Pages: [1]

The artistic role/usage of text and dialog in videogames

The artistic role/usage of text and dialog in videogames
« on: April 11, 2011, 04:00:33 pm »

So far I have been part of making pretty text heavy games. However, over the years I have started to question the way in which text/dialog is used in game. I think text is great for straight up UI-design stuff like asking "Are you sure you want to quit" or to give hints on a puzzle (eg "You need a key to open the door.").

However for more artistic things, like building atmosphere I find that I have not used text very interestingly. Mostly it has been in the form of "info dump" (diaries, notes, etc), or just straight up dialog. The main problem I have is that the player cannot really play the game and at the same time reading a note or similar. And text/dialog often take the form descriptions of actions, something that at least I want to be the realm of the player. Notes written/spoken like normal literature are often so exact that combined with imagery of the game, they form a complete picture and leave very little room for imagination.

In Amnesia, the texts (would be interesting if someone disagrees) that I like the most were random texts that we had as loading screens. There were very vague, and did not paint a very accurate picture, leaving much for the player to fill in and decide in what context to interpret them. In the same vain, one of my favorite dialog was in Dear Esther, as it did not limit my imagination, but instead helped to extend it (I also think Dinner Date is pretty successful here as it makes the mundane tasks you make more meaningful and interesting).

For the next game I would like to change this. But as I do not just want to leave text behind, I am wondering if anyone has examples of games were the text / dialog really added to the experience, instead of basically just being cut-scene substitutes.
Logged
Re: The artistic role/usage of text and dialog in videogames
« Reply #1 on: April 11, 2011, 10:21:42 pm »

Funny that you mention this. Text was one of the first things we wanted to remove from games when we started. In our first design, we were going to do everything in game and without text, including game saving and game configuration. Smiley
Our main motivation was actually that text is extremely colored by culture and we did not want to position our work in any a specific culture.

I really liked the "spoken cut scenes" in Amnesia. I'm probably going to steal that for one of our own projects. Smiley

An example of great text-heavy game I find "Ceremony of Innocence", designed in the 1990s by Alex Mayhew. It's in fact based on an experimental novel that consisted of postcards. The game consists of interactive versions of these postcards. The text on the postcards is spoken out loud by very talented actors (Isabella Rossellini and Ben Kingsley). Very very enjoyable!

I think if your text is good, then you shouldn't be too worried about its presentation. I'd suggest getting a really good writer. Not some game-writer but an actual poet or novelist. The text should be as interesting artistically as the music, the textures, the interactions, etc.

For our current prototype, a new version of our first game mentioned above, we have considered adding text to present to story (so that we wouldn't have to present the story in the game). But at that time, the whole game was being rendered as a book. So it made sense to have text. We've abandoned that idea now, and we have also abandoned text. There will be neither text nor story. Maybe we'll just publish a comic strip for people who want to learn about the story.
« Last Edit: April 11, 2011, 10:24:20 pm by Michaël Samyn »
Logged
Re: The artistic role/usage of text and dialog in videogames
« Reply #2 on: April 11, 2011, 10:27:16 pm »

I think Dear Esther is the example to follow here: if you're going to have text, make the game about the text.

Or, alternatively, make the text ambient. I sort of liked how the NPCs were talking to each other or muttering to themselves in Mass Effect 2 and Half Life 2, for example.
Logged
Re: The artistic role/usage of text and dialog in videogames
« Reply #3 on: April 12, 2011, 12:07:43 am »

I really like when speech is used in really short bursts, like the NPCs in Half-life as you mentions. RTS games usually have good stuff like this too, with every unit saying something depending on what you do with em. This both reinforces the action and tells you something about that unit.

Another thing that I have been thinking about on this subject is if game text and dialog should not be viewed more as lyrics and poetry. Meaning that the actual content is not what is most important, but how it goes along with the "flow" of the game. It might sound obvious, but at least for me will be quite different from how I have worked. The idea is that while there are things that needs to be said, it will be the goal to eliminate as much info as possible from the text and get greater leeway to make it fitting.

