Writing Video Game Dialogue
Of all the tasks involved with creating a game, writing video game dialogue can feel like one of the most intimidating for new game developers. I’m always looking for ways to improve the dialogue in my own projects, so I put together this resource to share everything I’ve learned on the subject.
Without further ado, here are 10 easy tips for writing great video game dialogue:
- Give Players a Choice, Or Make Your Dialogue Brief
- Don’t Waste Your Video Game Dialogue
- Make Your Video Game Characters Consistent
- Make Your Video Game Dialogue Unique
- Create a Sense of Anticipation With Your Video Game Dialogue
- Give Quality Dialogue to NPCs
- Write Game Dialogue With Your Audience in Mind
Give Players a Choice, Or Make Your Dialogue Brief
When writing dialogue, it’s good to keep in mind that some players, no matter how great your dialogue is, will simply want to get back to the action as fast as they can.
While other players might be interested in reading every last word in order to gain a greater understanding of the fictional world they’re in.
Video games, like any form of media, are a battle to maintain your audience’s attention. If your game caters specifically to one of these types of players over the other, then you run the risk of ostracising a large number of players and thus losing potential revenue and notoriety for your game.
Because of this, you’ll notice that many large game companies utilize dialogue systems that allow them to keep everyone happy.
Video Game Dialogue Systems
The quality of a player’s dialogue encounters in a game is determined not only by the dialogue itself but also by the systems through which it’s delivered. Here are the main ways that dialogue is delivered to players in video games.
Linear dialogue is the most common dialogue system you’ll come across in video games. This type of dialogue is comparable to having a player watch a cutscene of a conversation between two characters because the conversation is always is exactly the same.
The only interaction required from the player is that they initiate the conversation, and at times, press a button to move on to the next box of dialogue.
Pros of Linear Dialogue
One of the great things about linear dialogue from the game development side of things is how easy it is to implement. It can be written very similarly to any other form of writing, without having to factor in specific decisions from the player.
Another benefit of linear dialogue is that it allows you to tell a very specific story. If you have a clear idea of the journey you want to take players on, linear dialogue is the most direct route.
Cons of Linear Dialogue
The biggest drawback of linear dialogue is how unengaging it can feel at times. When you use this form of dialogue, you give up valuable opportunities to make players feel like they’re calling the shots, which can be a key motivator for many players.
The un-engagement of liner dialogue can inevitably lead to boredom, especially if the dialogue sequences last for more than a minute or two.
The next most popular dialogue system in video games is dialogue trees. Dialogue trees make a game’s dialogue sequences more engaging for players by giving them the ability to choose a response.
While the response options are typically limited to two or three, dialogue trees aid game designers in creating the illusion of control for players.
If you play a dialogue tree sequence multiple times and choose different responses, you’ll often find that the conversation still progresses in the same direction.
Some games include dialogue hubs for their dialogue trees. In these instances, when a player initiates a conversation, they will see several different conversation starters that they can choose from.
Once they’ve finished out one branch of the conversation, they are taken back to the dialogue hub where they can explore the other options if they want to.
Pros of Dialogue Trees
The greatest advantage of dialogue trees is the way that they can make a player feel like they have a voice in the game, thus making them more invested in the experience.
Another advantage is that they can greatly extend the length of gameplay a game has without detracting from the main plotline for the players that are interested in skipping most of the dialogue.
Cons of Dialogue Trees
From the game designer side of things, dialogue trees are a lot more work than linear dialogue. They require more writing, coding, and overall planning in order to be implemented effectively.
Giving players the ability to choose bizarre responses to simple questions can remove from the overall experience if you’re trying to engross them in a believable fictional world.
The next dialogue system you’ll find in many video games is discoverable and collectible dialogue. This system of relaying information to players bypasses interactions with NPCs altogether by providing them with information through a findable, and often collectible items, such as letters, scrolls, books, emails, audio logs, etc….
Not everyone is interested in learning the entire fictional history of the video game world you’ve created, but some people are. In order to make them happy, game designers often fill the worlds they design with the items I mentioned above.
These items are great for relaying large amounts of optional information. The best example I can think of that uses this method is Skyrim. I’m not sure if this number is exactly right, but I read that there are over 470 in-game books that players can collect!
That’s a lot of extra writing, but hey, if you have it, why not throw it into the game as a collectible?
Dialogue barks aren’t typically used as the only dialogue system in a game, rather, they’re used in conjunction with one of the first two systems I’ve discussed.
However, tons of games use them. A dialogue bark is when a character speaks a line of dialogue without any direct action required on behalf of the player.
