[Gamasutra contributor Andrew Vanden Bossche examines conversations and dialogue trees in games, and the different ways in which relationships with AI characters are handled in the likes of Dragon Age and Persona.]
Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer has some of the most compassionate dialogue options of any game I’ve played, perversely appropriate for the psychopathic protagonist. This is a game in which you lure innocent strangers to your basement to be tortured to death, but it's also a damning critique of how video games use dialogue to represent relationships.
It begs the questions of whether or not games like Dragon Age Origins or Persona 3 are just as preverse as Beautiful Escape. Do these games actually force players to act like sociopaths, even if it's clear that neither the players nor designers want that?
Kieron Gillen described the conversations systems best in Beautiful Escape and dating sims in general as “about hiding the self to gain what you want, and that’s all these games boil down to,” which is a literal symptom of sociopathy.
Beautiful Escape treats conversations like an interpersonal quiz show, asking players to guess which strangers are most likely to come home and die for him. The name of the game is exploiting people until they give themselves to you.
Rotten Dialogue Tree
Is this, then, any different from Dragon Age Origins, in which the damage bonus or special quest or sex scene is your reward? It's not just that the reward is cynical, it's the method of obtaining it. Conversations based on manipulation have a place; they certainly work well for flattering noblemen or lying to guards, but party members are supposed to be the player's friends and allies, and friendship is supposed to come with honesty and empathy.
Yet conversations in this game encourage players to say whatever will (literally) score them the most points with their in-game friends. Even if players are motivated by nothing more than a genuine interest in the character, the game system still rewards manipulative dialogue (at best, when it isn't a random guessing game). That's not how friendship is supposed to work. Friends fight and argue and make up. Friends disagree with each other. Friends aren’t supposed to keep score. They’re supposed to say what they feel, not what they think their friend wants to hear.
That's not to say that systems that score friendship prevent players from forming emotional connections with video game characters, as that's clearly not the case. The real issue is cognitive dissonance for the player, frustration with the system, and loss of agency.
By forcing players to keep score of conversations, players can't really be themselves (so to speak) because they are only rewarded for saying what the character wants to hear, not what the player wants to say. Yes, the player can deliberately spite the system, but in the carefully constructed world of a video game, discouragement amounts to loss of agency.
Because the dialogue system is structured around like/dislike, the game doesn’t support the idea that I might admire a character as a person but disagree with their attitude towards the world. The game system seems to assume that you either agree with what she says and like her or disagree with what she says and dislike her.
But in my own experience with friendship, friends are supposed to be able to fight and still be friends. I liked having fights with Morrigan, for example — the fact that she got mad at me made her feel real and her advice always gave me something to think about, even if I didn’t agree.
Like/Dislike means every dialogue choice is either with them or against them, and since players are only rewarded for positive choices, having your own opinion is negatively reinforced. When I have a conversation in Dragon Age, I’m thinking, “What do they want to hear?”, not “What do I want to say to them?” Love is not the multiple choice section of the SATs.
I Just Want to Talk
This like/dislike binary gamifies conversations, and it's good in the sense that it drives players to think about what they say. This is meant to simulate the thought and work that goes into a relationship. That's a good goal, and part of the reason why such systems make sense, even if they have an unpleasant undercurrent.
Do conversations even need to be gamified though? Dragon Age and especially Persona 3 require an investment of time from players. It's not as though the path to friendship is easy. Video games have this amazing potential to allow players to get to know characters, and that’s all I want to do.
I never felt that Persona, in which so much time is spent hanging out with friends, was a richer or more entertaining game because of the guessing game I had to play with them. The game of friendship is getting to know someone, and that was happening just from the time spent talking with them. I didn’t need a score to tell me how close I was getting to these characters.
Bioware's own Mass Effect 2 shows what can happen when everything is kept under the hood, and so intuitive that there's no dissonance between what you say and how your party members respond. By making conversations more natural it gives players the ability to define their relationship with party members on their own terms, and the game rewards the investment of time. The relationship that players establish isn't graded, eliminating that unpleasant, vaguely psychotic undercurrent.
[Andrew Vanden Bossche is a freelance writer and student. He has a blog called Mammon Machine, which discusses videogames and things that you do on a computer that aren't videogames, and can be reached at AndrewVandenB@gmail.com]