If you've played a video game, you've probably heard a bark. And not just in Nintendogs — I'm talking about an "enemy bark," which is the term given for the adaptive lines of chatter that enemy characters utter throughout the game.
"He's over there!" "Did you hear something?" "I'm hit!" "I'm throwing in a grenade!"
That very common type of video game dialogue requires a fascinating, entirely new type of writing. Think about it — in movies and theatre, every line happens once, and so it only needs to be written one way. Games give us worlds to inhabit, and so characters' dialogue must be much more flexible and reactive. I got in touch with some video game writers to better get a sense of how they approach this challenge, and what happens when things go off the rails.
"It can't be anyone from the inside; it's gotta be Fisher!"
"Still don't see Fisher. Are we sure he's here, in Third Echelon?"
"No sign of hostile activity. Fisher wouldn't try his luck here, that'd be fuckin' crazy!"
"It's gotta be Fisher!"
"Target is hiding. Be smart! Fisher's a pro."
Back in 2010, I wrote an article titled "Fisher-Fest 2010." It centered on the stealth-action game Splinter Cell: Conviction, chronicling every single time that the enemies in the game said "Fisher!" in reference to the protagonist, Sam Fisher. The results were somewhat astonishing. Dozens and dozens of "Fisher"s lined up in a row — disorienting, psychotic name-dropping that has irrevocably coloured my perception of the game.
Since then, I've become much more aware of enemy barks, and my perception of them can significantly colour my game experience. L.A. Noire had some strange overheard dialogue, and I found that I was totally weirded out by it — it seemed like everyone was talking about my character, Cole Phelps, which gave the game a bizarre, paranoid feel. Like "Fisher" in Splinter Cell, Batman: Arkham City wound up overusing the word "Bitch" to an often distracting, sometimes offensive degree.
"I think the biggest misconception is that it's throwaway dialogue, when really, it's the stuff that players are going to be hearing the most often in the game," writer Richard Dansky told me in an email. "The cleverest one liner, the best cut scene - that's going to play once. But systemic dialogue? You're going to run into that over and over, so it had better be good."
Over the past 10 years or so, Dansky has served as a writer and designer on many Ubisoft games, primarily the their various Tom Clancy branded series. He's worked on many of the Rainbow Six, Ghost Recon and Splinter Cell games. He was also, as it happens, a writer on Splinter Cell: Conviction.
"Barks have a couple of tasks to fulfil," Dansky explained. "The most important one is information - they're telling the player something in a way that supports the gameplay experience. And they have to communicate that information, whether it be something as simple as 'There's another guy alive on the level' or as complex as 'I'm wounded but I can still keep firing' cleanly and efficiently to the player."
I asked Dansky about some practices that would be best avoided. "The temptation is always there to get cartoony, especially with certain types of barks," he said. "The 'I'm coming for you!' stuff has a tendency to get out of hand, particularly if you're dealing with a deeper pool of variants. And of course you want to stay away from one-liners and bad puns and the insanely convoluted stuff that comes up when you're trying to write the last few variants and all the good lines are gone."
Additionally, Dansky told me that it can be a challenge to attempt to convey too much information in a single bark: "Ideally, each bark should convey one piece of information - "We're flanking" or "Grenade" or "I've been hit". Trying to compress multiple tidbits in there means you have to be coming up with multiple variants of each chunk of each bark. That gets really awkward - and really long - really fast."
"When Fisher comes through here, he's gonna be hit by so many rounds he's gonna turn to soup."
"No sign of Fisher. I heard he kicked arse at Third Echelon, so we'd better get ready."
"Area secure. Are we sure that Fisher's in the Lincoln Memorial Zone?"
"Fisher's on the loose! F**k, you guys, we're ready for war, and he's gonna make fools of us again!"
"Show me how you did it back at the airfield, Fisher! Come Get Me!"
So, what of Fisher-Fest 2010? Dansky was a writer for Splinter Cell: Conviction, so surely he has something to say for the game's bizarre enemy barks.
