There is nothing that can ruin a book, movie or game more than stiff dialogue. Well, okay, so that’s not entirely true; there are also Mary Sues, love triangles, cliches, gaping plot holes… well, uh, you get the point. But dialogue is still a major pet peeve for me, especially when it’s contrived, unrealistic and so unbelievably awkward to the point where you want to believe that the worst is over and it can only get better from there.
Unfortunately that is not always the case. And if you’re a completionist like me, this is especially torturous because you have to see it to the end no matter how much it irritates you. My biggest grip is when a movie/book/game looks awesome in terms of design and art and cinematography and whatnot, but then suffers in the dialogue department. That’s just sad.
As a writer of fiction, I try to keep in mind a certain checklist when I’m writing dialogue. It also applies to games, but with a few additions. Taking Silas Burcombe as a test subject, for example, I would measure his lines against the following:
- Is this something he would actually say? (“Hey, this is the money I owe you. Do pardon me for being so late.” – there would be red ink all over this one.)
- Would I be bored to death if he said this to me? (“So you see, in order to maintain the altitude of your ship, you would have to move the thingamajig over here and click the whatchamacallit over there…”)
- Is this line necessary? (“So then I pushed the doors open and walked in. I asked for a drink, the bar tender regarding me silently with contempt in his eyes, before slowly and deliberately pulling out a glass and pouring me some ale.” as opposed to, “I went to the pub and got a drink.”)
- Is it funny (optional; not applicable to all situations)? (“I merely think of it as borrowing. But we can agree to disagree. I’m not fussy.”)
The game writing tips I’ve picked up:
- Is it clear and to the point? (“Can you buy me a drink?” as opposed to “Would you kindly quench my thirst with sweet nectar?”)
- Does it make decisions for the player? (There should be none of “Want to fly with me? Yes? Awesome. Let’s go.” If the player does not want to fly with Silas – and with good reason – they should be able to avoid that.)
- Does it impose feelings on the player? (We can’t have this either: “Oh, I can see the adoration in your eyes. It’s just beautiful.”)
In a way, I guess fiction writing is different from game writing because you do not really have control over what’s going to happen to all the key players. In games, you have to be aware of the fact that the player will not do things the way you want, and act accordingly. Regardless of that, however, dialogue should always be given the same degree of importance. I mean, why have dialogue that readers/players would want to skip, right? 😉