The story thus far:
Verbosity in games, much like any medium, is hard to get right. The dynamics of a game and the habits of a gamer are those that contribute a response towards quick reward systems. Run right and jump = Progression. Turn on console -> Start Game -> Join Game -> Start Killing things, all in a matter of a minute or two. But becoming programmed to this sort of habit goes against what verbosity tries to deliver. We’ve talked about how being verbose can be used correctly before, about not letting the mechanism for delivering the dialogue interfere with the agency of the player as they go about through the game. The delivery should only interfere when absolutely necessary but not for too long otherwise it pulls the player out from the immediate sense gratification that a game presents, but it means that shortened dialogue delivery needs to be discussed.
Shortened Dialogue (But it’s about the Magnum XLs, not just the Magnums)
Good Examples: Borderlands, Portal 1/2, The Stanley Parable, Halo1-3, FFIV-FFVIII, Resident Evil, StarFox
Bad Examples: Most 3d Sonics, Bionic Commando, Devil May Cry 2, Ride to Hell: Retribution
One of the things that Video Games can accomplish better than other mediums is developing its characters which can be done by creating a clear sense of their actions, their dialogues and their motivations. But why I added this in the shortened dialogue section is because we don’t need verbosity in order to understand any of these character traits, and I believe it can be a benefit when the verbosity is not there. Differently than the way that No-Dialogue can effectively deliver when there is a strong focus on action mixed with cinematography and pacing, shortened dialogue can help create synopses of a character that will only become solidified as the game goes forward. First impressions shape how we interpret the perceived motivations of a character, so it is easy to surprise the player when those impressions become challenged. Much like how many stand-ups set up their jokes, leading the audience on in their train of thought and taking that immediate left turn down an alley that you’d never take, full of tattooed trannies and blackout shouting matches where someone gets stabbed and you struggle with your life to pull the car out of the neighborhood. If you knew where you were going, the ride wouldn’t be as traumatizing. You might have just closed your eyes, took control of the wheel before turning onto that street or never had gotten into the car altogether. This is where games like Portal and The Stanley Parable get the job done. Within the first few moments of meeting any character in these games, you get a fairly clear sense of what they are about and your tracking of them gets define. So if the writer knows how to exploit your defined tracking of a character, they know what will be a surprise for the player to experience. But they still need to be fairly consistent in their characteristics or else they just seem like the filler “random”-character.
On the flip side of this, if you don’t vary your dialogue too drastically, it’s easy to have your characters become one-dimensional. Easy to predict. Plug and Play. Boring. This was the problem with Devil May Cry 2, the later 3d Sonic games and one of the many problems with Ride to Hell: Retribution. It becomes entirely too easy for characters to fall into a cliché roll, especially when the dialogue is shortened. With verboseness, you at least have the room to expand on history to make a character feel more full-in-life, but with shortness you aren’t afforded this luxury. With shortened dialogue, the majority of your dialogue needs to fill an immediate purpose, either story or entertainment, and when it does neither it becomes needless, and when it’s predictable it becomes needlessly boring.
But like I mentioned earlier, verboseness is characteristically opposite to the habits of games but shortness can be the right tool. With short, concise dialogue the story can be impactful in the most immediate sense of the word. Having dialogue that you don’t need a notepad to track accompanied with writing that is full of quips, foreshadows and metaphors helps to create a blend of great story telling midst the entertainment from the action of the game. It also helps create the numina of the game, those short phrases that become slogans which encapsulate the emotion and tone of a scene of the game or the whole of the game. Like all of the little moments when you first meet Claptrap or Dr Zed at the beginning of Borderlands, the GlaDOS or Wheatley snark that gets shot out with the driest of humor, or any one liner that was included in the better remembered games from the past like StarFox or Resident Evil.
Short vs Long (How you can screw it up even more)
It’s this distinguishment between short-form vs long-form dialogue that ultimately leaves many games feeling poorly handled. Compare this with my usual goto for shifts in quality, the Final Fantasy Series. More importantly, compare how the games handle dialogue between the pre-PS1 era vs post-PS1 era.
Pre-PS1 games had little ability to deliver long winded forms of dialogue and story so all of the story needed to be delivered in very succinct manners, but still needed to keep the essential elements to make it a compelling story. Conflict, character development, character building and world building. These games were able to accomplish a lot with its story while battling the storage limitations of the time.
Post-PS1 Final Fantasy had as much space for dialogue as they wanted, so the developers took that extra space and started filling it up with as much as they could. The stories and dialogue started becoming bloated, less succinct and harder to follow, which meant (as I in another article) it requires a notepad and flowchart to even understand the waterfall of Proper Nouns flowing from the mouths of the protagonists that tie everyone together and everything in the world together.
The problem with having too much dialogue is when it isn’t written well because now you’re subjected the player, who is looking for a quickly-gratifying gaming experience, to something that is not only delaying their gratification by prolonging any progress towards the “game” portions, but also subjecting them to elements that turn people away from the game altogether. Let’s be honest, the dialogue and story in Final Fantasy games is not the highest of quality compared to contemporaries, so why should it be long? At its best, the games are written at an above average level, but at its worst becomes a chore to go through much of the game to even get to the main story, maybe keep it short so maybe we can have it easier to follow and keep people more willing to stick with the game instead of long, weakly done, and demotivating to play.
At least if the dialogue is short, your harassment with bad dialogue isn’t prolonged. But if it was long on the other-hand…
Story Sensing (What I think can happen in the world vs I only know what you show me)
Maybe we’re not playing to the mediums strengths, though. Much like books, TV, and film that keep people interested for prolonged periods, they build their worlds with depth and atmosphere. We experience not just the events happening to our main actors, but we develop an understanding of the world that they live in which helps us understand the various motivations that make their situation unique and compelling. Building the world is something that video games excel with because the world is what you interact with the majority of the time, not just being delivered story elements for the roughly 8 hour duration of most games. Some games focus almost solely on building its world, ala Grand Theft Auto, Left 4 Dead and Team Fortress 2. You don’t walk into these games knowing a lot about the world and its actors, but with the amalgamation of the atmosphere of the world, the random encounters of people within the world, and the various landscapes and imagery that you partake in while experiencing the world gives you a sense of the world that you’re walking through.
That’s not to say that video games are bad at story-telling, because games like Uncharted, The Last of Us, and Bioshock will tell us otherwise, but these games also build on their worlds while delivering story to us as well. When we’re given a clear sense of the world, it doesn’t just make it easier to follow the story and its actors whose motivations are generally based off of the conflicts in the world, but it lets us develop our own understanding of “what if” within the world. The various fan-fictions, expanded universe stories and sequels are spawned because the imagination has a clear playground from franchises that define a clear sense of its world.
If there’s a world that can expand your imagination and can let your imagination play in it then it becomes a world that you want to live in, even for a short while.