Three years ago, I became Lo-Fi Games’ dialogue writer for our huge 355 square mile open world RPG, Kenshi. Being a sandbox, there exists no linear narrative to tell Kenshi’s story, which poses a problem: how do you breathe life into a world that has no preset path to take the player’s hand through it? Without narration or cutscene visuals, we’re left with little context for the world and it’s dialogue. Contextless writing in videogames is a subject I’ve found rarely discussed, but fortunately I learned a few things along the way of Kenshi’s development from good old research and simple trial and error... and this guide is the result. So, whether you’re writing for a sandbox or any other role playing game in need of dialogue, I hope this guide helps add energy and meaning to your setting.
It goes without saying that fleshing out the setting of your world should come first and foremost before you start work on player interactions. Dialogue should have some kind of meaning, each conversation should act like a piece of puzzle to build your picture, to reflect the world and it’s story. Without some kind of core backstory or setting, it’s difficult for events and people to make sense or to have consistency.
Some basic steps for fleshing out world lore:
Non-linear games will need to decide just how much dialogue will be available to the player. For example, will interactions be limited purely to main gameplay events? Or will it be more broad, such as including lighter, more entertaining conversations that don’t necessarily lead to any kind of action or repercussion?
These additional conversation types help set the mood of the world, provide information, tell mini-stories and feed hardcore players’ curiosity. The drawback however, is that they can be rather boring to drudge through if a player is only interested in important ‘quests’ and opportunities that contribute only to the main gameplay. As an old school gamer, I feel compelled to speak with every single interact-able NPC, kind of like a gaming version of FOMO. And this hurts my head. Despite being bored to tears by their stories that I have no interest in, I begrudgingly become the virtual agony aunt of that game world.
To help decide just how much conversation to use in your own game, it helps to be aware of the different types of dialogue...
These first dialogue types can be thought of as idle chatter. They’re particularly useful for simple world building but typically no action follows from them.
The Life Story
The influential Conversation
The Companion Interlude
These next two types of conversation are actionable. They carry much more weight and lead to missions, heavy moral decisions or simply surviving an attack etc...
The Moral Dilemma
Lore is great and all, but it’s pretty worthless if the dialogue is written in such a way that it feels like a chore to get through for the player. So, onto tips for sexying up your dialogue.
First and most importantly, game dialogue does not have to be 100% realistic, following the rules of reality can be extremely limiting to the player’s possibilities (and fun). One of the first mistakes I made when I started writing, and something I’ve noticed with other new writers, was trying to mimic a real life conversation… and honestly, it flopped. Whenever I tested it out in the game it just felt dull, lifeless and flat.
I don’t make a habit of talking to random bypassers in the street, going into painfully intimate details about my relationship woes, my sister’s kidnap by man-eating orcs or the out-of-date fizzy yogurt I ate for breakfast. I mean, damn, I need a little warming up first... But in the game world, warming people up is boring. I don’t want to have to small talk my way into a conversation with someone, I don’t want to have to spend ages trying to calm down a severely traumatized damsel in distress before they’ll give me the juicy scoop I want to know. It’s not fun. So don’t be afraid to jump straight into the sweet, sweet juicy conversation; you can skip the pleasantries.
You can open dialogues with short greetings or longer musings. I personally think it’s better to keep it interesting rather than the usual "hi there, sorry to bother you, my name is X and I’m the town blacksmith". Instead, the NPC could comment on a) the player, how they look or any assumptions or suspicions about them; b) the current surroundings (recent bandit attacks, disasters…) or political situation; c) something personal about themselves, something a family member once taught them; d) moans and gripes about a local person or pest; e) something philosophical depending on the world religion or society, get creative! Keep it simple and you’ll line the player up straight for the main conversation.
"Ain’t everyday we get visitors in Greytown" - This is short and sweet but sounds less rigid and formal, more relaxed and flowing.
“My sister, Sylvia, always warned me to stay away from Greytown. Yet here I am without a penny to my name…” - This adds just a little something personal, almost like a regret or reflection that the NPC is muttering under their breath to him/ herself. It also provides enough information to potentially open the player straight up to some direct replies if you need, e.g. why did they move here, what were they warned about Greytown, who is Sylvia, why the heck are they talking to me...
“Name's Smith, best blacksmith you're gonna find in town! Need a new battle axe? I can make you a real pretty-... wait... goddammit, those goons took my favourite scythe hammer!” - This dives right into the conversation, almost like bait, to steer the player right into the heart of what the conversation is about. It gets straight to the point and leaves the chance to question who these ‘goons’ are and how Smith got into trouble with them etc.
“Hear that?.. The crowd... Can barely hear myself think in this bar... A lot of people hate crowds, but me? I love' em. Can't seem to shake the feeling of loneliness ever since I left the Shades...” - A simple comment on the current surroundings. It adds both atmosphere and a hint of background to the character without droning on too much.
