "visual dictionary" of these things.
Flowchart are best used to show or express something linear.. What is ironic, since one of the reason people use flowcharts inteaded of written prose is precisely the need to express something that is confusing when described in the extreme linearity of prose. Still, one reaches a point where the flowchart alone may no longer be sufficient.
Say I have a conversation. There are different ways I can speak - different tones, different words, different choices. How to express this in a document? I speak not of the implementation - a way to "simple" implement this would be to use variables that express the character's affinity with you, what you know, and set dialogue options in accordance to these variables. But how to put it in a concise way in a document, which can be read by several people and have them see an overview of the project, and the vision of specific point they are developing at that time?
An alternative would be to use various flowcharts to divide the flow in layers: the more important flow, the romantic flow, a large flow of a sidequest, the flow of the history of a secondary character ... but how to divide it and not fragment the comprehension? How to be aware of how a change in one of the flows can change the rest of the game?
How do you guys handle this? Is there any "standard" way of doing this that I'm not aware of?
And yes, I'm aware that, when you stop to think about this subject, you also have to consider what choices are worth giving the player, but that's something I want to talk about on another blog post :)