Why I Talked About Chickens to a Room Full of Game DevelopersA couple of weeks ago, I attended GDC Online in Austin. I was covering the event, but I was also there as a speaker, giving a microtalk as part of a six-critic panel on great game storytelling. Joining me were N'Gai Croal (Hit Detection), Leigh Alexander (Gamasutra), John Davidson (CBS Interactive/Gamespot), and Ben Fritz (the L.A. Times). The talk was organized and led by Chris Dahlen, who is editor-in-chief at Kill Screen Magazine.

We decided early on that we'd each give a small talk dedicated to one thing that we look for in a great video game story (or one thing that we'd love to never see again). The format was the wild card—Chris suggested we try something similar to the Pecha Kucha 20x20 talk, in which each presenter shows 20 slides which play for 20 seconds each. For my talk, I focused on character motivation, so of course I wound up talking about... chickens.

We did a modified version of Pecha Kucha, doing 20 slides apiece and setting them to play for 16 seconds each. Let me tell you: it was a challenge! I've given talks before, but I've always had control over when the slides advance. For this talk, I had to rehearse the hell out of it in order to make things line up the way I wanted them to. It wound up being a great exercise, and I think the approach helped me keep things focused.

I was thrilled to get to give a talk alongside such wonderful critics and writers, and I really enjoyed each talk. John took a loose, conversational look at the various storytelling tricks he values in games. N'Gai took a more technical approach, breaking down the main sorts of game storytelling and explaining them. Leigh's talk was a deep look at building better online characters and quest givers, her slides (humorsly and predictably) covered in text. Ben talked about how most of the games that win awards for writing are the games that feature the most writing, which was something I'd never considered before. Chris closed us out with my favorite of all the talks, in which he discussed mystery, and how only in games can players take an active part in unravelling the story.

At some point, video of the session will be available at the GDC Vault, but in the meantime I wrote to the folks at GDC Online and asked if it would be okay for me to run my microtalk here, and they said yes. So, in this slide show, you'll find my 20 slides. For the full experience, set a timer to ding every sixteen seconds and read the slides out loud to yourself. (Or, you know, just read it normally.)

Thanks to Chris Dahlen for including me, and to Jennifer Steele and everyone at GDC Online for having us! I can't wait to go back next year.

You can contact Kirk Hamilton, the author of this post, at You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and lurking around our #tips page.

Why I Talked About Chickens to a Room Full of Game Developers
Hi everybody. I want to talk about character motivation, and I'd like to start with a question: Why did the chicken cross the road? I'm guessing that you all know the answer: she crossed to get to the other side. It's a nice, direct answer, humorous in its ironic simplicity.

Why I Talked About Chickens to a Room Full of Game Developers
But is that really a good enough answer? What if a car had come along? What if she had lost her way and never made it back to her family? Why would this chicken risk so much, what was she going towards, what was she trying to escape? What are we really asking here?

Why I Talked About Chickens to a Room Full of Game Developers
It's not so much "Why did the chicken cross the road," as it is simply: "Why?" Why do we do the things we do? Why do we love, why do we lie; why do we take risks or hurt one another? Why did the chicken cross the road?

…What does this have to do with videogame writing?

Well, maybe it doesn't have to be a chicken.

Why I Talked About Chickens to a Room Full of Game Developers
For me as a game critic, the question of "why" is of the utmost importance. Of course, that question is of the utmost importance for… pretty much every aspect of everything. But for today, when I talk about "Why," I'm talking about character motivation. Why do a game's characters do what they do?

Why I Talked About Chickens to a Room Full of Game Developers
Oftentimes the phrase "character motivation" becomes synonymous with "backstory." In Mass Effect, players are given the opportunity to choose their protagonist's backstory from a short list, and it kinda works! Choose a backstory, and voila! Instant character depth.

