Talk the Talk

Dialogue is a funny beast.

It exists in numerous places, in numerous ways, and each medium needs and uses dialogue in its own particular way.

Consider, for a moment, the last conversation you might have had – with a friend, with a partner, with a coworker, whomever. Think about what was said, and more importantly, how it was said. There were probably “Umms” in there somewhere, maybe a “What?” and various digressions as you may or may not have danced around the point. All of which is a fancy way of saying it was probably unstructured, messy, and human.

Now, take that conversation and put it in a game. It might go something like this:

VILLAGER
Hey.

MIGHTY-THEWED PLAYER AVATAR
Hey.

VILLAGER
What’s up?

MTPA
Not much. How are things with you?

VILLAGER
Things are cool, I guess.

MTPA
Cool.

VILLAGER
Yeah. Umm, there is this, umm, one thing.

MTPA?
Yeah?

VILLAGER
Yeah, yeah. Not a big deal, but, hey, you know.

MTPA
Yeah. Umm, yeah. So what’s up?

VILLAGER
Well, there’s this thing. Kind of a pain in the ass.

MTPA
Anything I, umm, I can do to help?

VILLAGER
Well, umm, you get a chance and it’s not out of your way, maybe, umm, you could smite it?

MTPA
Oh, sure, no problem. Was gonna go smite some stuff anyway.

VILLAGER
Oh, cool, thanks. Also, it’s a yeti.

It is reasonable to suppose that, were you to be playing through this conversation, you might get a little frustrated at the characters’ seeming inability to get to the point. You might also throw your controller through the TV, or possibly switch to another game. This is because our expectations of dialogue in a particular medium are bundled up tightly with what we want to get from that medium. When it comes to a game, we want interesting dialogue that gives us actionable information, whether it’s about what we have to do next or whom we’re interacting with, and we want it to be integrated in a streamlined fashion into our play experience.

Talk the Talk

In other words, give me something fast and get out quick. For all that we say we want things in games to be “realistic” – whatever that means (seriously… you want a “realistic” sniper mission? Get yourself some adult diapers first) – we don’t want things to be actually realistic. The real world is messy. The real world is inefficient. The real world has rough edges and unfinished narratives and dangling plot threads, all of which get in the way of a smooth experience. We want the sense of real dialogue without all the rough edges of the thing itself.

Which takes us, by roundabout ways, to the question of what makes good game dialogue? And the answer is, frustratingly enough, dialogue that makes the game better.
All dialogue should strive to sound like it is supposed to come out of a particular character’s mouth
In real terms, this means dialogue that gives us what we need for our play experience. Dialogue that just gives us the information we need to get to the next objective or nail the next quest can be, to put it mildly, dry. As efficient as a straight infodump is, if it’s not leavened with character and personality (or the infodump isn’t in context as, say, direct orders from a military superior) it’s just stereo instructions. And stereo instructions are boring as hell.

(Note: If you are too young to remember what a stereo is, feel free to substitute in “smart thermostat” or whatever. Then go watch Beetlejuice to get the rest of the joke.)

Alternately, if the material is shot through with too much personality, the actual material that needs to get conveyed can get diluted or lost. Now, I’m not advocating strictly utilitarianistic dialogue here – there are times when personality and character should be the point of dialogue, and all dialogue should strive to sound like it is supposed to come out of a particular character’s mouth. And that – the idea of characterbuilding in conjunction with gameplay – is something really worth getting into in its own column, instead of as an aside in one that’s putatively about a particular writing technique. So trust me for a minute, and believe me when I say simply that dialogue should always build and reinforce character, but that getting carried away with extended bits can be just as deadly and distracting as straight objective lists.

Generally, what you’re gunning for in game dialogue is lines that achieve three things: One, they get whatever point you’re trying to make across in a relatively clean way; two, they always sound like they’d be something that would come out of the mouth of the character who’s saying them; and three, they sound like things an actual human being can say.

The last part is trickier than you think. More dialogue than you think goes into the recording studio in a state that is, for lack of a better word, broken. Maybe there are words in there that are hard for an actor to say in sequence. Maybe there’s too many syllables in a particular line, and it sounds weird. Maybe it has a tricky sequence of emphases that look right on the page but which go all Crazy Moon Language when someone is required to make sounds out of them. Or maybe they read well on the page but just sound bad when voiced.

