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.
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.