Why I Talked About Chickens to a Room Full of Game Developers
But backstory can be so much more than a quick and dirty means to providing character development. In Tim Schafer's Psychonauts, players enter the subconscious minds of the other characters, exploring their pasts, their secrets, their proud moments and their shame. It was a brilliant synthesis of character development and design.

Why I Talked About Chickens to a Room Full of Game Developers
The challenge is that too much backstory, improperly applied, can also backfire. I was frustrated with Brendan McNamera's LA Noire for the muddled ways that he and his writers attempted to show me Cole Phelps' motivations. I never did feel like I understood him, or why he did the things he did.

Why I Talked About Chickens to a Room Full of Game Developers
Great writing and performances can help inform of a character's "why" intuitively, and most of my favorite characters often feel motivated by the same unknowable impulses as rest of us. But then, that's television… or film, or literature. That's not video games.

Why I Talked About Chickens to a Room Full of Game Developers
Because here's the thing: when it comes to games, everything I've described is only half the story. Why did Frogger REALLY cross the road? He did it because you pushed the joystick forward. He didn't need another reason for his actions. This frog really DID cross the road just to get to the other side.

Why I Talked About Chickens to a Room Full of Game DevelopersOne of the most famous responses to the question "why" came from George Mallory before climbing Mount Everest. "Why do you want to climb the mountain?" he was asked.

"Because it's there."

"Because it's there" is a good enough response for many video game characters. Most, even.

Why I Talked About Chickens to a Room Full of Game Developers
Mallory was probably more concerned with how he was going to climb the mountain. And often, game designers seem similarly focused on the how over the why. How does this level work? How are our combat elements balanced? How do we get this vehicle segment functional?

Why I Talked About Chickens to a Room Full of Game Developers
But as a critic, I'm never as interested in how the chicken crossed the road as I am in why. By foot, by air; by boat, by train—it doesn't really matter. In a game, as soon as I've done something, I know how I did it. It's nicely unambiguous, but also narratively uninteresting.

Why I Talked About Chickens to a Room Full of Game Developers
Games may not need great characters to work, but well-developed, three-dimensional characters make me enjoy a game so much more. Why did he rescue his missing wife? Why did she defeat that dragon? Why did he build that farm? In so many games the answers to those questions are thin or even non-existent.

Why I Talked About Chickens to a Room Full of Game Developers
I guess it will always be both a risk and a challenge to ask videogame characters "why." That's partly because it'll probably always be easier to ignore the question entirely. It's also because of Frogger and the joystick: the conflict between player control and authorial intent.

Why I Talked About Chickens to a Room Full of Game Developers
But that conflict is precisely what makes videogame characters so fascinating to me! Shadow of the Colossus's Wander, tricked along with the player into committing heinous acts. Planescape Torment's Nameless One, his past catching up with him even as through him, the player creates a new future.

Why I Talked About Chickens to a Room Full of Game Developers
And then there's multiplayer, in which the connection between player and character becomes even more complex. Many multiplayer games have found an easy answer to the question "why." Why do we play multiplayer games? "To level up! To win!" But must that really be our sole motivation?

Why I Talked About Chickens to a Room Full of Game Developers
Whether by design or not, our personal motivations are already coming to bear in online spaces. What if I watered Suzy's crops not because I want to get more FarmVille bucks, but because I have a crush on her in real life? What if I screwed over a coworker in EVE Online because of a perceived workplace slight?

Why I Talked About Chickens to a Room Full of Game Developers
The motivations of the characters we play in digital worlds overlap with our own lives in ways that writers and designers have only begun to explore. Through our connections to the game, the story, and to other players, our in-game actions become an entirely different sort of real, and so too do our motivations.

Why I Talked About Chickens to a Room Full of Game Developers
But too many games, single and multiplayer, don't just fail to answer the question "why," they fail to ask it at all. It's enough that they work, it's enough that the design is fun and the feedback loops are compulsive. It's enough that they'll sell a ton of units.