"Conviction is actually a great lesson in how barks aren't just the writing," Dansky said. "There was a very detailed design behind the bark system in Conviction, where we kept swapping out bark sets based on which enemies you'd face in a map and the player's progress through the campaign, so that the bad guys would seem like they were aware of what was going on. And those bark pools were decently deep, with plenty of variation, allowing the design - and I think it was a good design - to present this ever-evolving set of responses as the player progressed through the campaign. We wanted the AI enemies to be aware of the havoc Sam had been wreaking on their buddies, and to have a range of human responses - fear, rage, whatever - to that."
In other words, the idea was that the enemy barks would change along with the story to reflect what was going on. An interesting idea, though one that was flawed in execution. It was a neat trick that in the wake of the airfield mission, enemies would start talking about the airfield, but it never felt honest, it felt shoehorned and cartoonish. Why were these guys expositing so loudly at Sam when they wanted to kill him?
Dansky suggested that it had something to do with repetition. "It's not only what is said, but also how often they're said. The more frequently they're called, the closer together the player hears them, and the quicker the AI cycles through its response pool. And the quicker the cycling through the bark pool goes, the quicker the whole pool repeats. So, if you've got something that sounds good if the player's going to be hearing it a couple of times across the game, and suddenly it's played a dozen times in one level instead, it's going to be a little more memorable than perhaps it was intended to be."
I found Splinter Cell: Conviction's pool had enough variety — I likely re-heard lines over and over because I would die, which would extend each level beyond what could possibly been written. Dansky remained convinced that "Fisher" wasn't actually overused: "There weren't /that/ many lines with "Fisher!" in them," he said. "You just heard the ones that did have it a lot."
Given that I documented more than 130 distinct lines with "Fisher!" in them, I'd say that still seems like a lot, but I understand his broader point. Often, enemy dialogue isn't just a matter of writing, it's a matter of programming — and all manner of things can go wrong from the moment the words go on the page to the moment the player hears them spoken aloud.
Not every writer has been in the bark-writing business as long as Dansky, and I was interested to hear what other writers might make of the process. I got in touch with Chris Dahlen and Nels Anderson, both of whom are working on Klei Entertainment's upcoming stealth-platformer Mark of the Ninja. Anderson is lead designer, while Dahlen wrote the game's script. What were some preconceptions about enemy dialogue that they had going in?
"My biggest misconception was that it would be easy," Dahlen told me in an email. "That to write lines that are clear and in character, that are fresh but that don't stick out, would be a breeze. I didn't understand how hard your brain hurts when you're trying to find a dozen different ways to say 'Hey, who broke this light?'"
Anderson echoed Dansky's warning that getting too creative with enemy barks will get a writer into trouble. "Getting too 'clever' or flavourful can actually make the barks less useful," he said, "because that almost ends up making them more vague. Or it makes them stand out in a weird, obtrusive way (see 'FisherFest'). Barks will never sound like dialogue from a film, play or novel, nor should we attempt to make them do that. Make them clear and unobtrusive"
Dahlen went on to explain that, "In a sense, the problem isn't the barks, but the enemies." Because the enemies are all the same, it can be difficult to write meaningful dialogue for them. "It would be like naming the grains of rice in your burrito. Keep it short and simple and add just enough flavour, and you'll do fine."
Mmm. Burritos. Hang on, where were we?
Ah, yes. Sometimes the exception to this rule-of-thumb practice can prove fantastically interesting. The No One Lives Forever series had a ridiculous amount of fun subverting the idea that generic enemies should utter generic barks, and as a result has some of the most memorable stealth segments around. (See the above compilation video by our own Chris Person.)
Generally speaking, those kinds of things are best avoided unless you really know what you're doing. "Keep in mind all the different ways a bark can be triggered," Anderson told me. "Originally in Ninja we had a bark where when a guard stopped investigating some distraction, he might say "Guess I'm just imagining things." But after that was implemented, we noticed one of the things that would trigger that bark was the sound of a light being broken. So then the guard would looking directly at the broken light, in the middle of a room that's now in darkness and then say 'Guess I imagined that.' Yes, he imagined the broken light he's staring directly at. So with that bark, now that guard seems like an insane moron. But it just goes to show lines that seem fine in isolation can actually end up really not work right even though they 'make sense' are you're writing them divorced from actual runtime context of the game."