The Kermit Test

Look, nobody – with the possible exception of Harry Turtledove – writes perfect first drafts. Nobody. And a lot of the flaws in your writing, regardless of who you are, are only going to become evident once the rubber hits the road. But that’s no reason not to give yourself every advantage you can, and having a good self-editing tool is a tremendous benefit to your work.

And that’s where the Kermit Test comes in. At least, that’s what I call it.

Talk the Talk

The way to use it is simple. Find a quiet room. Start reading any dialogue you’ve written out loud. This will do all sorts of good things for you, like let you know when you’ve written a line that’s too long and needs a space for the actor to breathe. Or a line that is going to sound like Foghorn Leghorn getting kneecapped by Raylan Givens. Or a line that is impossible to read without stumbling, “Eye of Argon” style.

(Note: If you don’t know what “The Eye of Argon” is, you’re lucky. Try to keep it that way.)

Or, and this is where the name of the thing comes from, a line that you feel compelled to read in a silly voice because you can’t say it straight. For me, that voice is Kermit the Frog’s, but hey, it can be anything. The point is, if you, the writer, can’t say a line with a straight face, then there is no chance that an actor is going to be able to read or perform it with a straight face, and then there’s no chance a player is going to be able to take it seriously. When I feel the tell-tale Hi-Ho creeping in, it’s time to mark that line for some revision.

Is it perfect? No. No writer’s tool is. But the more you can do to limit the howlers and the clunkers on your own, before they get in front of the people you’re paying money to read them, the better off you’ll be.

And besides, you’ll get to practice your Kermit the Frog impression. And who doesn’t want that?

Talk the Talk

For more of Richard Dansky’s advice for writers, give these columns a read:

The Things They Don’t Teach You In Game Writer School

On Becoming a Game Writer

Tips for Writers

the author

Perhaps best known for his brief stint as the world’s leading authority on Denebian Slime Devils, Richard Dansky has been with Red Storm/Ubisoft since 1999. His first game was Shadow Watch and his most recent one is Splinter Cell Blacklist. In between he’s served on the advisory board for GDC’s Game Narrative Summit, helped found and develop the IGDA Game Writing SIG, and appeared on Gamasutra’s list of the top 20 game writers in 2009. He has also published six novels, one short fiction collection and a ton of tabletop RPG sourcebooks, which is why you should never tell him about your character. For a tantalizing taste of Dansky's inimitable insights, read his recurring column on the UbiBlog ("The Write Stuff") and follow him on Twitter: @RDansky

12 Readers Commented

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  1. Charbel Kaloush on January 24, 2014
    This is just brilliant! A great read thru! As always! Thank you and God Bless
    • Richard Dansky on January 27, 2014
      Thank you! Glad you enjoyed it!
  2. EA on January 24, 2014
    Great little piece.
    • Richard Dansky on January 27, 2014
      Thanks!
  3. Brooks Weaver on January 24, 2014
    It's always great to get more insight into one of the most important aspects of gaming - writing (story, dialogue, etc.).Great article!
  4. nick on January 28, 2014
    Great read! bonus points for the kermits.
    • Richard Dansky on February 4, 2014
      I kept threatening them with "The Gonzo Quiz", but my editors wouldn't go for it.
  5. Maria Alexander on January 31, 2014
    When I was writing a lot of videos for Disney's websites, I always read every single script out loud multiple times. And then I was usually in the recording studio, too, because sometimes even the best script can be problematic for certain actors. We edited on-the-fly and I was always pleased with the result.
    • Richard Dansky on February 4, 2014
      Next time we hang out, remind me to tell you the sad tale of HOLY CRAP I'M ON FIRE.
  6. Dan McClain on January 31, 2014
    Thanks a lot. Now I hear Kermit as I write. Interesting insight though, thanks!
  7. Rueben Marley on January 31, 2014
    One of my favorite tricks is to record myself while acting out the script (quick and dirty, no need for a clean VO track) and then I'll go have lunch or whatever... when I come back and play the recording, all the clumsy bits of my writing are painfully evident... and then my edits are so much easier :-)
    • Richard Dansky on February 4, 2014
      Absolutely - getting a little distance from the heat of composition's key as well. Thanks for the insight!

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