Why I Talked About Chickens to a Room Full of Game Developers
I don't ask writers to put aside notions of design-oriented, functional writing, I only ask that they aspire beyond them, beyond the "how" and into the "why?" You've built the chicken, you've designed the road. She's standing alongside it, waiting. Now tell me, show me: why would she want to cross it in the first place?


Double Fine Delivers Custom Pick-Me-Up Card to Gamer with Rare Brain Disease Psychonauts, arguably Double Fine Studios's best and most well-known game, is all about memories and how they shape our lives. The PS2-era game impacted Chris Machado so much that he wrote into the dev collective founded by Tim Schafer, which led to a visit to their San Francisco offices.

Double Fine Delivers Custom Pick-Me-Up Card to Gamer with Rare Brain Disease Years passed and Machado was diagnosed with a debilitating brain disease called hydrocephalus, where fluid builds up in the skull and causes excruciating headaches among other symptoms. Machado endured two unsuccessful surgeries in five months to try and treat the condition, with another on the way. Despite being out of contact with him for years, the folks at Double Fine sent along a hand-drawn card filled with well wishes for Machado. (There was a bunch of Double Fine swag along with it but the card's really a one-of-a-kind thing.)

There's always been a strong emotional core at all of Double Fine's games so this incredibly sweet gesture lines up with the playable work that they've been making for years. So, the next time you're on the fence about one of the company's clever downloadable releases like Trenched or Costume Quest, just go ahead and plunk down your cash. They make good games and, more importantly here, one good deed deserves another, no?

Why Doublefine is the greatest game company ever [I Heart Chaos]

You can contact Evan Narcisse, the author of this post, at You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and lurking around our #tips page.

Wow, Psychonauts Just Got A Big Update, Achievements and a Mac VersionLike, totally out of nowhere, Double Fine just hit us with an update to the PC version of "excellent game" Psychonauts, adding Steam Play cloud saves, achievements and support for Mac OS X. Additionally, there's a "slightly modified Meat Circus."

"We are really excited," said Double Fine president Tim Schafer in a press release, "to finally be answering fans' requests for a more difficult Meat Circus." And by "more difficult," he actually means "less difficult."

The developer of Psychonauts has also released the Psychonauts Vault Viewer! app for iOS, a free download that lets touchscreen devices users and Pyschonauts enthusiasts "peruse the deepest, most secret thoughts of the game's characters, while listening to newly-recorded commentary from Scott Campbell and Tim Schafer."

Psychonauts for PC and Mac is now available on Steam for $9.99 USD. I think you've bided your time long enough.

You can contact Michael McWhertor, the author of this post, at You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and lurking around our #tips page.

Psychonauts is Back Where it BelongsHaving been the property of companies like THQ and Majesco, the publishing rights to cult platformer Psychonauts are now back where they belong: with Double Fine, the people who actually made the game.

That's according to a slightly premature tweet from a Double Fine employee, at any rate, who after dropping the info says that a more official announcement is coming.

What this means is that, unlike every copy sold until now (from which a large cut of the proceeds went to a publisher), from here on every copy of Psychonauts sold will see most of that money go back to Double Fine. So they can keep on making games like Psychonauts, Costume Quest and Brutal Legend.

This isn't a common situation for a (relatively) major developer to find themselves in, so if you feel like supporting the team and playing one of the better (and funnier) platformers of the last decade, you can get the game on Steam and Xbox Live's Game Marketplace.

Link ChevronTwitter [via Giant Bomb]


Psychonauts Creator Is Totally Ready For A SequelTim Schafer, creative force behind Grim Fandango and Brutal Legend, is ready and willing to give you that Psychonauts sequel you've been dreaming of. Now he just needs a publisher to finance the damn thing.

When asked by games mag PSM3 about the possibilities of a sequel to 2006's quirky psychic adventure, Schafer said "I'm ready to do it. I'd love to do it. It's really a question of getting a publisher who's interested in doing it."

