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Analysis: Game Dialogue As A Recipe for Sociopathy
Analysis: Game Dialogue As A Recipe for Sociopathy
March 17, 2011 | By Andrew Vanden Bossche

March 17, 2011 | By Andrew Vanden Bossche
More: Console/PC

[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]

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Alan Jack
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"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."

Brilliantly put. This has been a problem for so long in games, and represents so much of why game characters are so superficial and un-engaging. We can't forge real relationships with them because they're not real people. Real people aren't black and white, or right and wrong. They aren't even "shades of grey". The same goes for morality in games.

I almost disagree about Mass Effect 2 - it was, in many cases, quite clear what I was "supposed" to choose in each dialogue choice - but I do agree that something kept the game feeling more natural, and it was - as you point out - most likely that you weren't getting "scored" and that the bonus effects of conversations were not always immediately apparent.

Another thing to consider is the dissonance in a lot of game between characters' dialogue and their reaction to your behaviour. A great example was given to me by a colleague who played Dragon Age. In it, he said, he went on a grand epic quest to recover a secondary character's sword. This sword was of vital importance to the character - something to do with containing his soul, or family lineage, or something like that. Whatever it was, my colleague said, he wouldn't shut up about it. So he finally gets it, and he's happy ... but it caused one less damage point than his previous weapon, so as soon as the quest was over, my colleague stuck that sword in his backpack and gave the character his old weapon again.

I think the problem is that we build mechanics of interactivity first, and then struggle to use those to express realistic and engaging characters. While I'm normally the first to say "gameplay comes FIRST", if you plan on having realistic characters in a game, I think the solution is to consider them as real first, then find ways to build interactions with them without compromising that realism.

Maurice Lefebvre
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I really like the way they changed the dialogues options and the results of relationships in Dragon Age II. Not only there are more variety in the dialogue types than just Nice-Evil-Neutral, but different characters will react differently to each choices. And since turning a companion into a rival also unlock some advantages, you don't have to worry all the time about choosing the right answers.

Alan Jack
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Alpha Protocol, for all its flaws, is worth looking at for character depth and scoring. Granted there's always a "right choice" to be made, but the character interaction is so murky that for most characters I still don't know what that choice is.

It also used clever writing to cover up some of its shortcomings - such as pointing out that, as a spy, you'll have to be constantly shifting your opinions and attitudes to manipulate those around you, so its understandable when you contradict yourself, or flip-flop on issues like a manic bipolar.

Jonathon Myers
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Thanks, Andrew. Interesting article, and you know design of conversations in games is one of my favorite topics. Here's a couple points, not necessarily in any particular organization. (Busy day.)

Some of this logic could be used to condemn some point systems and conversations in table top role playing games and LARPing. It also comes off to me that you're taking a stance against dramatic performance in general, which is always goal/obstacle based action in which the agent attempts to achieve something via communication tactics. (Stanislavski) In reality/life that's manipulation, in art it's an imitation of an action, and in games it's an interactive imitation of action(s).

The argument views game conversations through an aesthetic lens, so assuming games are equivalent to art is a pretty hefty assumption. I'm not against that, but perhaps if you are doing so then it's better to examine different qualities of conversation systems in different genres with different criteria. If the game is a simulation that's a different set of rules than if the game is role-playing or adventure-based. You touch on this but I think if this is a true analysis you should take more time to distinguish and address some particulars. You seem to be arguing that role-playing conversations with a structured point system should instead be more like an actual simulation, or they should be more life-like and less game-like. I'm not sure what to takeaway other than the fact that you are interested in simulations that are not fettered by rules and not by a reward system that involves NPC relationships. Overall, if this is about the meaning of an aesthetic experience then there is a lot more that begs to be examined. But this is definitely an interesting starting point.

This echoes a schism that emerged during the Dialogue as Gameplay panel I moderated at PAX. Rather than as binary opposing views of the use of dialogue as gameplay, I would instead view the agency vs. authored character schism as a bipolar continuum for purposes of analysis.

On the other hand, these are games and it's about fun, too. I think you'll have a tough time proving that the conversations in Dragon's Age are not fun. Whether or not it could be better at doing what it sets out to do is a different question. But I think changes to that conversation system based on your analysis would make that type of gameplay less fun.

Also, what about plain old good writing? The design of conversations is one thing. The quality of the writing within that design is another. Very good writing can make a wonky system or game enjoyable, and a great system could make dull characters tolerable. I'd like to see quality in both, but really once you talk about wanting to be able to explore characters you're talking about the need for good writing to facilitate that as well as good design. Developing characters in dialogue is hard. Developing characters in interactive dialogue is even more difficult and time consuming because character by its nature is based on consistency. This sort of discussion is often framed as a content problem.

We should talk with Jeff Orkin and get up to GAMBIT and play Improviso together!

