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  • The Lost Art of Conversation In Games

    - Oluf Pedersen
  •  Introduction

    The idea for this paper came about in the most satisfying way: during gaming. There I was, playing oldies from the '80s on a Commodore 64-emulator during the small amount of vacation time I had in the summer, when during a particular game, Law of the West, I encountered dialogue choices that were very interesting and had quite a profound effect on gameplay[1].

    I was especially impressed by these choices of interaction, because at the time I was fooling around with Oblivion (yet) again. And this old C64 game from 1985 had much more interesting dialogue choices than the 2006 smash hit (and many other newer RPGs/adventure games).

    This experience got me started on a short path to try and discern, first and foremost why this could be? Why wasn't Oblivion full of interesting conversations? And was this a general trend in newer games? And was I the only one who actually cared about this?

    The answers to these questions were: Because the developers of Oblivion chose otherwise, due to design issues but also probably because the game was also being developed for the Xbox 360. No, it's not a general trend as such; lots of newer games have conversations (although whether they're as interesting as in LotW is an open discussion). And no, there exist tons of forum messages praising dialogue heavy games.

    Having answered these questions I found myself, as most people do when having answered questions they have posed themselves, with more questions. And these questions are the basis for this project/paper:

    1. What happens when we analyze conversational choices in games? Does there appear to be a connection of sorts? A framework?
    2. What, if anything, has been written about the subject (Artificial Conversational Intelligence (ACI) in computer game)?
    3. Is ACI useful at all in enriching the game experience? Since maybe it has not developed significantly in 20-25 years, does this mean it's not that important? The cases for and against will be stated.
    4. Do developers of computer games overlook the single most important method of communication in human history?

    Questions 1 and 2 will be answered through analysis of games and papers respectively. Question 3 will be answered through the answers to 1 and 2 plus specific independent research concerning the matter. The last question will be answered as a summation to all the previous questions and as a conclusion to the paper.

    I will analyze games known as RPG's/adventure games, because these types of games are usually the only games to actually feature dialogue options.

    Law of the West (1985)

    Law of the West is quite a simple game wherein you play the role of a sheriff in a Wild West town. The game consists of encounters with different people whom you, the sheriff, have to handle according to your own moral compass. Thus you can choose to shoot the lovely Rose, below.

    Through the conversations, which take place with the player choosing from four different responses, how to reply to any given person, the characters in the game really spring to life; there's the seemingly innocent brash young lad with his new shotgun, the lovely, but as we have already seen on the screenshots, defiant Rose, the alcoholic Doc who isn't best pleased with you gunning down people all the time, the very annoying deputy and many more.

    At the end of the day's encounters you get a summation telling you how you fared: how many people you killed, how many females you charmed, how many bullets you took and so forth. And then the game restarts with exactly the same encounters -- replayability is obviously not that high. Although given that there are about 10 encounters and each encounter spans about four rounds of replying, and that the dialogue options change according to previous choice, it would seem that there are 4 * 4 * 4 * 4 * 10 = 2560 lines of dialogue all in all. I haven't tried them all out however, so I cannot be sure.

    This sort of tree-structured dialogue course will henceforth in this paper be known as the (aptly named) "linear"-sentence-structured-dialogue. It is called linear due to the fact that the dialogue options don't change in a given encounter; they are always the same.

    Pool of Radiance (1988)

    Pool of Radiance was the first licensed D&D-game in SSI's legendary "Gold Box" series of games. It doesn't have elaborate dialogue choices; it's either yes/no-questions, typing a single word (passwords) or in certain encounters the choosing of the "tone" of the reply (as seen above). The "correct" choice of tone for your reply depends on who is asking (orcs for example need to be told of, any sign of weakness causes them to attack, whereas giants need to hear more diplomatic words).

    So you get to choose a word to symbolize your response to any given question.

    The dialogue options also sometimes change, depending on whether the player has visited a certain place or acquired a particular item.

    This type of dialogue interface will henceforth be referenced as the "Dynamic" keyword-structured-dialogue, dynamic in the sense that it changes according to places/people/items that the player has experienced.

    [1] Here literally the way the game is played.


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