The "spoken cut scenes" (which I assume you mean what we called "flashbacks", ie events retold through sound) was also something I thought worked nicely. It was stolen from System Shock 2, but in that game they used models and I think it works better without it as you are not as constrained on what can happen. Glad you enjoyed em Smiley

Found a video of Ceremony of Innocence, quite intriguing:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xGBkb7rZwrI

I am not that big of fan when the play and narrative are so separated, but would still very much give it try!
Logged
Re: The artistic role/usage of text and dialog in videogames
« Reply #4 on: April 13, 2011, 12:54:53 am »

Maybe at the opposite direction than the one you want to explore, Immortal Defence is a remarkable example of use of text in a game.

The gameplay was in an almost abstract settings with a (literally) bodyless alter ego, the text beeing in short notes persented between the levels.
Despite these "ingredients" I've been seldom been so deeply touched by a game.

The text was written by a professional writer.
Logged
Re: The artistic role/usage of text and dialog in videogames
« Reply #5 on: April 13, 2011, 12:14:17 pm »

I often find the various notes and even voice-over notes (as Amnesia had but I heard them in Bioshock first) put me in a state of mind which says: "And now for a bit of story" and consequentially I find it hard to read them fluently. Especially since you can escape from endless (endless!) horror by reading a note which sits you down to explain what is going on in a manner which makes it implausible anybody would write it in real life.

I suppose the difference with the loading screen texts (and why they did not feel implausible to me) is that they are so evidently non-diegetic you cannot judge them on any form of plausibility.

What I frequently feel for impromptu's in games such as Half Life, where you just happen to walk into a room just as someone is speaking some exposition or makes a little joke, is that I am immaterial, as none of the characters will meaningfully interact with me the way they do with each-other - indeed, there frequently is not even a button for 'laugh along with'. In that light halfway through Amnesia I had an identical feeling to Bioshock (though without it being vicious) and Metro 2033, that I was starved for human attention as everybody was continually doing human things while I was doing menial things, like opening locks and shooting people; in the past Daniel is having a grand emotional time by placing questionable trust in a dangerous man, and all I get to do is run away for the only form of humanoid interaction to be seen.

Basically what I want in these situations; rather than walking through Mordor finding notes of the last person who did this; rather, what I want here at the end of all things, is an actual Sam.

Thinking about future games I very much feel the problem is a choice of genre where to make relevant text the game in large extent has to be about things which makes that possible. I am thinking more about adjusting the game to the desire to have text (and characters) than to stretching or removing text. Otherwise perpetually a Sam will be removed from your presence by a 'only I fit through it' door or arbitrary kidnapping or leaving notes.
Logged
Re: The artistic role/usage of text and dialog in videogames
« Reply #6 on: April 15, 2011, 12:54:26 am »

I somehow forgot, but we're actually planning to make a rather text-centric game next year. It's inspired by the writing of Marguerite Duras. More specifically by the way she uses seemingly distant and cold language, often about mundane subjects, to have her characters express their very passionate emotions. The central part of our game would be a conversation between a couple at a table in a bar. It's a multiplayer gamer for 2 people (who do not know who the other is). The two players would communicate with each other by picking phrases (and motions) they had collected in the other part of the game, an outside area that can be explored. The text would be in French. And probably spoken. And might seem like random strings of sentences, except that we think the situation will colour the text with meaning. We think it will be very romantic.
Logged
Re: The artistic role/usage of text and dialog in videogames
« Reply #7 on: April 15, 2011, 05:45:34 am »

I think that "found text" and other elements within a game can be very effective; some of the best stories I've seen in games were ones where the vast majority of the narrative was conveyed through found text or other media (Marathon and Silent Hill 2, for instance).  It's true that the text itself is not a game in this case, but I think there is still an important distinction between found text and a cutscene, namely: the text must be *discovered*.  The text itself isn't a game, but finding it is.  In games like SH2 and Marathon, this simple act of discovery makes all the difference.

Quote
Another thing that I have been thinking about on this subject is if game text and dialog should not be viewed more as lyrics and poetry. Meaning that the actual content is not what is most important, but how it goes along with the "flow" of the game.