Finally, Matthias Worch gave what I thought was the best lecture at GDC on character in games as an identity bubble that can burst with dissonance. Although it is not necessarily conversation or dialogue related, it touches upon many of these ideas:

Anthony Hart-Jones
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> Some of this logic could be used to condemn some point systems and conversations in

> table top role playing games and LARPing.

I think the issue is more that the player says one thing to one 'trusted NPC' and something else to another, rather than taking on a character. Manipulating strangers and gate-guards is one thing, but doing it to a so-called friend is sociopathic.

Jonathon Myers
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That's not necessarily sociopathic at all. But if so, so what?

Anthony Hart-Jones
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In many ways, the relationship with your pet in 'Black and White' was an example of how more 'truthful' relationships can still be manipulative. It was dialogue-free, but you rewarded and punished the pet to shape them into the beast you wanted.

I suppose the issue with Dragon Age was not that you had a 'right' and 'wrong' answer which forces you to lie, since it was just an improved version of the Knights of the Old Republic 'dark-side / light-side' which I th9ought worked better, but that you could not dodge the question. In real life, you know that there are friends with whom you don't talk religion, or maybe politics, because your beliefs and theirs differ. You pick the topics on which you do agree, strengthening your relationship. In Dragon Age, your party never really understood tact; they just kept on talking about the things you disagreed on.

I ended up playing with the party whose morality matched my own so that I could be consistent. Morrigan was fun to talk to, but tended to disagree with my compassion and so she sat out the story and I never really needed to improve on our relationship. On the other hand, with the exception of a few awkward attempts to convert my elf to the Cult of Andraste, I never had issues with Leliana and she was happy that I could respect her faith without believing.

I think Bioware wanted people to choose their party to match their protagonist, but it did become easy to lie to them just to get what you wanted.

Luis Guimaraes
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There's still the point that you have to play multiple times if you want to see everything that can happen, so most problably you won't.

Bart Stewart
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I wonder if this isn't a reframing of the recent "extrinsic vs. intrinsic rewards" discussion.

When rewards are extrinsic, people who play for rewards (arguably a majority of gamers at this point) will ignore character and select whatever conversation options yield the best/desired reward. Deferring those rewards in time (to discourage reloading) could in theory make the choice-consequence loop too expensive to game, but at what cost in frustration to those gamers who have been trained -- possibly by other features in that very game -- to expect immediate extrinsic rewards for all their choices?

I'll actually argue here in favor of my preferred style of playing dialogue-rich games: I save and reload to try out every single conversational option. While this obviously could be used to get the "best stuff," I do it (usually) to identify the dialogue choice whose consequences are the most appropriate for the personality of the character I'm playing. I'll accept a "bad" choice if it feels right for the character I'm trying to play.

Are there any dialogue mechanics that could support both my preferred style as well as the more popular immediate-reward-focused style?

Jonathon Myers
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Working on it right now. :)

Bart Stewart
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Shreerang Sarpotdar
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So true. Dragon Age conversations, while fun and sometimes very engaging, made me feel like I was a warrior therapist. You wanted to get to know the characters better, but that didn't happen organically; you had to use the feel good choices rather than say what you really thought of their actions. DA II improves this by having benefits no matter if the character resents you or loves you.

The fact that you had to do this one-on-one also made it seem even weirder; in camp, everybody would be silently standing around, without bantering.

In real life, there tends to be a rubber-banding effect with friends; friends will tolerate, or even appreciate, your thoughts so long as you're not being an outright jerkass, and sometimes even so. We tend to take instant likes/dislikes to people, and then amend our opinions (slowly) after further interactions.

I would love a system where characters judge you by your actions rather than your words, and where simply talking to a character is enough to start 'opening up' to him or her. For example, talking to Sten before you had done his sword fetch quest was an exercise in bashing your head against a wall - supposed to be taciturn, yes, but this was taken to an absurd extreme.

Dan MacDonald
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Can it be as simple as conflict being the heart of most games. Conversation get's reduced to a mechanic where by conflict is resolved verbally with winners and losers.

Johan Bentzen
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Dragon Age II is one of these interesting experiences for me where I understand better something I like (Origins) because I meet something similar that I like less. What worked so well for me with Morrigan, is that I really liked the character, so it was easy (consistent, in character) to be empathic when chatting with her (making dialog choices), which meant that the points I lost whenever she disagreed with my choices away from camp didn't matter. And having her angry with my choices but appreciative of my person made her feel much more real and much more like a friend.

In contrast Dragon Age II is all about my choices in the field, so my 'friends' actually just react to how much of an asset I am to their various agendas.

This means that in order to play the mini-game of friendship I have to tailor my more or less moral choices to other peoples agendas and not that of Hawk. And going for the rival option does not change that, it just flips all of my choices.

Maybe this is because I don't play clear-cut characters; maybe this works better when playing a mage- or templar hating Hawk, and maybe the mini-game is just meant for that style of playing.

The advantage of the Origins system is that it works not matter how you choose to play the rest of the game.