ICE WORLD LAVA WORLD: An infrequently-updated and utterly inconsistent waffle-house of video-game-related nonsense from the brain, spleen and other organs of Tim Furnish, a software developer and misery based in the UK who's used his clearly-not-as-precious-as-he-figured-it-was spare time to create interactive electrotainment about stupid wildfowl, science-fictiony space kidnappings and, most recently, everything spherical he could think of. And he wrote it all just for you, because you mean the world to him.

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Monday, 3 August 2009

The big OUT OF ORDER retrospective, part 4: The big (speak) easy

Read 'em their writes

Dude! Writing dialogue? Hell yeah, man! A piece about writing, like, what people say? I could dig that! Hella-ace! Grody! Rock on! Hyperbole done verbally! Wickedsick! Factory!

Out Of Order, an adventure game which I made a few years back, features several characters with which the player can (and, in a lot of cases, must) communicate and I tried pretty hard to give each one a different personality. A bit of this was done in their visual design. A lot of it was in their dialogue. In some cases, I even attempted accents and speech impediments which isn't easy when you've got no voice recordings, only on-screen text.

Some characters, looking back on the game now, stand out more than others. There's Sylvia, who calls everyone (well, the few people to whom she speaks during the course of the game) darling and switches from irritable to sweetness-and-light as often as some people blink. There's Bob in the electrical shop who's kind of nerdy and recites technical product descriptions and advertising monologues. Perhaps most memorable of all (to players of the game, hence the 'perhaps'; I can obviously remember all the characters) is the doctor and part-time inventor who hath a lithp and who, it turnth out upon thpeaking to him, ith more interethted in "meeting" new infectionth than curing hith patientth. There's also Gregor the barman who drops as many letters from words as I thought I could get away with while still making sentences readable and the excessively happy computerised locking-device by the meeting room which is excessively happy. At least until you manage to unlock the door.

Other characters such as Urban Leopard (veering from idealistic to lethargic to slightly middle-managerial) and Deirdre (whose personality starts out as 'able to shout quite loud' and then doesn't really go anywhere else) and the computer on Hurford's floor (a fairly obvious personality, somewhere between 2001's Hal, Marvin from The Hitchhiker's Guide and Red Dwarf's Holly) had slight personality traits (some would say only slight personalities) but served their purposes game-play-wise, although it's probably safe to say they weren't quite as developed and defined as the characters mentioned above. And I think, with the incredible power of hindsight-o-vision, I've worked out why. They're all pretty much exactly the same slightly offish, slightly bored character as one another.

Speaking to these characters - to any characters in any adventure game - should be a joy. Unfortunately, these characters are all a little dismissive and downbeat and distracted by other things while the player is talking to them. Should this personality, I now wonder, have been limited to only one of the characters? Maybe it would have been funnier to have the computer on Hurford's floor bored by everything except video games, rather than everything including video games. Maybe Urban Leopard should, going forward, in line with expectations and in a vertically-structural capacity, have overused blue-sky-thinking boardroom-speak to further undercut his own intentions (delusions?) of taking down the system by doing nothing more than editing a periodical. As they were, I'd certainly estimate that a lot of the lines of dialogue spoken by these characters, ignoring the actual information passed on to the player by the dialogue, would not immediately be identifiable as belonging to that particular character. The style in which they spoke was almost identical.

As a result of this repetition, I'm certainly more pleased with (and still amused by) the bits of the game involving Sylvia, the doctor, Bob and even the deranged locking device. The apathy of the other characters even runs the risk of rubbing off on how the player feels about the game. If the characters in a game don't seem to care about what's going on, why should the player?

Differentiation and integration

So, what would I try and do were I to start creating new characters for a new game (or, to put it another way, what would I have the audacity to suggest to someone trying to write conversations and dialogue for characters in their own game)? First of all, I'd work out what makes each character different to everyone else. Multiple differences, if possible. Then, while writing their dialogue, I'd try and reinforce a part of their unique personality or opinion or outlook on life as often as possible. I'd make sure I gave the player conversational choices, alongside those which further the plot or solve puzzles or give hints, which lead to nothing more than the character reciting some schtick which does nothing but demonstrate their views or their place in the world. The characters which seem more developed in Out Of Order were written in this way; the doctor in particular has several conversation choices which do nothing but let him talk about being a doctor. That's because, if you were in the situation faced by Hurford in the game, one of the obvious things you'd want to say to an alien doctor is "What's it like being a doctor here?" and the absence of the question would have been peculiar to say the least. Even if players don't choose to ask the doctor about himself, they're aware from the point of seeing the option onwards that they can ask the doctor about himself later on if they want to.

So, to other adventure game developers out there, I say this: it's perfectly reasonable that the player's enjoying the ambience and fiction of your game rather than just wanting to plough through it as fast as they can. Let players who want to engage in small-talk engage in small-talk and, when they do, give them something worth reading (or hearing, if you're having recorded speech for your characters). Worth reading doesn't have to mean funny, although in Out Of Order that's what I was going for much of the time. If your game's meant to be spooky, then have characters reciting (possibly unrelated) spooky stories just to build up atmosphere. Just make the character in question tell the story, not you the writer.

I tried, when creating the characters which appear in Out Of Order, not to simply rely on stereotypes. The shouty guy isn't a big, bellowy, Brian-Blessed-like character. Bob the shop-owning nerd doesn't rely on internet memes and World-Of-Warcraft-related in jokes to be funny (which would age pretty badly anyway). Sylvia maybe comes closest to being a stereotypical celebrity, except she's not just there to be short with people who don't recognise her in the street; she also has a genuinely useful and artistic talent which features in one of the game's puzzles. In any case, the last thing I wanted to do was to create non-player characters which players would think they'd seen before in other games (or, indeed, earlier in the same game, although I may have missed that mark a little as discussed above).

