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Ode to Short Dialog: Reconsidering the Sound Bite
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Ode to Short Dialog: Reconsidering the Sound Bite

October 14, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[Big Huge Games and former Iron Lore narrative designer Schneider steps up, in an article originally published in Game Developer magazine, to discuss why keeping dialog short and sweet in games is the way to go, arguing: "the sound bite is more poetry than prose -- and poetry is a powerful thing."]

I'm here to sing the praises of short dialog in video games. The quip. The utterance. The sound bite. Call it what you will, I fear that short speech may be under-appreciated. Not to get polemical, mind you -- longer dialog is not the root of all evil.

Short dialog will not heal burns or mend broken hearts. But very short dialog (which I'm defining as two seconds on average, and no more than six) can do things in games that longer speech simply cannot.

Short dialog is fully digestible in the moment. It can function as ambient audio, in the background -- or out loud, in the foreground. When ambient, short dialog can be repeated, with variation, until the player happens to take notice.

When in the foreground, it can deliver critical information without unduly interrupting or bogging down gameplay. Information conveyed via very short dialog can be reacted to immediately.

Put another way, sound bites can be made to function as a feedback or game information element, similar to UI events, sound effects, and particle effects. And whether it's a crowd cheering, "Chicken-chaser!" or a hero announcing that he's "here to kick ass and chew bubble gum," short lines are memorable.

They are writing boiled down to the essentials. Don't mistake cutting down for a bad thing. Condensed writing can result in subtler accents and richer flavor.

The idea that editing down makes writing stronger is one of those tricky writers' maxims that are extremely useful so long as they aren't applied with too much blind zeal. Ezra Pound famously wrote a poem titled "In a Station of the Metro," that began as 30 lines of verse. He rewrote it at half the length, then further condensed it to two short lines, almost a haiku:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet black bough.

Nowadays we speak condescendingly of the sound bite, but really we should give credit where it is due. It might lack in nuance and carry no more than a crumb of information, but the sound bite has the power to catch your attention and light up your imagination, all in the brief pulse of an instant. Good luck doing that with long-winded facts.

In other words, the sound bite is more poetry than prose -- and poetry is a powerful thing.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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