Dialogue barks can come from both the main character, as well as all of the non-playable characters throughout a game. They can be triggered by specific events that might be taking place, or be totally random.
An example of a dialogue bark would be if a player were walking across a street and bumped into another character and the character they bumped into shouts at them in anger. If you’re interested in playing a game with plenty of great dialogue barks, one that comes to mind is Spider-Man PS4.
Pros of Dialogue Barks
Dialogue barks, when done correctly, can make a video game feel alive by simulating the random snippets of conversation that we all normally hear in everyday life.
They can also be a sneaky way to provide important information to players, rather than telling them outright.
Cons of Dialogue Barks
If dialogue barks are too repetitive, they can quickly become annoying for players. If you include dialogue barks in your game, it’s important to include enough variety so as to avoid this issue.
Another way that dialogue barks can become annoying is if they’re used too much in general. If more than one NPC is trying to talk at the same time in your game, then you should reconfigure things in order to avoid overwhelming players.
Don’t Waste Your Video Game Dialogue
When compared to other forms of audio/visual entertainment, video games contain far fewer words per minute. This is in part due to their length. While a movie might only last for a couple of hours, video games can easily last well over 60 hours depending upon the game you’re playing.
Can you imagine trying to write 60 hours worth of dialogue? That would be quite the undertaking. Because of this situation, game designers must be very selective about when, where, and how they use their valuable dialogue.
A common mistake that many new (and experienced) game designers make is including tons of pointless or filler dialogue in their games. The result can be that the story and world feel flat and uninteresting, thus preventing players from forming a meaningful attachment to it.
Before you start writing the dialogue for your game, ask yourself these questions, and refer back to them to help you stay on track.
Does This Dialogue Teach You About The Characters?
Strong characters can make a video game more interesting, believable, and keep players engaged for longer. The dialogue in your game should contain clues that give players a better idea of who the characters are and what experiences they’ve had that contribute to how they are.
For example, let’s say our main character is a cowboy. In conversation, another cowboy mentions seeing his wanted posters all throughout the wild west. The player now knows that they’re on the run, they likely have a questionable past, and they’re left wondering what exactly they’re wanted for which can motivate them to keep playing to find out more.
You can also teach players about the characters by how they deliver their dialogue.
If your character is constantly lashing out in anger, players might infer that they’re bitter from difficulties in their past. If they’re gloomy and quiet, players might think that something sad has taken place in their past. If they’re happy and go lucky, then players might think their lives are going well and they haven’t experienced much hardship.
Does This Dialogue Give Clues About Objectives?
Dialogue that gives vital information about objectives is definitely worth including in your game.
One of the fastest ways to lose your players is to place them in a vast and complicated world without giving them any clear objectives.
In these situations, players will feel lost as they stumble around for a while trying to figure things out before ultimately moving onto a less frustrating game.
Good dialogue can make objectives crystal clear for players. If there’s a specific task that players need to accomplish in order to progress, you can easily have a non-playable character fill them in on any info they need.
When giving instructions about objectives to players, I find it’s best to avoid being long-winded and overly cryptic. While you might not want to come right out and tell them exactly what to do, you should make sure that they’ll be able to figure it out fairly easily.
This is especially important if there are more than 1 active objectives at play. When a player has a list of 50 cryptic clues that they need to figure out, this can feel very unmotivating and be a reason to stop playing.
Does This Dialogue Add Depth To The World?
Another way to phrase this question might be, does this dialogue aid in establishing context for players?
Whether we realize it or not, much of what we know about the world is pieced together through contextual information. The way we see the world is impacted greatly by the snippets of conversation we hear, things we read and observe, and the things we’re told by others.
You can add depth to your video game dialogue by using contextual learning to your advantage.
For example, if NPCs act surprised by the opulence of how your player is dressed and they seem nervous while communicating with them, players might infer that their character is someone of wealth and power, even without knowing anything else about their backstory.
Does This Dialogue Provide Valuable Background Information?
When you pour your heart and soul into a video game, you have a deeper appreciation for it than anyone else in the world.
If you’re obsessed with the backstory of your game, it’s easy to think that others are just as interested, but most of the time this isn’t the case.
When it comes to formulating the backstory information you’re going to present to players, I like to think of it in terms of poetry. Poetry is all about whittling out unnecessary information so that only the meat of what needs to be said remains.
As you’re writing, ask yourself if players really need to know the details that you’re thinking of including, or if you’re simply adding them because you can.