That's you, that is

You may have noticed that the player character's personality isn't mentioned anywhere yet. That's because he's deliberately not got much of a personality. In the tradition of the player characters in the many, many adventure games which have gone before Out Of Order, there's not much in the way of defining and redefining and adding layers of complexity to who Hurford is outside of the initial set-up. He's someone who's used to living at home who's suddenly transplanted to somewhere odd and who wants to find out what's going on because, frankly, he wants to know. And that's his entire purpose, all explained and summed up before the player even gets to control him.

During the game, the main aims of Hurford's dialogue are to give clues, to give progress reports and to reassure the actual, flesh-and-bone, real-world player that the game is aware of what they're doing or trying to do (and, hopefully, in several cases, that the game is also aware of how they might sensibly be reacting to a situation). Many of the comments which Hurford makes should match what the player's thinking at the same moment, at least on the first play-through. (By extension of that, a lot of his comments also serve as a reminder for someone replaying the game that even though they've seen the area or room or character or situation before, it's the first time Hurford's seen it).

As was discussed earlier in the previous part of this ever-increasing Out Of Order ramblothon, it was also important for me to not have Hurford verbally overrule the player's decision to do something just because the time isn't right yet (with two exceptions, one involving moving an object in the pub and one involving getting into Sylvia's room before you need to). That's because as soon as a player character starts overruling the player's decisions and declaring that they know best, as soon as the player has to fight their character rather than instruct it and have it do his bidding, there's nobody left in the game on the player's side. And that's not a pleasant situation for a player to be in.

I say, I say, I say

So, on the whole, do the characters (and their dialogue) in Out Of Order work? Yes. I believe they do. For the most part. There are, however, a few things which I might change were I to revisit the game now and had free reign to change whatever content I wanted.

First of all, there are a few ambiguous lines of speech which come across as... well, slightly dubious. They weren't meant to, or at least, the ambiguity is deliberate, so that players are left wondering quite what the situation or intended meaning or back-story might be but never really get to (or need to) find out for sure. The problem is people reading something quite twisted or wrong or overtly adult into such lines of dialogue and then, horror of horrors, not continuing with the game for fear of it descending into filth or bad language or whatever else it is which they dread the most, or stopping their kids playing it, or any other (arguably sensible) knee-jerk reaction. And, sadly, the example which springs to mind happens early in the game, before the player even gets to control a character. When Hurford wakes up in the middle of the night and goes downstairs to get a snack, he's asked by his (off-screen) mother "It's not made you do that thing again, has it...?" to which Hurford replies "Er, no, the sheet's fine, mum." What does it mean? Does Hurford have disturbing, violent dreams and end up untucking or ripping the sheet in his sleep? His duvet in the room is certainly a bundled-up mess. Or does he still wet the bed? Or, as has been suggested by comments written about the (now AWOL) YouTube video of someone playing the start of the game and no doubt elsewhere, is it something else? I don't know, to this day, what the actual answer is. It was meant to be ambiguous; just one of the bits of dialogue setting Hurford up as still living with his parents despite all the awquard questions his mother insists on asking and (as revealed later in the same conversation) him being old enough to drive. There are a few - albeit very, very few - other lines in the game which venture away from the family-friendly game I wanted to make. However, they're later and generally only crop up if you say the right thing to the right person (barging in on the date which you set up between two other characters and getting them to argue gives a silly underwear joke) or if you reach the very end of the game (Hurford saying "You buggy little bugger" to the bit of machine code he modifies).

Looking back on the inclusion of such things now and shuddering is maybe just paranoia. But I wish they weren't there, or had been reworked into something more kiddy-friendly. They are, to my mind, the only PG-13 blots on an otherwise completely family-friendly gamey landscape.

A match made on floor 162

One character who appears towards the end of the game is the guard who appears outside of Hurford's room. And his dialogue was written, quite deliberately, to feature him verbally sparring with Hurford where many other characters would just ignore (or not know how to respond to) Hurford's quips. That's because all the way through the game, the only real ability which Hurford brings to any given table is the ability to say something moderately (I hope) witty or sarcastic or disparaging or snide to people without getting any come-back from it. That's because he's also free to walk away from the earlier confrontations and conversations at any time (OK, except for the meeting early on, but that's a special case). Suddenly, not only is Hurford stuck in his room again, he's trapped by someone who quips back and makes his own sarcastic comments and snide remarks. Not so much that Hurford stops quipping himself, but enough to make him seem more of an equal who's going to need some proper outsmarting.

(There are also further tiny clues as to the reality behind The Town in the conversations you can have with this guard, as there have been throughout the game. I won't point out which lines they are for those people who've not finished the game, but hopefully by the time Hurford eventually discovers what he's been trying to find out for the whole game, it's not a "Whoa, where did that come from?" moment for the player, it's... well, it's not that. I should stop talking about that now, for fear of spoiling things for people. What I was going for with the little hints and clues wasn't for someone playing the game to actually work out what's going on themselves by this point, but for the reveal to be the final piece of the puzzle. Which links back in with trying to keep Hurford and the player synchronised as much as possible, with neither one knowing something the other doesn't, at least on the first playthrough. I hoped I pulled it off.)

So there we have it - character development and scriptwriting the Out Of Order way. Peace out, y'all. Bo!

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