Total Rendition concept art courtesy of Julien Hauville

Total Rendition’s dialogue system

In the next prototype demo, Total Rendition’s dialogue system will be usable by its players for the first time. We are now going to explore the considerations and inspirations that I have gone through, in working out what dialogue system will suit Total Rendition best.

One thing I liked about Morrowind is its dialogue system. Especially, the vast options of dialogues that comes with it. It is something few RPG’s, let alone the games in the Elder Scrolls series have managed to replicate. However, it is understandable and in fact, not necessarily a bad thing, that few if any recent titles have followed suit. Nevertheless, dialogues in Morrowind are an important source of information of the lore.

Minimalism, Choices & Drama

Morrowind had relatively sparse voice overs compared to more recent titles. It is not quite comparable to say Ocarina of Time or Majora’s Mask from the Legend of Zelda series. In those titles, any voice overs constituted nothing more of screams and moans. In Morrowind, NPC’s would bring you a context sensitive and voice over’ed greeting. Once you started talking with them, voice overs would lapse, unless the NPC decided to attack you and close the conversation.

Now, Morrowind was hardly the first title do so. Its predecessors in the Elder Scrolls series used dialogue for narrative flavouring as well, as did the Fallout series at the time. It is perhaps worth noting that the Fallout series were not made by Bethesda at that point.

For Oblivion, Bethesda streamlined the dialogue system significantly, although non-plot critical dialogue still was a major source of lore information. This was for the sake of making the user interface more accessible, as well as the voice overs more economical. Deus Ex, The Witcher and Dragon Age: Origins all used a similar system, although these were even more minimalistic, UI-wise. Likewise, all examples for this style of dialogue system tried to convey some degree of dramathurgy. Occasionally, there were one-off cinematics conveying the plot and/or the lore.

Cinematic drama & instrumental dialogues

The Longest Journey and Little Big Adventure series, both action-adventures as opposed to Role-Playing Games, used the dialogue system for the lion’s share to advance the plot and for dramatic purposes. In these games, all dialogues were voice over’ed. In terms of User Interface, these dialogue systems are very minimalistic.

The Grand Theft Auto series are worth a honourable mention here. Starting from Grand Theft Auto III, carefully choreographed cinematics typically convey the dialogues. This feature was already present in the Longest Journey to great dramatic and narrative effect, to name one. However, it has since also been also also used the Witcher series, to name another great example. In those cinematics, layers have little – if any – dialogue choice, although players do get to enjoy quality comedy and tragedy at the same time.

The GTA series also introduced minor dialogue options, starting from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Usually, these were binary yes or no choices, or calls to team up with gang members. This component of its dialogue system served an instrumental purpose in relation to the gameplay. However, I feel that to some degree, this two-tiered dialogue system is a compromise. If you wish to combine open-world gameplay with dialogue as a dramatic device which leaves nothing to the player’s imagination, it would become extremely hard – even for such a well-funded studio as Rockstar North – to introduce player choice to the narrative and keep dramatic dialogues at the same time.

Fifth Column

Talking your way out of a situation in Fifth Column
Fifth Column’s dialogue system

So, let’s go back in time to a game I’ve developed before: Fifth Column. It was originally intended to be a full-length game, with the end-game of having Fifth Column sport a narrative with at least 40 hours of gameplay. Alas, a lacking business strategy and the lack of funds ensuing from such, would conspire to finish this game simply as a concept game.

I had planned to have Fifth Column feature a similar dialogue system to Deus Ex and Morrowind. More precisely, it has in common with Deus Ex the streamlined dialogue choice. Moreover, I also planned Fifth Column to have voice overs for every dialogue line, which never materialised. However, the imaginative player might mentally fill up the blanks. With Morrowind it had in common; the first-person view as well as a large amount of flavour dialogues to tell players about who they are, what their goals are and how NPC’s think about the world where Fifth Column takes place. Mid-game cinematics were avoided completely.

It is not black or white, yet there are but two choices!

Reading (fake) news
A combination of dialogue and visual storytelling will convey the lore of Total Rendition in-game. Lecture, such as newspapers, will do parts of the visual storytelling.

In Total Rendition’s dialogue system, there will always be consistency in the themes that each dialogue choice offers: That is, there is a “sinister” choice, expressing the player’s self-interest; and a “iustum” choice, expressing the player’s altruistic side. I think this limitation of options enhances the seriousness of a player’s choice as well as their dramatic aspects. It should be emphasised that there are no correct dialogue choices. Being overly generous might help your enemies too much, yet so might an over-emphasis on self-interest.

The plans for Total Rendition

Total Rendition’s dialogue system is going for this approach: Events in the game world seen from first-person will reflect the outcomes of your dialogue choices, during which interactivity does not cease. In this sense, the way NPC’s talk to you in Total Rendition will be more similar to the Half-Life series rather than to the Elder Scrolls. Each dialogue menu brings you two choices – no more, no less. This may sound very sparse and overstreamlined. Although bear in mind that earlier choices (including dialogue choices and skill choices) will impact the available options. If, say, you developed your persuasion skill more than your intimidation skill, your available dialogue options will have a more transactional character as opposed to a forceful one.

A combination of dialogue and visual storytelling will convey the lore of Total Rendition in-game. Lecture, such as newspapers, will do parts of the visual storytelling. The latter is in fact, a feature already present in the current prototype demo of Total Rendition.

Whether or not, these plans will hold to scrutiny has yet to be determined. The current iteration of the prototype has no dialogue system. All in all, this will take some more development from Schizotypy’s side and feedback from Total Rendition’s players.

-Mordechai Gabai