Worldbuilding With NPC Dialogue: A Beginner's Guide
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
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.
1. Starting off: Build your world
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:
- Begin with the geography. Draw out the layout of the world map: swamps, mountain, plains, rivers and towns. Next, write up a short text that describes the world setting and its features: it’s atmosphere; races, cultures, main cities; fauna and flora. Add details: what does X animal eat? Does it travel in packs? Is it hostile, tame or a pest? What is it’s given name?...
- Start filling the world with basic nations. Outline your setting: who lives there, why do they live there.... Think about the conflicts: who is fighting with who and why are they fighting... Make a timeline of of events: wars, waves of immigration, ensuing wars and assimilation, natural disasters, shifts in power balances… Depict what the present situation is: it’s politics, economy and warfare.
- Flesh out the specific races, factions and townships. What are their beliefs and morals? What god(s) do they worship (if any)? Any sexism, racism? Who are their heroes and who are their chief enemies? Who rules the main capital? Where are the main trading flows? Who protects these trade routes?
- Extras. Are there any local mythologies and rumours? For example, a fabled monster: where does it dwell? Who does it affect?
2. Next: Establish your style
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...
3. Interactions: Know the different dialogue types
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.
- Usually short, single sentences that an NPC will utter when in close proximity to the player.
- Can be a small glimpse into the backstory or setting of an area. Use it to add atmosphere or flavour to a scene such as a bustling tavern full of burping drunkards.
- Can be a personal reaction to the player and their current situation or reputation. This can be an effective way of personalising a player’s experience with specific reactions to their character and achievements
- Either a one-liner or a full conversation that gives the player practical information.
- Can include gameplay tips and hints for the player. E.g. asking a retired bounty hunter how to find bounties
- Or it can simply be informative on the area lore or the main story. E.g. grilling someone for info on a recent event, usually an official person or a barman
The Life Story
- A way to tie in an explanation of world lore and setting through the story of an individual. The speaker will either briefly mention or go into great detail about their past or current situation.
- There are no results, actions or benefits to be gained from taking part in the conversation.
- Can be comical and entertaining but particularly effective for evoking emotion and atmosphere.
The influential Conversation
- A more in-depth reaction and opinion of the player, current situation or world setting. E.g. A refugee or a soldier might challenge the player about their stance on a recent war.
- Includes debate where the player can respond with a variation of moral and political standpoints.
- Certain answers can potentially offer a chance to affect relationships with special characters or factions.
- An NPC with knowledge of a specific point of interest on the world map. E.g. A bumpkin telling exaggerated rumours of a terrifying beast.
- Can be a chance to ask for more info about this legend or point of interest.
- Can lead to a possible mission.
The Companion Interlude
- Remarks or full conversations that are personal to the player’s squad. A particularly good example of this is the squabbles and musings between companions in Dragon Age. Their conversations were witty, character building and even added to the current atmosphere to make the game feel more alive. The Dungeon of the Endless elevator events are another more simple example of this.
- Can be used either to build on personal backstories, create atmosphere or give gameplay hints.
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...
- An NPC expresses a problem or concern. E.g He has a crush on someone who doesn’t like him back. His little brother is missing. His sheep are sick. The town bully is picking on him. He wants sweet sweet revenge.
- This can be a chance to solve the NPCs problem, possibly for reward such as an item, XP, increased relations, money, information...
- Possible mission
The Moral Dilemma
- A particularly disturbing, emotional, cruel or dangerous situation.
- The player will have to make a difficult moral decision to do whatever they think is right (or for the sadistic gamers, fun). The balance between rationality and doing the right thing isn’t always so clear cut; sometimes taking the moral high ground will end up doing more harm than good. Well executed game examples include Wolfenstein: New Order, Dragon Age, Wolf Among us, Walking Dead, Witcher 3.
- Examples include ending someone’s suffering by killing them, sacrificing someone’s life or health in order to save others, or simply forgiving and sparing a repentant enemy.
- The player’s choice in this may affect future story outcomes and relations. Or not. The Moral Dilemma may exist simply to torture the player by reminding them that even in the bubble of their game world haven they can never truly escape the cycle of failure and suffering. Harsh.
4. Lastly: Writing interesting dialogue
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.
Opening up: Cut the small talk
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’.
Don’t keep secrets so… secret
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”.
Avoid robotic repetition
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.
Templates and examples for getting started
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:
- “You know what I miss? X”
- “One of these days I’ll X and X”
- “I’d have done X if it wasn’t for X”
- “You look like you... X”
- Life motto “In life you gotta X”
- Snide comments (My favourite Witcher 3 example) “Washed your hair lately?”
- World religions “God hates nothing more than X”
- “Think carrying a sword makes you tough? Try carrying your enemies’ X”
- “So this is X? It’s so X”
- “I tried X once but ….”
- ‘I’ve got a craving for X”
- “Have I mentioned I don’t like X?”
- Adding to an eerie atmosphere “Anyone else feel like we’re being watched?”
- “I heard it’s X tradition to do X”
- “I’ve been here before when X”
- “They say there’s X here…”
- “I wonder why X…”
- “Reminds me of home when X…”
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:
- Speech: Any habits or accents? Any favourite phrases or words?
- Traits: Are they humble, cocky; sarcastic, caring; crude, sweet; social, reclusive; competitive, lazy?
- Fears and Desires: What is their drive, what are they trying to achieve? What do they fear or detest most in life?
- Physical Traits: How old are they? What do they look like?
- Background: Where are they from? How was their childhood? Do they have family? Are there any significant events that have affected them?
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.
And last but not least…
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.’