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The Benefits of Banter
by Jeffrey Ollendorf on 08/10/10 03:09:00 pm   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.

 

In most RPGs, there is virtually no interaction between the various characters outside of the main story or sidequests. I honestly find this a pity, especially when it involves players trekking through deep dungeons. It feels unrealistic for individuals to not engage in at least some sort of banter every once in a while, especially in reaction to recent in-game events.

 However, one series has taken this into account: Namco’s Tales series. This action-RPG series has had, for a while now, a “skit” system. Every so often (usually after a story event that has just transpired), a button prompt will appear in one of the corners of the screen with the title of the skit.

Pressing the button will treat the player to a scene where portraits of two or more characters (just one on rare occasions) will engage in discussion on said events, or may seem completely unrelated to the events that just transpired. Of course, this is not the only reason a skit will occur. They will sometimes pop up when:

  • The player spends a certain amount of time in the current dungeon. These are often related to the dungeon itself.
  • The player achieves something unrelated to the story (number of battles fought, etc.)
  • The player seems to be stuck on something. Such a skit may provide the player with a hint about how to progress.

Of course, these skits wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if the portraits did not changed to reflect appropriate expressions, and in later entries in the series, actual voice acting. Furthermore, the portraits also manage to exhibit body language of their own, such as bobbing up and down when laughing heartily, or zipping off-screen when trying to flee, or suddenly forcing itself in between other characters trying to have a conversation.

Being that non-verbal communication is considered to be the majority of what we have to say, these seemingly minor additions make skits far more compelling and interesting to watch. But of course, these skits have a greater purpose. They are enhancements to the story, and to character development. These skits give other characters a chance to shine, to give us a peek into their heads, and perhaps to just watch them goof around, adding a touch of lightheartedness to an otherwise serious situation.

So, how could other games benefit by the addition of a similar system? For the same reason it helps the Tales series: it gives the writers an opportunity to explore new facets of the characters, and serves as further meaningful story without taking up too much hard-drive space, and finally, it makes the group of allies feel much more like real people. While many RPGs may use something like this to determine the relationship the main character will have with his or her fellows (which in turn affects part of the story), this can fit in other games.

Imagine, in a military shooter, the opportunity for the player to interact with AI companions in between missions. It would be a glorious opportunity for writers to build on otherwise completely shallow characters without cutting too much into game time. To encourage players to view these skits (which will most likely NOT follow the method uses in the Tales of games) they could give some minor benefit, such as a squad mate having a greater tendency to come to your aid, or they may even give the playable character an item to be used in the next mission. But even with these benefits, a designer must take care to ensure that these skits act primarily as story enhancements, and do not drastically affect game balance.

If done right, skits (or variations thereof) are a marvelous way to develop otherwise shallow characters without depending too much on exposition in the main story.


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Comments


Charles Stuard
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I tend to agree with you as a whole, but I find it interesting that this post popped up in a time where at least three other posts are examining how we can remove these types of elements... IE, "cutscenes" or "non-interactive" game portions.



Personally, I'd like to see something more like this article. I love character and character development, and I think plenty of games could use some more of that.

Cody Kostiuk
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The best dialog I've ever experienced in a game was with Hotel Dusk for the DS. I could go on praising it in detail, but I'll just say... if you care about believable dialog, character development, player empathy and such, you owe it to yourself to play Hotel Dusk.



To see how action games can matter more with between-mission character banter, you need look no further than the Wing Commander series.



It really boils down to player empathy; if you can't believe in the characters, any emotional investment is out the window.

Matthew Woodward
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The incidental dialogue in Prince of Persia (2008) completely sold me on the characters, and remains some of the nicest writing I've found in any game in recent years. You had to deliberately interact with Elika to trigger it, so it was completely non-intrusive, but also totally worth it.



