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Ode to Short Dialog: Reconsidering the Sound Bite
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Ode to Short Dialog: Reconsidering the Sound Bite

October 14, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[Big Huge Games and former Iron Lore narrative designer Schneider steps up, in an article originally published in Game Developer magazine, to discuss why keeping dialog short and sweet in games is the way to go, arguing: "the sound bite is more poetry than prose -- and poetry is a powerful thing."]

I'm here to sing the praises of short dialog in video games. The quip. The utterance. The sound bite. Call it what you will, I fear that short speech may be under-appreciated. Not to get polemical, mind you -- longer dialog is not the root of all evil.

Short dialog will not heal burns or mend broken hearts. But very short dialog (which I'm defining as two seconds on average, and no more than six) can do things in games that longer speech simply cannot.

Short dialog is fully digestible in the moment. It can function as ambient audio, in the background -- or out loud, in the foreground. When ambient, short dialog can be repeated, with variation, until the player happens to take notice.

When in the foreground, it can deliver critical information without unduly interrupting or bogging down gameplay. Information conveyed via very short dialog can be reacted to immediately.

Put another way, sound bites can be made to function as a feedback or game information element, similar to UI events, sound effects, and particle effects. And whether it's a crowd cheering, "Chicken-chaser!" or a hero announcing that he's "here to kick ass and chew bubble gum," short lines are memorable.

They are writing boiled down to the essentials. Don't mistake cutting down for a bad thing. Condensed writing can result in subtler accents and richer flavor.

The idea that editing down makes writing stronger is one of those tricky writers' maxims that are extremely useful so long as they aren't applied with too much blind zeal. Ezra Pound famously wrote a poem titled "In a Station of the Metro," that began as 30 lines of verse. He rewrote it at half the length, then further condensed it to two short lines, almost a haiku:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet black bough.

Nowadays we speak condescendingly of the sound bite, but really we should give credit where it is due. It might lack in nuance and carry no more than a crumb of information, but the sound bite has the power to catch your attention and light up your imagination, all in the brief pulse of an instant. Good luck doing that with long-winded facts.

In other words, the sound bite is more poetry than prose -- and poetry is a powerful thing.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Scott Nixon
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great article.

Ian Levin
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I couldn't possibly agree more. Brevity is considered to be the soul of wit, and a snappy line will always suit a hero better than a diatribe. Excellent article.

Mike Dominguez
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One thing I have to say about longer dialogue - there should be an option for subtitles if it's important enough. It really bugs me when I have to strain to hear character dialogue over ambient sound/music in the game world.

Also, in BioShock, the dialogue that I appreciated the most was the comments that some splicers would make when they didn't know you were around (like the mother singing to her baby). This tended to be longer, but I guess if it was used more liberally it may not have been as effective.

Joe Robins
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Great article! I'd like to sight GTA 4 as a very good example of unsolicited dialogue the sheer amount of things that people say is quite overwhelming. Another example that I will always remember was in Unreal 2. There was a scripted sequence at the start of a mission based on a planet named "hell". where the player is relying on a secondary character to "hack" remotely from the orbiting spaceship in order to stop your impending doom. The decision was made to keep everything in the first person view and not restrict movement (thus keeping the player immersed)... there is two line of dialogue that will always stay with me as it hit the spot perfectly. The player and the secondary NPC are engaged in a tense dialogue which ends with the NPC saying "Go to hell" and the player character chipping back with "Already there toots". This would never have had the same impact if it were not in such a controlled and scripted area... by keeping the player in control of movement but temporarily limiting it with the environment, The dialogue could go-on uninterrupted but the immersion levels stayed right up there.

John Barnstorm
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I think that short dialogue is one approach to design, but not the only. Some dialogue is overwritten, like much of the reams of spoken dialog that litters Final Fantasy X. But I'd strongly disagree with, say, Mass Effect or Star Control 2 being considered inferior games due to their reliance on lengthy, often witty, dialogue trees. I will concede that during the midst of an action scene, no one really wants a long parlay to intrude, especially a lengthy one. The poorly paced and written banter throughout all of Gears of War intruded into many scenes, especially the infamous pumping station dialogue, which was repeated, without the option to skip, before a difficult section of the game.

Wyatt Epp
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Bad writing is bad writing regardless of how long it is. He was pretty clear, I think, that he had nothing against longer segments, John. What he's saying is that the short clip is underappreciated; that it SHOULD receive the same level of scrutiny that the longer parts do. His example of an RTS, where you might hear many-hundred short clips to one longer conversation offers a good thought environment for build understanding of the "why." Expanding it to the so-called "sandbox" games, and using examples both good and not so good helps establish the standard to which we refer for this discussion. It's a thought provoking article and gives me some possibly interesting ideas as far as sound direction on my current project.

Anne Toole
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Old news ;) We've been waxing rhapsodic about "less is more" in dialog.

That said, shorter dialog can be harder to write than longer version. As Blaise Pascal famously said, "I have made this [letter] longer because I did not have the leisure to make it shorter." That could pretty much sum up any game developer's experience.