While Psychonauts wasn't exactly a runaway commercial success—we probably would have seen a Psychonauts 2 by now if it were—Schafer believes that the game's long tail sales via Steam has helped build a considerable fan base for a follow-up.

Psychonauts 2: Tim Schafer is 'ready to do it' [CVG]


Happy Tenth Birthday, Double FineScott Campbell, art director at Brutal Legend and Psychonauts developers Double Fine, has marked the studio's tenth birthday with this rad cartoon.

It manages to work unused concept art, classic Double Fine characters and Eddie Riggs all into the same strip, giving us a history lesson and putting a smile on our faces all at the same time.

If you've never read Campbell's "Double Fine Action Comics" before, you really should. They're on, wait for it, Double Fine's site.

[via Super Punch]


"You Gonna Read This, Fisher?" The Art of Enemy Taunts
I can't think of another game so destroyed by its dialogue as Splinter Cell: Conviction; not by bad lines alone (which are nothing novel in gaming) but by the way Ubisoft's designers and programmers used them.

It could live on, maybe, as a cautionary tale in design meetings: "your idea would poison our game, sure as secondary dialogue killed Conviction!" It struck me because secondary dialogue is a subject I know a little about.

Secondary dialogue, or situational dialogue, means lines shouted by the doomed, samefaced individuals who jump boldly in front of the player's gun; lines like "You just fucked with the wrong Russian!" or "You shot me right in my Russian knees!" or "I die, so far from my homeland, Russia!" (I'm not making fun of the nice Russian dude who commented on my last post; a lot of shooter villains are Russian.) The lines will stay more like 5-7 words long, because the gamer is in the shooting-people business, not the listening-to-monologues business. (The casting business?) Sandbox games offer more flexibility for the writer, but feature more NPC personas and many more lines to write. Basically, this is the low-rent dialogue, the writing done in bulk by interns, assistant writers, and whoever else steps in when the overworked lead writer doesn't have time to stare at an Excel spreadsheet that demands 5 different lines for 40 different actions for 50 different personas. And I was one of those interns*!

Two-Fisted Tales of Internship

This marginal dialogue is rarely done well. Before outlining my reasons for thinking so, a disclaimer: because the stories in this post come from my own experience, they offer an undoubtedly distorted view of games like The Punisher, which I worked on for a few months, but others worked on for years. I'm not trying to color anyone's impressions of these games by discussing their development, I'm only using them to talk about dialogue in general terms. My impression is that all people are terrible at judging the quality of their own work, or the quality of projects they've been involved in, so I'll try to avoid that.

Secondary dialogue signals AI state changes, like the transition from suspicion ("That the fascist footsteps of Frank Castle!") to aggression ("Enjoy my aimless spray of bullets, Castle!"). Strangely, these lines are thought to add atmosphere. I have no theory about the origins of this common belief; secondary dialogue is more likely to kill immersion than enhance it.

It makes no sense for your opponents to crow about how unafraid they are, when the player character is the most terrifying murder machine these poor bastards will ever encounter. Often the NPCs seem weirdly familiar with the protagonist — many sentences look better on paper if they address someone else, so you tag a name on the end of them, like "Fisher" or "Castle." (Whether these lines sound right when spoken out loud is up for debate.) It's hard to imagine the personality that would keep up a stream of wisecracks and threats while being hunted down by a remorseless, silent being, but, somehow, that personality is everywhere. In games, it's the very definition of a criminal mind.

"You Gonna Read This, Fisher?" The Art of Enemy Taunts

Most people wouldn't taunt this individual.

Resource limitations, not writers, create the framework for these lines, and that's most of the problem. You've probably heard that action creates character. And, obviously, context shapes dialogue. You can't tell a joke without context; you need a setup and a payoff. Even a non sequitur requires context, an established topic to be irrelevant to. But situational lines are defined too loosely to give you any of that. You don't know the specifics of what the player might be doing, or what exactly the persona is reacting to. (It's not doable to stream a ton of very specific conditions and separate line pools off the disc.) The persona's behavior is generic, so their character must also be generic. That's why these lines usually suck.

