New Conversations

At GDC this year, I remember hearing some writers talk about the sorry state of story and dialogue in action/adventure games. One of the promising games that they looked forward to, though, was Mass Effect – apparently it would have a brand new conversation system.

Over the months, details emerged. In effect, the game would allow you to choose from a number of ‘attitudes’ to reply in any appropriate situation. The attitude you picked would then determine what you said – so you don’t pick the actual line of dialogue directly. Here’s what it looks like:

It works pretty well, and there are a few reasons for this. Firstly, because you only pick an attitude, and you do it by simply flicking the analog stick, participating in conversations is much quicker and unobtrusive than any other system I’ve seen; in other games, the list of options traditionally has more text and requires you to make additional button presses or movements. Secondly, though you can’t see it here, I hear that the conversations take place in real time. That means that if you don’t answer relatively quickly, the other person will find you a little weird. For me, this turns conversations into a minigame rather than a tedious exercise in tree-exploration.

I wouldn’t at all be surprised if these two innovations made it into practically every action/adventure game in the future, plus a bunch of other genres. They’re not utterly ground-breaking – it’s not as if the developers have created some strong conversational AI system – but they seem to work much better than what’s already out there, and they wouldn’t require many changes in other aspects of gameplay. Incidentally, also at GDC, I saw a few talks about conversational AI, which were enough to convince me that no-one is even close to making it work and that we’re going to have to wait for natural language processing to get a lot, lot better. Anyway, I digress…

Finally, Mass Effect works because the animation, character models and script is all fairly good. It’s not amazing, but it’s better than what I’ve seen before, and ultimately, no amount of technical achievements will make up for bad scripting. You need to get everything right, and hopefully Mass Effect has done that.

6 Replies to “New Conversations”

  1. I can’t recall the name of the game now (of course; it was futuristic/punky, with an Angel motif or in the title somehow), but there was a CD game for the Mac easily 10 years ago that had an attitude selector – you had an evil/neutral/good choice that would determine how aggressively you spoke. The game itself wasn’t very good, IMO, and the conversations weren’t in real-time.

  2. The idea of choosing an attitude or emotion isn’t particularly new, and personally I don’t like it that much. It’s hard to tell how your character will respond if there’s just a choice of aggressive/neutral/accommodating – short 3-5 word summaries are much better (although a bit more work for the devs).

    There was a guy who talked about a ‘revolutionary new conversation system’ at GDC, which basically involved picking a co-ordinate within two axes of happy/sad and aggressive/passive. It was terrible – can you imagine what that would do for flow in a game, having to hunt out the exact spot you think is right? Part of the reason why Mass Effect’s system is good is because of the simple interface – a quick flick of the thumb.

  3. Hey, don’t knock Blade Runner. That was a fantastic game, with a ludicrous number of alternate endings.

    David Braben’s quite proud of the conversational interface he’s developed for [new game x] which I can’t remember the name of – the one about the cop in Washington who’s accused of doing a hit on the President – which also works along the same lines – you don’t get to choose what you say, but you do get to choose a conversational stance.

  4. I don’t believe it was Blade Runner, no. Annoyingly, I spent a good hour or so at MobyGames and a few other sites scanning through ancient Mac titles to find said box cover, and had no luck.

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