Between You and I

What is the purpose of dialogue?

Generally, we use it to convey information on some level, to exchange ideas and advance one topic or a range of topics. Of course, this does not happen all the time; any time two (or more) people are speaking, misunderstandings, poor word choice, or a murky idea can get in the way of such information being batted back and forth between a speaker/listener.

In storytelling mediums, that information becomes the focus whenever agents of the story are talking. It provides not only information that is being discussed, but also colors the indirect characterization of the speakers. You’ll hear accents, background hints, opinions, and many other small indicators that clue you in to who these speakers are and color the personality being presented. If you’ve ever read or watched Waiting for Godot, you’re well aware that sometimes the words don’t have to make sense in order for you to understand the emotion and drives of Vladimir and Estragon.

With art, there is one more dialogue occurring: that between the art and its consumer. We color our perceptions of any art with which we come in contact with our own histories, understandings, and views. Thank whatever powers may or may not be, too; it is because of this that we have dissenting opinions on what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’ music, art, theater, et cetera. Otherwise we may well be stuck all lauding everything that’s created and stagnating in a bath of our own tepid creative juices. In games, however, that dialogue is even more present, you are usually controlling some element/s and/or characters.

While I’m enjoying my first Xbox 360 experience, this is the element that confuses me about The Darkness, and I’m not even sure why this particular title made me ponder this question. During the game, one sometimes runs up to NPCs and certain conversation topics show up in the lower left of the screen. One can scroll through these options with the arrow keys, but it isn’t really necessary. You just walk up, press ‘A’ (had to run and double-check to make sure that was the correct button), and then just press down and continue doing so until the conversation topics are exhausted.

After a while I was wondering why I was even being bothered to press these button configurations–I was not being presented with dialogue trees where I could go out on a limb and possibly affect a different outcome. While we could posit that I’m merely being lazy, I’m really not seeing how this constitutes the supposed dialogue that is supposed to be occurring on screen. I get a gist of what I’m proposing or asking, select it, and then the person at whom it is being directed responds. After his or her initial response I may add a few words, and the charade begins anew.

This is not interaction, though the game is providing me the illusion that I’m making ‘choices.’ While I realize not every team wants to give more options than those scripted, and that some do not have the resources to write more to then have it voiced, I do wish that if I am to be having this dialogue with the game already, it does not press tedium on me by having me make choices which have no bearing whatsoever. I do not wish to play games to be some automaton just pressing buttons to get the next bit of information.

In The Darkness, this is even further confusing as I make these choices from a first person perspective, with no HUD to really provide me any information that I’m not actively using, and at this point I have a chance to be thrust into viewing a third person perspective which I can navigate with my right analog stick. At the same time, this is at the point that the game signals to me that I’ve made a ‘choice’ and am now being presented with the ‘consequences’ of that choice, removing my ability to directly involve myself. I am suddenly thrust into an observer mode.

In one way, I can see this as the game’s turn at speaking and conveying information to me, but it becomes jarring when the agent I am supposed to be controlling is suddenly taken out of my hands and becomes someone else’s puppet. Does this mean that the information being conveyed and passed back and forth between the game and I is the protagonist? We are pressing forward and advancing our communication, but I still somehow feel cheated by a promise that the game makes from the moment I started, waking up in the backseat of a car that is hurtling through a tunnel in New York. Because the game is presenting me with so much other information, it feels as if its taking my one leveraging point and input into the game as its own. At what point do I become useless?

It is at this point that I realize the videos I’ve been watching of Diablo 3 are what I would prefer in this scenario; I walk up to an NPC, choose to engage, and the information that needs to be conveyed is, without needing to request that I continue needlessly providing input. That would still present the problem of switching perspectives on me, but alleviate my concern that I am somehow an agent in this particular dialogue–because let’s face it, this is providing the game a soapbox from which to disseminate information on which I can then act. My communication then becomes the act of choosing to talk. If the game made no qualms about that being what I was about to do, I’d feel much more comfortable–as of right now it’s a minor annoyance that made me reflect on how often this occurs in games. Jealous of its sibling, the dialogue tree, it seems all ‘dialogue’ aspires to be something more than it is.

Next, I’ll explore the dialogue tree and its cousin, the archipelago with bridges we burn as we cross them. These offer different narrative options and challenges for the designers and writers, as well as providing us with our own dialogue options with the game itself.


About Denis Farr

Writer interested in intersectionality, games, comics, nerdy stuff in general, theater, and how it all mixes. Graduate of Wabash College, with studies in Theater, English, German, and Gender Studies.
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