Picture this: you come up with one of the 5 lines that Russian #3 might say when the player gives him a non-fatal wound. He shouts defiantly: "It'll grow back!" That's not ha-ha funny, but it might work in-game. Of course, it depends on how the voice actor delivers it, which will happen months from now at a voice acting session you won't attend (unless we assume you are the lead writer). You just wrote five variations on "I'm reloading like a champ!", so this reptile joke seems like a step up. (There are far fewer ways to say "cover me while I reload" than there are to say "I love you." Besides, most of the alternate ways people list to say "I love you" either involve more than 7 words or some specific action, and we don't have the resources for that.)

But does the line really make sense? Limbs don't fly off in this game, so there's no visual to counterpoint Russian 3's bravado. If the player just shot Russian 3 in the dick, this line could be a home run, but you're not working with that level of specificity. The only lines you can imagine that would make sense in every situation where the dialogue could be triggered bore you to tears.

There's so much material, you're bound to find some redundancy. Steve Jaros, writer of the Saints Row games, once found that while working separately we had each written, virtually word-for-word, the same combat line for different Rich Guy personas: "It's come down to fisticuffs, has it?" I don't know how many lines were written for Saints Row, but there were at least, as Marcus Fenix would say, "ten shitloads." Steve showed me the master audio spreadsheet once, and it had so many columns in it that Excel had stopped letting them create more columns. Like Bubble Bobble, Excel does have an ending, but almost nobody sees it.

A lack of specificity in trigger descriptions can also muck things up: maybe when a programmer and writer hashed out the conditions for lines to play, they recorded these conditions imprecisely, there was some misunderstanding, or the AI behavior was changed later on in the project. In Saints Row, there's one line that plays for a cop persona if you shoot his partner: "He was just two days from retirement!" (Or something very like that.) At least, I think the written description said it would play when you shoot his partner. In the finished game it plays if you shoot anyone within a generous radius of the cop. If you shoot an investment banker crossing the street, the cop will yell at you about his retirement. This might be hilarious — what the hell, why did the cop know so much about that random dude? It doesn't work as intended, though.

Possible ESRB reactions are a delightful source of speculation for creators of games like The Punisher and Saints Row. The ESRB's rating committees supposedly come from a pool of individuals in different professions (no word on whether they do a better job of this than the MPAA), so maybe you'll draw a fireman, lawyer, schoolteacher, whatever. But it was pretty clear that unless The Punisher rolled a committee of 3 state executioners, it was skirting an AO rating — and of course, Wal-Mart won't sell an AO title. So I got a couple of instructions to retailor dialogue to suit anticipated demands from the ESRB. These were not explicit orders from the organization (unlike applying a black-and-white filter and changing the camera during environmental kills, which was necessary to avoid AO), but they stemmed from accumulated industry wisdom about dealing with the ESRB, so I believe there's truth to them. I also think similar concerns inform writing at other companies.

The first instruction was superficial — I was told to reduce the number of times I used "fuck" in the dialogue. Apparently, my writing had led to line pools containing an unacceptable probability that when the player entered a room, everyone in it might scream the word "fuck" at the same time. One guy might shout "Holy fucking shit, it's the Punisher!", another "Oh God, he'll fuck our eyes right out of our skulls!" and a third, "We're double fucked this time, chaps!" I happen to think this is a pretty realistic reaction if confronted by the Punisher, but I was told that it's really a problem to have so many fucks flying around at the same time. The unthinkable concentration of profanity in this possible fuck-event could send the dainty fingers of the ESRB panel straight to the big red AO buzzer. In retrospect I'm sure that trimming the fuck-count was the right call — better than Kingpin levels of cursing at least — but the reasoning behind it stayed with me.