Yes!  This is exactly what I feel is being done in the above games; the narrative does not feel like an interruption because it is integrated into the natural flow of the game: the process of advancement and discovery.  Remember the blue and red pages from Myst?  They did the same thing with video: instead of interrupting the gameplay with cutscenes, they augmented the gameplay by allowing you to discover more content.
Logged
Re: The artistic role/usage of text and dialog in videogames
« Reply #8 on: April 15, 2011, 10:05:52 am »

I think it's interesting that there's this push away from text as a 'done thing' when we've only explored a tiny fraction of it. We're still focused on the manner of its delivery and its function, yet there's been practically zero experimentation with its form and content - its style. Using alternate grammar, poetic structuring. Fragmenting character, ambiguous plot. I agree with Thomas that the strongest aspect of Amnesia's text was the weird little loadscreen stuff, which took the model of System Shock 2 etc and expanded it - text is an amazing way, (used well), of virtually increasing the scale and depth of the world without having to represent it. So it's particularly powerful at expanding it beyond the scope of the presented action -the aspect of Amnesia I loved most was the stuff about (presumably but not explicitly) Daniel's childhood and sister, precisely because it wasn't in the game world. It was at it's best when it was most divorced from explicit function.

This is where SS2 works best too, interestingly. The best writing and most powerful text work in SS2 is the Suarez and Siddons romance subplot, which is really tragic and touching. And more or less unrepeated by the games industry in other titles, which is ironic because its so powerful. So I guess one of the things that interests me is this, this use of text to explore "asynchronous experience spaces", if that's not to pompous a phrase.

So I'm reading Russell Hoban's "Fremder" at the moment, and Hoban's work in general is worth a read to anyone who thinks we've 'done' text in games, because it's phenomenally powerful and no-one has explored using text in this way at all. He's a master at fragmenting time, space and character, introducing levels of ambiguity and splice that form the basis in many ways of the experiential space of the reader's imagination, and it's exploring an equivalent space for the player that is, I'd argue, at the root of many of our experiments' into games and notgames. Amnesia's loadscreen plot-fragments splinter the unified picture and introduce both logical and emotional complexity and discontinuity into our conceptualisation of Daniel, forcing us away from the kind of 'known' characterisation that makes many avatars' boring and dull. Similarly, the way Michael and Auriea use visual overlays in The Path (and then less textually but, I'd argue, with more sophistication in Fatale) break up the unity of the game world and make the experience far richer as a result - and both are textual devices, just not in the traditional way.

Dear Esther, btw, is one of the most profoundly traditional games as far as storytelling goes. It uses straightforward textual triggers. The thing that makes it interesting is the content and structuring within the text (apart from the randomisation, which is the only structural innovation as far the game itself goes). What we did (are doing) differently is embracing a more discontinuous, fragmented, spliced text (centralising what happens in cutscenes in Amnesia), offsetting the narrative temporally and breaking up a smooth flow of continuity (extending what happens in the Suarez/Siddons subplot in SS2) and trying to find a way of letting the images and poetics contained within the text to flow over gameplay - as a mental space the player creates with the system (like the overlays of The Path). So there is a central connection for all of us in slippage and fragmentation.

So I guess I find it all interesting, because in the trad games sector, there's this sense that textual delivery of story is somehow maxed out, and we need to be pushing into integrated, environmental, non-textual storytelling. For sure, we need to explore just those things, but it's a total error to think we've hit the limits of how text can work and what it can deliver - we've only scratched the surface. To be crass about it, it's like the games industry has only ever read Dan Brown (with aspirations to Sebastian Faulks if we're really lucky) and is extrapolating what a novel can be and offer from that point. Our counterpoints to that argument would be Hoban, Burroughs, Carter. And further - breaking text from explicit meaning to poetic immersion.

My favourite text ever: it's the first stanza of the epic poem "Vale Royal" by Andrew Aidan Dunn:

In the trip of a star-crossed summer
In the sadness of my disconnection
I ran adrift in the city of exterior light

Now just close your eyes and think of the game that text spins. I also want to run adrift in that city.
Logged
Re: The artistic role/usage of text and dialog in videogames
« Reply #9 on: July 19, 2011, 01:07:26 am »

So I guess one of the things that interests me is this, this use of text to explore "asynchronous experience spaces", if that's not to pompous a phrase.

I like that term, even if it is a little pompous. Wink It's an interesting way to think about what text is and what role it could play in a game. Makes me think of Twitter...

Also makes me think of how text is used in Sword & Sworcery EP. Have you played that one? Smiley
Logged
Pages: [1]
Jump to: