A Philosopher's Blog

Dialogue & Games

Posted in Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on November 12, 2008

I’m a gamer and a writer. Hence, I appreciate both a well turned phrase and a well tuned phased plasma rifle. When I’m playing a video game, I don’t expect dialogue worthy of Socrates or Shakespeare, but I do prefer that the game creators show that the dialogue matters to them-at least just a little bit.

Not surprisingly, I am in good company here. Tycho, over at Penny Arcade, recently wrote about the dialogue in Gears of War 2 not just once, but twice. On his view, the game is quite impressive. Unfortunately, the dialogue is impressively bad.

While it makes sense for a crappy game to have crappy dialogue, it makes less sense for a good game to be tainted with crappy dialogue. When I play such games, the mind ponders as the hands twitch.

One obvious explanation is that the poor dialogue is a mistake. The developers would have preferred good dialogue, but it simply was not to be. After all, writing can be hard and people fail at it even when they try hard and are being paid to do it. Of course, failing consistently requires a certain talent at failure.

Another obvious explanation is that people do not buy games like Gears of War 2 for the story or the dialogue. They buy such games so they can (virtually) kill things-preferably using a gun with a chainsaw bayonet. Hence, dialogue is not a big concern. Asking why the dialogue is subpar would be like asking why the lettuce on a monster burger is iceberg lettuce and not something fancy: people don’t buy the burger for the lettuce. They buy it for the meat.

A third obvious explanation is that many people who play video games speak in bad dialogue. When I play online, I keep my headset off about 96% of the time. I don’t find the constant stream of repetitive obscenities, racist remarks, and general stupidity worth listening to.  I don’t expect people to speak about metaphysics and political theory online, but it would be nice to hear something besides “fag” and variants on “f@ck” (like “goat f@cker”). At the very least, people should change it up a bit and be a bit more creative in their swearing.  As such, the bad dialogue of the game matches their own way of speaking-they feel right at home in a world of word crap.

There is, of course, a place for well written dialogue. Some games, such as Mass Effect, put an emphasis on story and character interaction. The Halo series is also well written. The success of such games does show that good dialogue will not hurt sales.

I am, of course, for good dialogue. While I play video games for the action, I do like a product that is good across the board. For me, bad dialogue detracts from the game. Not as much as crappy graphics or glitches, but it still lowers the value of the experience. Also, I think that bad dialogue in games can reinforce the bad dialogue of game players. Decent writing is cheap-heck, I’d write game dialog for a copy of the game and my name in the credits. Not to say that I’d turn down cash, of course.  Hence, there seems to be no excuse for bad dialogue in good games.