Do your best to save the long-winded exposition for the discoverable and collectible dialogue that we discussed earlier. This will keep everyone happy! f
Is This Dialogue Hilarious, Beautiful, Or Extremely Clever?
There are times when you’re writing that you might come up with a line that’s gold all on its own. Meaning that the line is either incredibly funny, poignant, or clever.
Since everyone sees things differently, it’s best practice to go over the script of your game with others to get their input.
This can be very useful for knowing what lines to keep and which ones to throw out. It can also help you tell if you’ve included the necessary vital information in your game, and whether or not people are jumping to the right conclusions based upon the information that you’ve provided.
For your initial writing process, save and write down all the ideas that pop into your head. It’s better to have more than enough to refine later rather than have too little to work with.
Make Your Video Game Characters Consistent
Unless you’re creating a character with a multiple personality disorder, then you’ll want their personality and the way they evolve throughout your game to be consistent.
Here are a few tips that will help you achieve this.
Place Yourself In Their Shoes
As you’re creating your character, it’s helpful to place yourself in their shoes. Ask yourself, how would they realistically see and interact with the world around them based upon their past experiences and the beliefs that are important to them?
What fears or shortcomings do they have that might add another level of depth to their decision-making process? Thinking from their point of view while you write will translate to a more compelling character.
Find Their Personality Profile
If you’re having trouble determining a clear identity for your characters, a useful tool that I’ve used are personality profiles. Depending upon which one you use, personality types are broken down into different types that you can either read through or take a test to determine which one you are.
You can use this same approach for the character you’re writing. Look through the different profiles until you find one that you believe lines up with their personality. You can then reference this profile anytime the character is facing a key decision to help decide which direction things should go.
Draw from Real Life Examples
If you’re mirroring your character based upon a real person, it’s helpful to learn as much as you can about their life. You’ll be able to see how they responded in various situations to help you make your character’s decisions more believable.
If you’re having trouble with a character, one of the best things you can do is get feedback. Find people who always seem to have good ideas to springboard your characters off of. The results will be better characters and less frustration for you.
Make Your Video Game Dialogue Unique
When making a video game, you should try to make every aspect unique and memorable, and this includes the dialogue.
It can be tempting to take the path of least resistance when writing, but it pays off big time to simply spend a few more minutes thinking about the important lines of your dialogue. With just a little creativity, you can breathe life into lines that would otherwise be unnoticeable.
Here are a couple of things I like to do to improve my lines:
Clichés are usually stumbled into by taking the most direct route with your lines. If you’re ever tempted to make your character shout, “Let’s get out of here!” take a step back and ask yourself how you can add a bit my pizazz to your game dialogue.
Come Up With Five Different Ways to Say Them
A good method for avoiding clichés is coming up with at least 5 different ways to say the line you’re writing. The best option will be the one that stands out above the rest. As you’re writing your five different ways, try to make every version unpredictable from a player’s perspective.
Create Anticipation With Your Video Game Dialogue
The best games take players on an emotional roller coaster. As a player progresses throughout a game working towards a major moment, you can heighten their emotional experience using your game’s dialogue.
Have NPC’s tell players vague details about the ferocity of the beast they’re about to face or the legendary beauty of the forgotten kingdom they’re about to discover.
Everyone knows that half the fun of Christmas comes not only from the presents themselves but also from the anticipation of finally opening them.
The promise of an unraveled mystery, challenging foe, or incredible reward, can be huge motivating factors for players, so it’s in your best interest to start dropping hints early on in your game’s dialogue
Give Quality Dialogue to NPCs
When making a game, it’s easy to become laser-focused on your main character. However, this can often lead to a bland supporting cast of characters.
Don’t neglect the NPC’s of your game! Give them funny, interesting, and important dialogue. Use their personalities to add more variety and contrast your main character’s personality.
If your character is always serious, provide comedic relief through NPCs, or vice versa. NPC’s with well-thought-out dialogue will go a long way in making your game’s universe feel credible.
Write Game Dialogue With Your Audience in Mind
As with all aspects of your game, you should shape your dialogue with at least some idea of who it’s for. If the game you’re creating will be targeted at primarily younger audiences, it’ll be in your interest to avoid using overly crude humor and inappropriate language. You should also write at a reading level that will be easy enough for that audience to understand.
If your game is for an older audience, you will be able to take more liberty with the types of verbiage that you use and explore deeper concepts.
The real key to creating great video game dialogue is simply to get started. The more dialogue you write, the better you’ll become, so get writing!
If you’re interested in learning more about the different aspects of creating video games, you can see my latest articles here.