Dialogue in Games

Luca Petrillo
6 min readNov 5, 2020

Dialogue is one the main tools to deliver the rules and the story to the player. It is not a merely decorative element that helps to create the world around the gameplay but it is a form of design itself! With a well written and directed dialogue the game can increase the immersion of the player in the main character. Letting him choose different phrases in the conversation can be more liberal and rewarding.

“The more emphasis a game puts on narrative, the more this turned into a dialogue with the player” (Domsch, 2017).

Figure 1: Dialogue choises in Fallout 3

-Three fundamental aspect of a conversation-

Before even starting to write a dialogue script, it is important to decide why the team should implement a conversation between the main character and the NPC. This could lead to an increase of time spent and increase the budget needed, even more if the game is localized in 5 different languages. So as Crish Avellone (writer and designer of games from Planescape: Torment to Fallout: New Vegas) he says that first, the conversation needs a purpose. If you’re talking with the capitan of the spaceshift he needs to explain your mission.

Second, the dialogue needs to be aware of the narrative happening in the nearby area as well as the overarching story. “If the Enclave is encroaching on a community in Fallout, even a simple merchant can say, ‘If you’ve come for supplies, you’d best hurry, won’t be much left after the Enclave arrives.’ That tells the local narrative, and the larger narrative.”

Third, the dialogue needs to be aware of the player’s actions as possible “If you’ve just wiped out the Enclave, then you’d script the merchant’s opening node to something else: ‘Hey, you’re the one that kicked the Enclave’s ass. Anything I have in stock; for you, half off.”

-Branching Dialogue-

One common technique employed to give the player a greater illusion of freedom is to have multiple responses lead to the same path. This is usually done as an attempt to limit the quantity of dialogue that must be produced for the game. Therefore, branching dialogue usually curves back in on itself such that while an individual choice may immediately produce a unique response, the rest of the conversation is typically not unique to that choice.

In games where the goal of conversation is to improve the player’s relationship with the NPC, however, while every choice may not change the course of the dialogue, each choice may have a different number of “mood points” associated with it, and thus the player must still carefully consider his options at every turn.

Modern games typically present the dialogue with full voice acting. As a result, the menu navigation and long pauses while the player chooses their next response can negatively impact immersion.

Games have attempted to address this issue by presenting responses in a different manner, or controlling the speed at which the player responds. In some cases, designers choose to present full responses alongside symbols or text that quickly sum up the general gist of the response.

If the player knows they want to respond to a particular comment in a negative manner, they can quickly filter out the responses they do not want and just read the angry choices, thereby reducing the load on the player and speeding up dialogue to a more natural level.

One game notable for its aspirations for cinematic-quality dialogue scenes is Indigo Prophecy, which eliminates full responses entirely. The player sees his choices pared down to their essence, such as “Lie”, “Avoid the question”, or “Ask about murder weapon.”

Figure 2: Dialogue choises in Indigo Prophecy

Once the player decides, his avatar delivers the full line related to the player’s choice. In addition, the player has only a limited time in which to make a decision after the NPC finishes speaking. If the player fails to make a decision in that time, the game chooses a response for them, in a deliberate attempt to keep the conversation moving at a more natural pace.

Also, Mass Effect makes similar attempts at simplifying the presentation of the player’s choices, but rather than limit the player’s response time, it gives the player his options before the NPC finishes speaking. In this manner, the player makes his decision and the avatar delivers a response with little to no pause in the conversation.

Figure 3: Dial Wheel in Mass Effect

Thus, both Indigo Prophecy and Mass Effect attempt to make conversations more natural by reducing the amount of time and effort the player spends considering their next response.

Although the heavily scripted nature of branching dialogue allows designers and writers to craft natural, flowing conversations, the limited nature of interactivity is very transparent to the player.

It is easy for players to see that they are simply choosing from paths laid out for them, rather than creating their own story. Further, players may be frustrated that they must follow such a straightforward path and cannot choose to inquire about certain topics.

It is clear that exagerating in multiple choises dialogue can lead to contruct an enormous amount of information, so the problem is not only a creative challenge but there is a cognitive challenge for the player who is trying to digest it all. “There’s a practical limit to how much text a player should be presented with, and this is even affected by if the conversation is voiced or not, since that has rules as well,” Avellone says.

Another example of how a game can push the interactivity bar is The Witcher 3. It packs 35 hours of dialogue, each line of which was voice acted and motion captured. Doing individual motion capture work for every dialogue scene and then animating them all by hand would’ve been impossible, or taken up ridiculous resources. So CD Projekt built a number of systems, and a huge library of data in the form of reusable and easily modified animations, that could be combined together to create The Witcher 3.

Figure 4: Dialogue in The Witcher 3

With the systems they created, designers could make their own dialogue scenes without needing to pull models into a tool like Maya to do heavy duty animation. Of course it is a proprietary system so there aren’t many information about it but, as shown on figure 5, there are different rows for animations, ‘lookats’ (which is where the characters in the scene are looking), placement (location in 3D space), and a few other elements.

Figure 5 — Cd Red Proprietary Dialogue Animating system


It is clear that a good dialogue can not only help to sell a game but it permits to enhance the whole player experience. With the advent of always bigger open-world games, it would be more challenging to create good interactions and conversations but a good key point to keep in mind is to focus on the available tools and trying to make the most of it.