At UCSC's Inventing the Future of Games symposium today, narrative designer, interactive fiction expert and writer Emily Short
presented a short talk called "The Listening Player," where she discussed a game project in which dialogue forms the core of the gameplay.
Short recalled a brief conversation she had with Chris Crawford at GDC in which he critiqued her and others' interactive narrative games. "You're not giving the player enough of a chance to respond; the game is doing all the talking and the player is doing all of the listening."
Said Short, "I assume what he wanted me to do was give the player more of a chance to respond, but being slightly ornery I wanted to embrace that, and create a game that is all about letting the player listen."
Since she was at GDC when she had the idea, she immediately thought of having the player control an audience. The player would input a reaction on two axes -- bored vs interested and confused vs comprehending.
"What I wanted to explore with this is the experience that the speaker has as reflected through the audience," she said.
"I became aware in my years teaching college how my content was shaped by the way my students were reacting. Wouldn't it be interesting to explore through a game what it's like to listen to someone telling you something very personal, and what it's like to be that person?"
It "wasn't too hard" to put together a mechanic to offer feedback to a speaker, Short said, "but the real problem is just the question of gameplay. What is it that the player needs to be doing in the process of listening? How do I make something that feels engaging and challenging?"
In commercial games, players often skip dialogue, Short noted, and many games that use dialogue as core gameplay in the indie space use it for combat -- interesting, but not right for what she was attempting.
"What I wanted to do was more of an exploration model -- what is it I want to know more about? What do I want to understand? How do I seek interesting discoveries?"
The game would not just be about the goals, but about exploring "the terrain" of the speaker's presentation, she said. The player could learn "how the person who is speaking thinks about reality; how she responds to feedback."
As the player, you'd understand "your immediate options, but also distant things so you know where you want to go." The game would have to offer "intermediate rewards" to remain interesting.
"What is the fictional structure I can put onto this that will create the exploration I need to do?" Short wondered. She eventually devised the idea of a speech with an awkward intro -- the kind that starts in the manner of "this is a topic some people don't feel comfortable with."
The topic she came up with is werewolf safety. The in-game speaker has had a personal experience with werewolves, but will avoid revealing whether or not she's a werewolf if at all possible, using methods including unrelated conversational tangents, Short said. "This would give it a shape where there is some gameplay dynamic."
Short said there's still "a lot of thinking to be done about the gameplay aspects of conversation. It's very tempting to focus on the simulation aspect," but "there's also a great deal to be gained by backing off of that and thinking about the design issues, and how to make conversation gameplay, and not framed around other gameplay."