The Trouble With Most High Fantasy Dialogue Is That It’s Terrible

The Trouble With Most High Fantasy Dialogue Is That It’s Terrible

I can pinpoint the exact line that finally broke me. Despite being an ardent fan of many books and games that use high fantasy settings, I’ve never had very much patience for some of their tropes. And last night, one ridiculous line in a thoroughly ridiculous, but mostly enjoyable, game finally pushed me over the edge.

“I know this [gun],” my player character intoned weightily. “How came it here?”

How came it here. Really? What a terrible way to ask that question. Now I don’t even care how the gun got here. I care about how our language got here.

English is a fluid, fantastic, almost infinitely flexible language. It’s certainly had its awkward eras, growing up as it has under the influence of so many cultures. The rules are a bit wobbly and seemingly glued together from whatever grammar was left lying around unguarded at the end of any given century. And yet the result, after several hundred years, is a language that can be as sharp and cutting as Mamet or as fluid and smooth as Fitzgerald.

So given the sheer diversity and malleability of the language, why are we so damn stuck on imitating Tolkien, and badly at that?

The Lord of the Rings was an absolutely formative text that contributed enormously to the genre of western high fantasy as we know it today. But the concepts of dwarves and elves and orcs and halflings, as inspired by older mythologies and re-imagined, aren’t the only seemingly immutable ideas to have been borrowed wholesale. We’re also stuck with the language. And while the construction and purpose of language was Tolkien specialty — it shows, looking at Quenya and Sindarin — narrative fiction was not.

The Lord of the Rings is an epic, deliberately written to showcase the history, culture, and language of its fictitious peoples. Its characters rarely just talk; they proclaim. They are written — by an English man who was born in the 19th century — as characters to be told and retold in an echo of the oral tradition. The tale employs deliberately archaic language, in order to set it apart.

The impulse to set a created world apart from the real one is wise. But to do so by aping language without thinking about its point and purpose leads to mockable drivel. No matter what genre a work is in, if it recycles words, idioms, and tones without thinking deeply about the purpose behind them then it will find itself sounding stilted and stupid. The difference between someone who truly understands a page of Hamlet performing it and someone who merely knows the sounds reciting it is stark. So, too, is the sound of someone creating a neo-noir without understanding just what it was that really made a Raymond Chandler novel (or film adaptation) work.

While it makes sense to avoid certain modern terms and phrasings in a game set in the “long time ago,” the fact of the matter is that most games are instead set in a “never was,” and can take some liberties with their speech. Perhaps, in a fantasy world, “OK bro, cool,” is not going to fly as an affirmative response. It would be jarring. But that doesn’t mean that, “I shall endeavour to make it so at thy command” is any more useful, either. In either case, sometimes a simple, “yes”, or “I will” is best.

Using a hundred lengthy words in the place of five simple ones doesn’t make a speaker sound smarter. And using badly mangled vaguely medievalesque language doesn’t make a game sound smarter. There is an art to dialogue, in any kind of game but especially in an RPG. There are ways to deal with messy concepts like magic and the complete upheaval of reality that still allow two people talking to each other to, well, talk. And the more your characters sound like people (even if they’re some kind of enormous squid monster or something), the more players will be able to care about their fates.

Not every hapless hero, farm boy, knight, warrior, or even mage needs to declaim every portentous word from on high. It’s all right to stay simple. English is a fantastic language; I wish more characters in the games I play would learn simply to speak it, rather than to orate in it.


  • I don’t think there’s anyway to say this without sounding petty and cynical but what the hey.
    The Mass Effect fangirl complaining about terrible dialogue?? Eh wah!?!

  • I pretty sure a lot of games have terrible dialogue, not just fantasy (Divinity 2 was good in that regards)

  • I agree so much with this. I’d read a lot more fantasy if it was better written. Even the good stuff is fairly average.

  • This is something I felt that Sword & Sworcery did really well. The dialogue is written in a really snappy, slightly cynical and very anachronistic way that works incredibly well. They could have gone all generic ye olde fantasy dialogue with it but chose to be a bit clever instead, and it helped the game immensely.

    • That’s interesting, because to me the dialogue in Sword and Sworcery was a tad too ‘hipster’, trying over-hard to be ironic; and it kinda tainted the game for me.

  • Great game dialogue is still only on par with movies that star Dean Cain. Hey games, you know the credits? The writer should be about third, not 46 pages down .

    • Third? So, who goes after them? The producers and publishers who bankrolled the whole thing? The director who ran the project and kept everyone coordinated? The programmers who did all of the technical work, programming a real time physics enabled simulation? The designers, who made the game a game?
      The artists (modellers, concept, animators, etc) who worked nonstop trying to make beautiful worlds in a limited budget of pixels, polygons and skeletal hierarchies?
      The QA Testers, who worked 80 hour weeks for months on end?

      Even if a game had the same quality of writing as an oscar winning film, lets say that in a 20 hours game, there is 3 hours of cinematic, and an extra 1 hour worth of properly written ambient dialogue. That’s the equivalent of 1-2 feature films. A team of writers writing that much is nowhere near the equivalent workload or technical difficulty of the above mentioned positions.

      • Yes and all that hard work programming, designing, artistic modelling from concepts and animation means absolutely NOTHING if the writing is poor. Video games are like new star wars. Every piece of technical work by everyone behind the scenes was absolutely incredible, and it all meant nothing because the writing was a disaster.

        I despise your concept that a 20 hour game should have ‘3 hours of cinematic and an hour of ambient dialogue’ its exactly that kind of mentality that makes high production games continue to stagnate in their little rut. The writing and by extension design of a game should be woven into every second of it.

  • Poor dialogue is poor dialogue. It makes no difference what accent or time period you’re trying to achieve, if it’s written and acted well it works. I’d be far more inclined to complain about the countless voice actors hired to speak in ridiculous approximations of accents they could have just as easily hired a native speaker for. Americans faking English accents and vice versa, etc

  • This, so much. I feel like fantasy dialog is often excruciating. Maybe that’s why i find The Secret World so much more engaging; they can hit the target so much better. That bit in the illuminati library- “spoiler alert, we’ll fight, I’ll win” just felt so comfortable to me.

  • The sad thing is that is considered a correct way of saying that. My wife is British and from the midlands and throughout the midlands they tend to drop words that they feel are unnecessary like ‘from’ and ‘to’.
    Things like ‘give it me’ or ‘he took it me’ are commonplace through all ages.

  • “Jason!
    Jason! Jason!


    Video Game dialogue already has a number one, so why try harder?

  • Personally, I find myself hating it when fantasy games have the characters using modern talk. It just sounds really silly to me. A world with elves, dragons and magic and they’re talking like it’s 21st century Earth.

  • I’m weird. I look for opportunities to use archaic English in everyday conversation.
    Ultimately yes, if you set a game in a time or place even remotely resembling a medieval England then you are expected to “talk the talk” so to speak. Most games don’t usually go overboard however but when they do, it is as though they took their entire script and ran it through an “English to Ye Olde English” translator and the game is all manner of corny because of it.

  • The dialog in ‘generic-fantasy’ games can be pretty bad… but the ‘generic moron’ type dialog/characters that overpopulate Rockstar games and their ‘clones’ are the ones that drive me most crazy.

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