"I think his name is Phelps. I read about him in the newspaper."
"It's that guy from the paper! Solved the big case!"
"Phelps. That's him. Bent cop. It was on the front page of the times."
"There he is! The guy from the papers. You should be ashamed of yourself, young man."
"I think his name is Phelps. He brought in the case with that poor lady, killed near city hall."
When I asked Dansky, Dahlen and Anderson which games they thought had good barks, all three listed 2008's Far Cry 2 among their examples. That game used dynamically generated barks to great effect, with enemies who let you know about state-changes in organic ways as their frenzied yelling and panic greatly contributed to the game's overall vibe. (I have, however, always found the sound mix to be a bit odd — character sound like they're right next to you every time they talk.)
Far Cry 2 creative director Clint Hocking recently wrote a fine column for Edge magazine about the topic of enemy barks, and video game writing in general. In it, he argued that we should stop comparing game writing to film writing, because the two types of writing have such entirely different purposes.
Functionally, film dialogue must never say anything that is visually apparent. This is what the cinematic axiom ‘show don't tell' means. But game dialogue is different. Game dialogue is a form of feedback, and as feedback, its very purpose is to clearly indicate that a game state has changed. In the case of the guard, his line of dialogue is a clear indicator that he has detected a sound, but has not visually acquired the player and that he is about to begin a dangerous search behaviour. No reaction shot required.
Anderson mentioned how he enjoys how some of Far Cry 2's barks were recorded in Afrikaans and Swahili: "Not only does that contribute a lot to the atmosphere, but it prevents having the same lines over and over again. Well, you actually probably are, you just don't notice since most folks playing it don't speak Afrikaans or Swahili."
I've found that to be the case in a number of games — playing in another language makes enemy dialogue more effective without usually stripping it of its basic functionality. For example, playing Assassin's Creed II in Italian and Metro 2033 in Russian improved both experiences.
Far Cry 2 narrative designer Patrick Redding gave a great talk at GDC about the process of writing enemy barks, which demonstrated just how involved the process is. There are so many different possible states that must be conveyed, from location to awareness to threat-level, along with a ton of possible variables — for example, the fact that at night, enemies in Far Cry 2 are less aware than they are during the day. You can download the power-point for that GDC talk here.
I'll never forget the few moments of a raid in that game, when I've been circling an enemy encampment, taking down enemies one at a time. A final foe remains, and he's frenzied with terror and adrenaline. "What you got, man? What you got? I'm comin' for you!" His bravado is obviously false, the desperate shouts of a man who knows he's about to die. I set the ground ablaze, and hear him begin to scream.
"First you left us at the Airfield, then you come to the fair? Come on, Fisher, it can't be!!"
"You guys, if you see Fisher, shoot to kill. The guy's an ex-SEAL, for f**k's sake."
"That's right, Fisher, you'd better hide after what you did to Lambert!"
"Alright people, this is very simple. Some of you may have heard that Sam Fisher is somewhere around here."
"Watch your back, guys - it looks like we might have a hostile. His name might be... f**king Fisher!"
Writing for video games is a unique challenge, a synthesis of design and dialogue that is doubtless quite frustrating for most writers. As if it weren't enough of a feat to come up with a dozen ways for a faceless goon to say "Hey, over here," it's also not uncommon for a writer to craft a sequence only to have whole sections cut out for gameplay reasons, returning them to the drawing board again, and again, and again.
But that just makes well-written games all the more remarkable. As more writers wrestle down the design implications of video game script-writing, we'll keep seeing more and more interestingly written games. Soon, games won't just have barks, they'll have growls, yelps, whines, and possibly even some cat sounds.
"Subject located. It's Fisher!"