What Makes RPG Dialogue Great (And How It Can Go Wrong)

We spend a lot of time watching video game characters talk. Sometimes they're perched in dimly-lit inns, plotting out their next moves over frosty mugs of Genuine Medieval Ale. Other times they're exchanging snarky quips between rounds of troll-hunting or alien-squashing. Or sharing awkward pleasantries after robotic sexual encounters.

Japanese role-playing games are especially dialogue-heavy. When we're not watching our characters talk, we're seeking out new conversations; if you enter a town and don't go around starting chats with everybody you see, you're totally doing it wrong. Non-player characters usually have interesting or at least helpful things to say about a given situation. When they don't, we get mad. It feels like a waste of our time, a disrespectful abuse of an important gaming ritual. It's frustrating.

(Incidentally, I've never seen an RPG that tries to justify these non-stop verbal volcanos. It's never quite clear why random people are always willing to jabber at your character before he or she says so much as hi. And how the hell does your entire party fit into one tiny little tent? Let's move on.)

But for something we spend so much time reading and watching, dialogue is sure hard to properly analyse. What makes a given line or scene interesting? What makes it work? What makes it not work? What makes you want to chuck your computer at the screen and tell Vincent Valentine to stop whining about how sad his life is?

It's tough to pinpoint exactly what makes dialogue flow, which may be why we're so quick to jump to easy adjectives like good, bad, and all of their respective synonyms when we describe the way characters are written. It's also tough to look at dialogue as an objective art; like food or paintings, your average character's line could be delectable to some people and dull to others.

Like any good video game, great dialogue has a certain flow.

But there are tricks. Rules. Rhythm, for example: like any good video game, great dialogue has a certain flow. Words bounce and move in certain directions, with certain cadences and beats. You can tell when the pulse isn't there.

Sometimes this rhythm is achieved through mirroring language, synonyms or antonyms that echo and play off one another like dance partners at a ball. "Such a big sword for such a small girl," a character might say. Other times it's about striking balance between long and short sentences: "My life is a chip in your pile. Ante up!"

Some game designers even play around with what the video game form can do to the rhythm of dialogue. In the adorable lawyer sim Phoenix Wright series, for example, text makes bleeping and blooping noises that vary speeds depending on how fast a given conversation is moving. And the music pulses alongside the beat.

Sharp writers have mastered techniques like the rule of three, a well-regarded principle that can be used both for drama and comedy thanks to its timeless formula: setup, climax, payoff. Sentence construction is made much easier when you have rules to follow.

Dialogue in a video game, like dialogue in a movie or a television show, should ideally sound like real life, but smarter. This is easier said than done. It's particularly hard for video games that take place on planets full of elves and space orcs and magical crystals. It takes a certain level of talent to make dialogue sound natural when you're stuck with names like Balthier and Cait Sith.

But even when a line doesn't sound like something any sane human being would say, it can still be memorable. It can still be catchy. Final Fantasy IV's classic "you spoony bard" is part gaffe, part translation quirk, and 100 per cent unforgettable. And it's hard not to be endeared when FFVI's Kefka spits out ridiculous half-curses like "son of a submariner".

Let's look at some dialogue in action. Take a look at these lines from Lunar 2: Eternal Blue, a wonderful classic JRPG that was released for the Sega Saturn and then again for the PlayStation in 2000. Some background: you've just met a wayfaring gambler named Ronfar, who has agreed to join your party and help you save. This is because Ronfar is a good guy, but it's also because he feels extraordinarily guilty about his inability to save his lover, Mauri, when she suffered some mysterious illness a few years back. (There's more to the story, but I won't spoil it here.)

Here's what he says (to himself) a few minutes after agreeing to help you out:

There are two main problems with these lines:

1. They're completely on-the-nose. There's nothing to think about, nothing to infer. Ronfar is saying how he feels when he should be showing how he feels.