The second directive is vastly more important, and I often remember it when I play games like Conviction. This will go a bit broader than secondary dialogue, but that's where it starts. Concern arose after I had written some of the many, many "interrogation" lines in The Punisher that play as your torture people. I would sometimes write personas who really couldn't handle the outlandish shit they were being subjected to — I'm a human being too, look into your heart, who will feed my cat when I'm gone, etc. etc. It was something that came up in the comics all the time. Bad guys beg for their lives, Castle don't care. These interrogation lines were meant to be darkly humorous, as the player would kill everyone no matter what they said.

I was told to rewrite the lines where anyone expressed a strong desire not to die. It was "sadistic" to kill people who directly asked you not to kill them. This sort of sadism is exactly the stuff that gets us a red flag from the ESRB. I felt pretty bad about this — I had written sadistic material! — before I thought about it. The thinking was, it wasn't sadistic to create elaborate torture sequences as a heavily marketed feature; it was sadistic for the people being tortured to death to raise objections. It was sadistic to suggest that the individuals you killed had resembled human beings, that they were afraid to die.

I thought I was just following through with the concept, but I learned that in games (unlike film or literature), a torture scene must be handled with care. My poorly-conceived dialogue had inadvertently crossed a line developers don't like to go near in their presentation of death. It's all fun and games even after somebody loses an eye; but if a character gets really upset about losing that eye, that might put players on edge. There are plenty of games that claim to be disturbing, but I've seen few willing to take gamers outside their comfort zone.

Don't believe me? So, how many kids did you kill during the "No Russian" mission in MW2? From what I can see, there were no kids in that entire airport...which is a little unlikely, from what I know of airports. Of course, it would be in terribly bad taste if MW2 let you to kill children; that would be awfully disturbing. And Infinity Ward didn't really want to give you pause, not like that, oh no. If they actually wanted to guilt-trip you, they would have broken the long-standing kid-killing taboo in modern games (only kinda sorta broken bloodlessly in Bioshock).

Including kids in cinematic massacres is a cheap trick dating back to that baby carriage on the Odessa steps in 1925. But games don't, or can't, take that risk. People begging for their lives, or kids being killed, likely means a straight-up AO from the ESRB no matter what the context. Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo might not even allow you to publish a game for their systems if it contains that sort of material (console manufacturers have testing departments that approve or reject every game submitted by developers for said console, and they provide a list of things to fix, organized by priority, after a game is "bounced" from this process). The "No Russian" mission is bullshit for a lot of reasons, but most amazing to me was the uproar over such a sanitized presentation.

After my original less-than-immortal prose was revised out, The Punisher replaced the sadistic suggestion in its dialogue with a masochistic element. You enter a world where people were almost eager to be killed, just waiting to be fed into wood chippers and have their hearts cut out with a jagged Aztec knife. (They do tend to hang out conveniently around these kill-zones, and they don't put up much resistance once you start feeding them in.) The bad guys sometimes dare you to do it.

Sample scenes from The Punisher**:

"You Gonna Read This, Fisher?" The Art of Enemy Taunts

"Fuck you, fish! I ate a million of you, and you'll only get one of me! Drop me in, Castle, send me straight to the big Red Lobster downstairs!"

[laughs good-naturedly as pirahnas consume his face] 

"You Gonna Read This, Fisher?" The Art of Enemy Taunts

"You think I don't love bashing my forehead against glass, Castle? I eat glass for breakfast! I chew it with my eyelids!"

"You Gonna Read This, Fisher?" The Art of Enemy Taunts

"You think I'm gonna miss those legs, Castle? I hated them! I was about to get rid of 'em myself, and now you saved me the trouble!"

I'm not suggesting that this was anything but the right decision for the game Volition wanted to make. They weren't aiming to disturb players who fed characters into wood chippers; they wanted them to have a good time (the players, that is). It was not in the interest of Volition or THQ to tempt the wrath of the ESRB by making a game where the bad guy dialogue urged the player to reconsider their actions. The Punisher

is about killing people in funny ways, and the humor gets a little too black if the people being killed are less cooperative.

