Weekly Discussion: Communication

I’ve talked in the past about my love of a game’s story over most other aspects and a big chunk of how well that story is told is how well the characters communicate. Yes, there are games like Limbo or Braid, which are fantastic with close to no communication between characters, but for most titles you’re going to need to have some way of communicating.

As with the split between telling stories via cutscenes or in-game, there are a couple of obvious ways you can have your characters communicate and interact. Essentially it boils down to how much control the user has over the communication. There’s the pre-scripted stuff but that’s not a particularly interesting topic to discuss. You can have it in your typical cutscene or you can have mechanics like Metal Gear Solid where you check in with other characters remotely. There are a couple of other ways that games integrate completely scripted communication into games but really they’re just different levels of how closely it’s weaved in with the action.

More interesting are the games that give you choices and let you shape the communication. Of course you could expand this out further to games like Heavy Rain which pretty much let you shape the whole game world by your choices but there’s still plenty to look at focussing simply on the way you can communicate.

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Building choices and branches into character dialogue isn’t exactly something new although it does continue to get progressively deeper and more complex. Ten years ago, you would pick an option and move through the conversation but there was frequently the feeling that you could just come back later and explore the other options. Not so when you play something like Mass Effect 2; you may still be feeling the impact of a conversation ten hours down the line.  That’s what I want in a game like that, some feeling that the decisions I make actually impact the game going forwards.

Quickly veering away from the choices we can make, it’s worth giving a word over to body language. Games are starting to get this now as animation technology improves but I still don’t think we’re quite there yet. It is a little unfortunate though, that the best of this animation comes from motion capture.

Games like Uncharted 2 get the body language and interaction between characters down so perfectly by just acting scenes out. It’s certainly effective but not particularly practical or cost-effective for every game to act out every scene. In fact, getting character animation right is such a problem for many games that Cliff Bleszinski recently picked a new animation tool as his big hope for the next piece of developer technology.

Now it’s time for you to communicate your own thoughts on communication. Are games getting it right? Do you like to be able to pick your own dialogue? How about body language, are games getting it right? Is motion capture the only real option for high quality animation?

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12 Comments

  1. Like you, a decent storyline is a must for when I play through games. Games like Uncharted 2, Mass Effect 2 and Heavy Rain are personal favourites of mine thanks to their solid voice acting and scripts. Strangely I am not a huge RPG fan so I prefer a shorter, more punchy, storyline than 60 hour epics. The ability to make decisions that alter the overall narrative is a nice touch though

  2. I agree, a good story is crucial for a game to really suck me into the gameplay. Though I think one key part of this topic has to be ‘pacing’. I can’t stand those games that have a decent enough story but the execution of telling that story is poor, notably Killzone 3. Don’t get me wrong I did enjoy it, but it felt like each gaming set piece was dampened by a cut scene that could have been ‘in-game’ (in my opinion).

  3. I’m waiting to see how you communicate in Journey, it’s going to fascinating. Communication is one of the weakest points in the old point and click adventures, don’t get me wrong some of those games are amongst my all time favorites with some of the greatest dialogues, but the fact that you can just plough through the options to get the right answer was a chore at times. As a side point the mouth animations in L.A Noire are still freaking me out.

  4. I really do like choices in games though I kind wish they weren’t always defined as good or bad. Because I’ll generally stick either good or bad though out the game. Give me more variety in my choices and do away with defining options as either good or bad.

  5. Loved the (lack of) communication in Demon Souls. Probably helps that I’m not a fan of online chat etc, but the system of leaving messages on the ground and seeing spectral versions of other players completely locked in the atmosphere of the game world. Be very interesting to see how communication is handled in Dark Souls

  6. I`d prefer no communication with me in certain games, survival horror for example, i`d rather just be this dude that awful stuff happens to, battling my way through horrors and occasionaly glimpsing events that fill in the story (newsflashes on the side of buildings etc) OR occasionally seeing a guy thats being an active part of the solution of the game battling on his own (like seeing him up ahead on a bridge battling a monster who then breaks the bridge initiating some kind of cool action sequence for you as you dodge flying masonry)
    the point being that i dont feel any game has hit the dialogue between the game and player head on, in mass effect i enjoyed seeing the results of my options but i never once felt like my character was real, the same thing again with bioshock 2 where i`d have been happy simply piecing the story together with audio logs and enjoying the atmosphere.

  7. communication good! :)

    • seriously though.
      i like to hear what the hero of a game has to say for themselves, the dumb faceless mute is a relic of when games couldn’t feature speech, and faces were just a few pixels tall so you couldn’t really do facial expressions either.
      but now we can, bioware have, i think, been a bit of a pioneer in pushing this sort of thing in gaming.
      many games now use similar conversation trees with the game sometimes heading in very different directions depending on what you say to people.

      and now you get a title like la noir, which is pushing the envelope as far as facial motion capture goes, where it’s not just the way somebody says something but you also get that extra bit information, they say something like 80% of communication is non verbal.
      and i can believe it.

      just watch these videos.
      it’s about something called the McGurk effect
      http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=McGurk+Effect&aq=f

  8. I love a game to have a compelling story, making the process of playing a worthwhile experience. I don’t however enjoy games that give me speech options, I feel it fragments my enjoyment. I prefer to play a predefined character through a game than have disjointed intersections where I choose what to do…..its too much pressure! :p

    • i think it depends on the type of game, for something like uncharted it would be out of place, the storyline is set, you can’t really change it and is a fully defined character in his own right.
      but in a game where you the character is defined by your actions and you can change the storyline based on those actions and relationships to other characters it works.

  9. I don’t particularly like having my choices having a huge effect, it makes you a bit nervous about choosing the “wrong” option, but in some cases it can work well.

    I don’t really mind having a silent protagonist to be honest(especially if NPCs point it out for a laugh sometimes!) but it can be a little odd in some situations.

    As a random side note, “Silent Protagonist” sounds like a great title for a game.

  10. I prefer games like Mass Effect 2, Enslaved, Uncharted series and Red Dead Redemption to FPS and other types, each to their own and all that, so for me, a good story and good acting is paramount. I’d rather get sucked into a compelling storyline, where you lose yourself to hours of gameplay without thinking about it. The way ME2 is set up, with the Paragon/Renegade choices changing the narrative of the storyline, I would prefer more games like that. Makes the game a different experience for everyone.

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