I'd like to think that incentivizing this sort of activity is uncessary, and I'm concerned that it might end up being counterproductive. If people aren't interested in the characters or the expanded story, it shouldn't be pushed on them - and if they are interested, that should be all the incentive they need, surely?

Charles Stuard
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@ Matthew



I agree that blatant incentives are probably a bad idea, but I do think that perhaps some form of incentive might not be bad. For example, in Bioware games, generally talking to your party members leads to unlocking more conversation with them, giving you more sway over their personalities and opinions. This doesn't necessarily give any "in game" benefit, but for players who do truly care about these characters, having some more interactive elements with them will be all the more powerful.



More subtly, we could just have key moments in the game later where knowing more about a person is advantageous. Not necessary, but useful. If I took the time to learn my partner holds a grudge against the crook we're about to bust, I can try and put him in a situation where he has less opportunity to do something he'll regret. In a slight branch here, the partner could either get reprimanded, maybe lose his badge... or the bust could go down as planned, maybe with a thank you from the partner later. It's meaningless, wouldn't necessarily have to impact the main story much, but I think the impact on the player could be huge, and make them feel more like part of the story.



That might've been a bad example above, but I hope it gets across the types of "rewards" I'm talking about. Rewarding the player's knowledge about characters, location, or whatever should be present when trying to design compelling dialogue.

Matthew Woodward
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I don't disagree with a lot of that. The basic principle that I'd like to think holds (I have no solid evidence for this, I'm being fanciful) is that if players care about the story then pure in-story consequences should be enough to make story-linked decisions meaningful - and if they don't care about the story, they shouldn't feel compelled to just to gain a gameplay advantage.

Bart Stewart
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Dragon Age does this as well, although I don't believe that inter-character conversations in DA ever have any tangible in-game benefits. They're just to help the characters in your group feel more like people, with their (sometimes opposed) hopes, fears, quirks, and flaws... and they do it wonderfully.



Would having Maniac as your wingman, or Minsc or Oghren in your party, be anywhere near as much fun if they weren't given opportunities to let their distinctive personalities shine through?



With the appropriate checks in place to make sure a conversation doesn't start break out just as the player is getting ready to start a fight or leave a map, I enthusiastically support the concept of banter in CRPGs.

David Sattar
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Far Cry is another example of optional overheard NPC banter. Typically this will be experienced when looking through the sniper rifle, conversations between Mercenaries will sometimes fore-shadow upcoming events. Never enough to provide particular advantage, but definitely adding some extra richness to the experience for the player. Perhaps best of all for those who've been advocating removing such elements, these overheard conversations are entirely optional. The player doesn't have to listen - just shift your sights away from the talking Mercs and the sound cuts off.

Shelly Warmuth
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Red Dead Redemption made use of this, as well, and in pretty much the way you, Jeffrey, are indicating. The conversation is part of traveling to a destination so that the story unfolds while the player is still somewhat in control of the action and so, it doesn't seem uncomfortably silent.



Bioshock and Dead Space also makes use of this technique, but take it a step further. Audio tapes can be found and listened to. People are talking in your ear as you move throughout the game. The player can choose to stop and listen, but they can choose to listen while still controlling the character, creating a more immersive experience.

Ron Newcomb
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I'm late to the thread but: yeah. I loved the while-platforming dialogue (and monologues) in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. The skit system in Tales (of Syphonia, I believe it was) didn't work so well for me because it was broken away from the game, like one of those Japanese advert/commercials/meta-dialogue or whatever they're called. Calling one up felt like an interruption, and one by children, no less. (The webcomic Megatokyo, at least in the earlier years, had the same thing.) The rec room conversations in Wing Commander worked because they were a nice between-level break, and some of those space fights go on a bit long. Those skits let me rest without having to ignore the game awhile. (As well as showed empty seats if a wingman was killed.)



@Bart: oh yeah, Maniac was the best wingman. The only one other than Iceman that would actually kill enemies, and a ten times more fun to listen to. Man that was a good game.


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