Today I wanted to take a look at when game’s deliver dialogue. I was recently playing a game, which shall go unnamed, and the way it chose to deliver dialogue really rubbed me up the wrong way. After every single combat encounter it chose to pump the breaks, at which point the sidekick character would start trying to flesh out the world. The intent was to provide context for our actions, which is admirable.
Thing is, this was happening while blood-pumping EDM continued to ring through my stereo system. And while a combo counter was ticking down. And while a group of enemies were standing just off screen. Combat wasn’t over, but now, was apparently the best time to deliver story details to the player.
This is garbalingus. I understand wanting to provide context to players for their actions, but doing it, repeatedly, in the middle of what is otherwise a giant action sequence is extremely intrusive. It’d be like if John Wick kept pausing in the middle of mercilessly killing people to deliver JRPG style monologues.
However, I don’t want to give this game too much flack, which is why I’m not name dropping it here. Fact is – this isn’t the first time I’ve run into intrusive dialogue. Heck, Video Games have long had a problem with balancing their writing, and action. I remember back when I played Uncharted for the first time, and there were several points where I couldn’t follow the story because the characters were shouting at one another over gunfire.
This ultimately didn’t matter much because I was so focused on trying to shoot baddies that I wasn’t able to receive what was being said. Humans are notoriously bad at multi-tasking, so if we’re hyper focused on one thing then we’re probably not paying attention to other stimulus. Never mind that sound design often makes it impossible to hear what characters are saying.
I guess that’s what subtitles are for, but, again, that requires the player to redirect their focus away from the action.
To that end, in the last decade, I’ve seen more and more games attempt to deliver their story during quiet time. Moments between the action. This works quite effectively. It provides the player with a moment of calm, so the intensity of the action still hits like a sledgehammer.
I think that’s the secret to delivering dialogue more effectively. It needs to be integrated into the overall pacing just like every other component of a game. Your backstory, character dialogue, and world-building are all valuable to the experience. As such, the delivery of that information should be paced out between other aspects of the game. Once the player reaches a natural conclusion, slow down the music, and deliver what you need to say while the player catches their breath.
While I focused on this from the lens of action games, the same is true for other genres. If the player just solved several particularly challenging puzzles then you may be at the perfect place to ramp things down, and give their brain a rest. Same goes for Role-playing games, though this genre tends to masterfully deliver information to the player.