“A woman from the godless lands, huh, don't get many of those wash up here. Hopefully you'll talk more sense than everyone else around here…” - A direct observation about the character plus an opinion on the surrounding lore/culture makes this a more interesting and inviting opener than a everyday ‘Hiya’.
This overlaps a little with the above, in reality people aren’t so keen to reveal secrets or taboo subjects with a random stranger. But this is a game, possibly a completely different sci-fi or fantasy setting to our own planet; how is the player supposed to learn about the world if everyone in it is pursing their lips and refusing to talk?
This may be a point of contention with other writers but, in my personal opinion, in non-narrative driven games players only have a short time to learn about the world, especially when juggling story with the distraction of gameplay. Not to mention we have a huge lack of context due to animation budgets and a non-existent narrator. So NPCs can afford to talk about things close to their heart, you’ll just need to work harder to make a reason for it so that it seems feasible for them to blab. Maybe they open with a line where they think the player has a trustworthy face, maybe they comment on witnessing the character act favourably to them, maybe they’ve let their guard down with a drunken rant...
As a dialogue opener, the NPC could ‘test’ the player with an ‘influential conversation’ from the above dialogue types: “Nowhere in this world is truly safe, even within the famous capital there are eyes everywhere... you, outlander, you look well-travelled.. what are your thoughts on... on **taboo subject**?”. This cuts out small talk, plus it still adds some kind of workability.
People can of course be secretive, but don’t ever miss out on the golden opportunity to tickle player’s curiosities with darkness and mystery. Everyone loves a good mystery tickle.
If the player tries to probe a character into giving more detail about a taboo subject, don’t just give them a wall with a response like: "Actually that's something I'd rather not talk about right now. I’m sorry." Instead, take advantage of this opportunity: give some kind of hint, something mysterious to tease and peak the player’s curiosity: “... I lost something special on that farm. Staying there brings chills to my bones, so I decided to leave. it’s a dark memory I'd rather not talk about”.
This only really applies to the ‘one-liners’, for example, Skyrim’s famous guards: "I used to be an adventurer like you, but then I took an arrow to the knee”. If it’s a repeatable piece of dialogue be sure to keep it vague and, if possible, impersonal.
This is now breaking most of the rules above but you’ll need to leave out overly strong character traits, specific personal details and in-depth descriptions. Instead focus on environmental comments or perhaps even create a local mantra, slogan or religious phrase - it can be reused but is subtle enough to hopefully not be noticed. This is a sneaky kind of tactic in giving the impression you’ve not heard the line before… hundreds of times. Okay maybe not, but it will at least not become an irritation to the player.
One-liners and companion interludes in particular can sometimes feel a little unnatural to write, since they are essentially completely unwarranted, almost tourette’s-like spasms of random information. In reality it’s the dodgy guy you edge away from on the midnight bus. But, play in a bustling game city such as Skyrim or the Witcher 3 and you find that actually it works pretty well despite the entire population contentedly yelling disconnected outbursts amongst themselves. Ideas to get you started include commenting on culture, gripes, myths, smells, statues, structures or other unique landmarks such as famous pubs. They can be jokes, simple musings, observations or anecdotes.
Examples: These simple examples and templates can be useful just for triggering ideas and inspirations for single comments and remarks. Just use your own world’s food, places, historic events and rumours to fill in the gaps:
To an extent, every character you write - no matter how small - should have some sort of character development. Obviously you don’t want to spend long on each little unimportant character, but dialogue becomes rigid and not so human if this is completely neglected. Here’s a list of points that can help with character development, the latter points are not so important for smaller side characters:
Just because you’ve developed a character’s backstory, it doesn’t mean that you have to reveal every single one of these details to the player; these points exist solely as a guide to help you map out a character’s behaviour. If you struggle for ideas, you can always base your character on a real person or take inspiration from other fictional characters.
Last of all, be careful to avoid stereotypes and cliches, it is usually only when a character breaks free from their stereotype that they can blossom into a unique and interesting character. Remember, imperfections are what make people lovable, nobody likes a perfect character because nobody can relate to them. Give the strong character, for example, some kind of vulnerable side (an example that comes to mind here is Cowboy Bebop’s tough guy, Jet, and his uncharacteristically delicate fondness for bonsai care), or something for the player to empathise with.
Practise and learn from your failures. You’ll write some garbage, and you’ll read it back again one year down the line, and you’ll likely shriek and burn it all in a hideous cringefest. But just remember that it’s all good practise. One must at first suck to be able to improve, after all.
You’ll come across creative blocks but push through the bad days and keep writing. After all, often it’s the tough days you almost gave up that you actually end up writing your best work. As Chuck Wendig once said, ‘sometimes the best thing you can do, especially with a first draft, is put a blindfold on, scream F*** IT, and run flailing into the story.’