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:
MIGHTY-THEWED PLAYER AVATAR
Not much. How are things with you?
Things are cool, I guess.
Yeah. Umm, there is this, umm, one thing.
Yeah, yeah. Not a big deal, but, hey, you know.
Yeah. Umm, yeah. So what’s up?
Well, there’s this thing. Kind of a pain in the ass.
Anything I, umm, I can do to help?
Well, umm, you get a chance and it’s not out of your way, maybe, umm, you could smite it?
Oh, sure, no problem. Was gonna go smite some stuff anyway.
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.
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.
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?
For more of Richard Dansky’s advice for writers, give these columns a read: