Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Flow Like a River or Stagnate Like a Tree?

As I’ve been playing Chronicles of Riddick lately, something has been bothering me about the whole experience. It took me a second to figure out just what it was, but eventually I came to the conclusion that I just hate talking to people in that game. Much of this is due to the fact that the script is rather bland (even if the voice-acting is of surprisingly high-caliber), but there was something else. And that’s when it hit me; the talky bits bore me titless and I feel it’s because the camera work and animations are clunky, causing me to tune out. This, I’ve noticed is not just a problem with Riddick, mind you, but practically every game that’s ever had a dialogue tree.

My issue with most conversations with NPCs that have dialogue trees is that they’re not cinematic enough. Lip-syncing and body language is almost always off, allowing for an experience that while engaging player choice, fails to be as entertaining to watch as the same conversation would be in a movie or TV show. Furthermore, dialogue trees hardly ever have a natural rhythm to them as you’ll find yourself going back to an earlier branch, selecting a different option, or listening to the same bits of dialogue over and over ’til you realize the NPC has nothing more to say. This was okay in the age of the text adventure or even the early PC graphic adventures as we didn’t expect anything more from our games. They weren’t trying to look real, be cinematic, or engross us in the same way they generally aim for today, but rather were content to simply be simple, often humorous sets of responses. One could argue that this is a more powerful means of expression. I’d say that they’re just different. In-game conversations back then were more akin to reading a book whereas today they’re more akin to watching a movie. As such, I find their simple presentation not holding up so well to their older sister.

These days, as games look more and more real each day, it’s as if they want to create this so-called "cinematic" experience, but fall short of it when it comes to interactive dialogue. Even in Mass Effect, arguably the best iteration of prerendered cutscene and interactive choice made yet, we’re still constantly taken out of the scene unraveling as we’re too focused on making our dialogue choices. Pause too long, and the scene comes to a halt. We want engagement and we want choice, yet this stop-and-go rhythm is still a bit jarring. It’s like watching a movie on your computer and forgetting to turn the screen saver off, so you have to constantly remind yourself to move the mouse every so often.

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