2. Who the hell would actually say something like "All that I care about now are the dice?" Even as an internal monologue, it just sounds clunky. Say it out loud. It's tough to get through. Ronfar might be trying to convince himself to forget about Mauri and whatever psychological issues he's associated with her trauma, but these few lines just don't feel natural. They don't feel like something anyone would think to themselves.

Not to pick on Lunar: Eternal Blue, a game chock full of hilarious writing and charming characters, but it's this sheer lack of subtlety that often hurts JRPGs. People don't say what they're thinking. We don't need to see what goes on inside their heads. And if we do need to peer into their internal monologues, we should see something a little more interesting than blunt variations on "here's how I feel right now!"

Ultimately, dialogue is at its best when you don't even notice that it's there. If a writer is doing his or her job well, you won't spend time thinking things like "what a witty line" or "that language sure felt clunky". You'll just think of a game's characters as people on your screen, people with personality traits and quirks and interesting things to say. They'll just feel real.

Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG.


Comments

    Uh, Vincent hardly ever spoke at all IIRC. Most of his sad life story was told in flashbacks (which is showing, as opposed to telling.)

    Lunar had this problem with over-exposition, but the thing is that in a game "showing, not telling" takes a lot of time to do properly because the inherent structure of storytelling as an interactive play. Such asides -which are ultimately superfluous to the main plot- have to be played by the gamer who might actually be longing to get on with the world-saving. Final Fantasy VI solved this brilliantly by making of the big cast's back-stories optional (and well-hidden) so they'd be non intrusive for the goal-oriented people but a nice reward for those caring for the characters. Chrono Trigger is another game that managed this superbly.

    The biggest reason I dislike JRPS and anime etc are the terrible Japanese dialogue. Let's repeat everything in various ways, and make nonsensical comments out of the blue.

      Well of course everything is going to look like repeated moon runes if you can't read or understand Japanese dialogue...durrr.

    What RPG is in the first picture?

      The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky

    "Sigh. Times are tough."

    I don't see why this is limited to JRPGs, especially with the increasing number of dialogue and inter-character relationship centric games coming out these days. (ie. Any Bioware game) They too suffer similar problems.

    I'm also struggling to understand why the author doesn't understand those two Lunar 2 moments. Now, I have no experience with Lunar 2 so I don't know if other parts of the dialogue make these two sections irrelevant but there is plenty to infer from them about the character.

    In the first, Ronfar is regretting that he was too wrapped up in keeping up the appearance of a noble gentleman rather than showing his true feelings toward someone, showing he is/was a man of principle. Like your typical Knight/Princess forbidden romance scenario. In the second, he is chastising himself for his moment of weakness and regret because he decided to let gambling (The Dice) be the focus of his life after Mauri died and the regret of words unspoken was too much. Given his attire, I'd say he's talking about older style gambling dens where they played Cho-Han which uses dice, but gambling in any culture traditionally uses the metaphor of dice anyway.

    It's not just about saying "This is how I feel right now", it's about the language they use, the metaphors, and what aspect they focus on. When a Psychologist asks "How do you feel?", they aren't looking at your answer literally, they are making a bunch of inferences from it about what's truly going on and who you are as a person. It's the same with this kind of dialogue, it helps us identify with characters and their motivations.

      I agree, the writer has missed the point on this particular dialogue, however one can agree that it could have been presented with more clarity.
      Plenty of western games / RPGs also contain poor dialogue, but one can agree JRPG tend to contain the most and therefore is used as a fitting example.

    Every one of these articles from Jason Schreier is just rambling JRPG-apologism.

      Yep, let's all compare JRPGs to idealism and bag them for not meeting the standards of pefectionism. Because god forbid them not to be and instead praise everything outside that genre as a shining example of what we should do.

    I can't believe no one mentioned the worst offender: ...

    I liked that Fallout had NPCs pointing out how chatty they were, or commenting on the fact that everyone tended to repeat themselves.

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