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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 Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

A Hard Day's Quote

I've been thinking a lot about short dialog recently. For most of 2007, we at Iron Lore were working on Dawn of War: Soulstorm, the third expansion to Relic's superb strategy series. When it came time for me to write the unit voice-over it was first necessary to stop and admire the standard set for my task by the folks at Relic.

I was an instant fan of lines such as "Just as Falcon brought Anaris to Eldanesh...," which deftly and poetically evokes the labyrinthine mythology of the ancient Eldar, not to mention, "'Ere ta fix yer gubbinz!" -- capturing perfectly all the comic braggadocio of an Ork warboss.

The nature of those unit voice-over lines highlights a major difference between dialog in games and other sorts of dialog. Take three steps into the world of screenwriting, and you're likely to come across the term "on the nose." (A good treatment of it can be found in David Freeman's book 'Creating Emotion in Games'.)

Being on the nose is a bad thing; it means the writing has come at its subject too directly and feels flat. It is the hallmark of juvenile, clumsy writing -- or worse yet, a script written by marketing execs. And it's true: People almost never talk directly at a point.

They don't state the obvious, they don't spell everything out. In fact, they almost always beat around the bush and whatever does come out of their mouths is colored heavily by their own personality and their relationship with whomever they're speaking to.

In other words, in real life and in well-written drama, when people speak, they speak in context. And the more context with which a writer can imbue a line of dialog, the better it will be. An elite operative in a dangerous situation is better off saying, "Sergeant Malloy. James! Please!" than they are coming out with a full, "James Malloy, I know the death of your partner of 10 years has shaken you up, but for crying out loud stop acting like an idiot or you'll get us all killed."

If the circumstances surrounding that line are well constructed, the audience gets the second line out of the first, with the major difference being that it goes to their gut, without bouncing off any raised eyebrows.

In video games, the concept of "on the nose" hits a hitch. Dialog -- especially short dialog -- almost always has another job to do, which is conveying direct, unambiguous information to the player. In Dawn of War for instance, every infantry unit can have over a dozen different types of confirmation audio, acknowledging your orders and alerting you to events on the battlefield.

Relic/Iron Lore's Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War: Soulstorm

Each type of confirmation gets between two and ten lines for variation. You naturally want these lines to convey as much character and flavor as possible, but what you absolutely need is for each to communicate its purpose without a shadow of a doubt.

The player needs to instantly grok when a line signifies squad selection, point capture, morale loss, and so forth. Almost all of these lines essentially must be on the nose. You can't come at the subject indirectly.

While not all game dialog has such strict parameters, the point holds. You won't find a lot of speech in games that doesn't directly relate to the central focus of action. It wants to keep pertinent to -- and at the tempo of -- the game itself.1

1 Writing off the nose is additionally difficult because diagesis is fundamentally different in games. Rather than being air-tight and made of glass, the fourth wall is covered in the apertures and interfaces of the game UI. It's as if a portion of the audio and visuals come from this gray area, the intersection of the game world and the player's world. 

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