[Writer Jeffrey Matulef looks at two different incarnations of the classic Monkey Island franchise to examine how dialogue trees have evolved over the past two decades (and not necessarily for the better).]
In many ways point-and-click adventure games haven't evolved very much. Playing Telltale's Tales of Monkey Island this summer on PSN felt very much how I remembered the playing LucasArts' first Monkey Island 20 years ago.
Given that Guybrush's maiden voyage was my first graphic adventure experience, the pangs of nostalgia were strong enough for me to overlook all those supposed flaws that maturity, college and the internet have made it so hip to point out.
So smitten was I with Tales of Monkey Island that I'd decided to go back and revisit Guybrush's earlier adventures starting with his mighty pirate debut, The Secret of Monkey Island. A classic game in its own right, there was one element that it handled particularly well that's all but disappeared from modern gaming and that's how it approached dialogue.
Tales of Monkey Island handled dialogue trees in much the same way as Mass Effect (or most games of the last decade for that matter). You'd choose from a list of dialogue options, each one branching off into a handful of further options.
Once all those were exhausted it'd boot back to the previous menu. Rinse, lather, repeat until everything that could be said would be. This enabled the player to see all the conversational content without having to reload a previous save or replay the game. While I can appreciate the worry-free nature of this approach, it hurts the proceedings in a variety of ways.
For one, conversations would take too long. Each episode in Tales of Monkey Island starts with a good dose of exposition with little interaction as the player clicks their way through dialogue. I'm admittedly a sucker for good dialogue, but when I reach a collective of NPC I can't help but groan thinking, "Oh man. I'm going to be spending the next half hour talking, aren't I?"
More importantly, it takes the fun out of having to carefully choose what to say, since you know you'll eventually be able to say everything anyway. As a result, navigating through dialogue trees feels less like a conversation than it does clicking through a novel, with little sense of import to your agency.
Going Back In Time
In this regard, going back to the original Secret of Monkey Island was akin to discovering advanced technology long lost by an ancient civilization (and not just because it's by the developer of Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis). Rather than have the option to say everything, you'd often only get one chance at a greeting before the NPC would steer the conversation in a more practical direction, usually offering a hint or some form of guidance on your quest.
Conversation was far less comprehensive this way, but it made each exchange of dialogue count. No longer could you just keep picking the top option, confident that you'd eventually click your way through all the zippy punchlines. You had to stop and think what you wanted to say as the comeback would probably be pretty funny and something you wouldn't want to miss out on.
This also made conversation go by far faster. Entering the SCUMM bar at the start of Monkey Island with its host of pirates about to introduce you to the game world seems like it should have taken the better part of a half hour to talk to the locals, but it ended up taking roughly five minutes. Since games don't allow you to choose dialogue and perform any other kind of physical action at the same time (yet, anyway. I'd love to see a game where you had some control over mannerisms as well as what you say), this is one area where brevity is key.
Streamlining the dialogue trees allowed conversation to flow a lot better. How often have you wanted make a comment only to have the person you're talking to yammer on until what you were going to say lost its relevance? It happens all the time, and while I wouldn't suggest it's an imperative for games to emulate reality, we are used to conversations being a steady stream of relevant thoughts and anything but just feels wrong.
Say What You Want
It helps that the outcome of Monkey Island games cannot be radically altered, allowing the player to approach every situation as a kind-hearted do-gooder or vile jerk with no fear of repercussion. In a series that never takes itself too seriously, it's often the most mean-spirited options that yield the funniest results. At one point, Guybrush can even murder a friendly character just for fun with absolutely no penalty whatsoever. Mass Effect's Commander Shepard doing the same thing isn't nearly as hilarious (most of the time anyway. Though punching a reporter is a notable exception).
In an age where games have such transparent binary moral structures it's often encouraged to commit fully to one side in a story that doesn't offer the same degree of malleability. It then seems out of place when someone like Commander Shepard would be a jerk to everyone he knows, yet still save the galaxy.
This works in Monkey Island, however, because Guybrush is already a prescribed character; a pansy wannabe pirate with his own likes (Elaine, plundering) and dislikes (LeChuck, porcelain). During the more important interactions Guybrush's menu of dialogue is limited to things he'd actually say. When he meets his romantic interest, Elaine, his dialogue tree consists of mumbled, dumbstruck sounds as he's too nervous to form even the most basic of words.
Guybrush is already a developed character and the player's agency is limited only to which of several thoughts will end up coming out of his mouth (except for the option to murder the aforementioned friendly. But the guy was a ghost and Guybrush just acquired a ghost killing potion. It's in his impatient, childish nature to want to try out his new toy with little regards to whom it may harm).
What you say only effects what you'll hear back, but never has any outcome on the fixed story or puzzles. By knowing its limits it gets a lot of comedic mileage out of them as the cast puts up with Guybrush's bullish behavior because they're in a game and have no choice.
I'm sure writing dialogue for playable characters is harder than it sounds as you have to stay within the framework of a prescribed character and story. Allowing dialogue to constantly rewind 20 seconds until all potential conversations have been spoken seems stilted and often impedes the flow of a game. Amazingly, 20 years ago this wasn't the case.
Dialogue could flow naturally, provide necessary information, stay true to the character and still give the player plenty of meaningful choices in how to go about interacting with others. If designers weren't set on letting players tailor their character to the point of writing their own, and weren't worried about players missing some content, we could have this again. If Monkey Island has taught me anything, it's that the tongue is in fact mightier than the sword.