I don't mean any of this as criticism of Volition, which as a studio takes writing and voice acting seriously. They do most writing in-house (unlike some AAA developers who use disastrous scripts by outside writers to fill the gaps between missions). Their writers attend design meetings (believe it or not, some game companies that tout integrated writing and design do not do this). They record a huge amount of voiceover, then scrutinize it. But my short time there showed me that game narratives are unexpectedly limited by what ratings boards will accept.

At about 8:15 in this recent Eurogamer TV episode, a BBFC policy advisor mentions "dwelling on the infliction of pain and injury" as a ratings concern, then a few seconds later repeats "sadistic dwelling on pain and injury" as if that was exactly the same. As if showing the consequences of violence was more objectionable than simple gore and killing. If you're really worried about these things, isn't it worse that games present incredible scenes of slaughter without ever reminding you of the humanity of the people dying?

I have no moral objections to pretty much anything done in media, which is an imagined space. I don't care about subject matter in games, whether in Manhunt or Cunt or Six Days in Fallujah, if the game works. (But controversial games usually trumpet their own edginess, and are almost never good.) The objection I raise here isn't really about The Punisher (which I loved working on) but about the ways action games sacrifice the credibility of their worlds to keep the player comfortable.

Splinter Cell: Conviction

Enemies in Conviction are not interested in self-preservation. This is more of an issue, in my view, than many reviews considered. Yeah, a comment about bad dialogue was usually stuffed in somewhere. (Though Yahtzee did ream the game for this in his review, and Simon Parkin spends a paragraph on it.) But the bullet-point framework of criticism used by the general Metacritic review pool doesn't take into account the way different elements of a work interact with each other. In Conviction's case, enemy dialogue interacts with the rest of the game by fucking ruining it.

Whoever decided how often lines should play in this game (either programmers, writers, audio guys, or everyone together) wanted no dead air. They filled every period of silence with noise, as if they worked in radio. They weren't thinking about how to tell a story or build atmosphere. They were thinking "how can we ensure that sound plays at the times when there might not otherwise be sound?" And maybe also thinking "how can we ensure that the player knows exactly what his enemies are doing at every moment?" Their answer was to trigger dialogue constantly, so that the AI broadcasts its every inane thought at all times. It's a great example of how to approach this kind of writing backwards, allowing it to be driven by technology instead of narrative sense.

They do have a nice little trick of using dialogue unique to the current level; this probably isn't too hard, as long as the same enemy personas don't appear in different levels. Unfortunately, the implementation is blunt, and your enemies' preoccupation with setting is just strange. "You're gonna die here in this museum!" they shout, as if museums were the worst place to die. "This isn't going to be like the airfield!" someone yells, a few levels after the airfield. Why do you think it's different? Because I'm about to kill a noisy jackass at the Washington Monument rather than an airfield?

Conviction is supposedly a stealth game. It's traditional in stealth games for players to move more slowly and pay more attention to their surroundings than in a run-and-gun shooter; accordingly, those surroundings need to be crafted with great attention to detail. Stealth games need complex levels for players to sneak through and AI with sensible patrolling and searching behavior for players to observe. But even if Conviction had these things, players could hardly fail to notice that the enemy behavior made no sense.

How could bad dialogue be a minor issue, when it undermines every situation in the game? The plot loses credibility when your enemies act like morons. The combat/stealthing scenarios you find yourself in stop making sense when your opponents are eager to tell you where they are. They're all but asking you to kill them, like the guys in The Punisher. (It doesn't help that Conviction is easy — I can't remember what the Game Over screen looks like.)

I suspect that this dialogue is the result of a terrible decision rather than a terrible oversight. During development, secondary dialogue is often temp-recorded (either by high-larious office volunteers or local actors) and stuck into the game so that the team can hear it and comment on what an awful job the writer is doing. There's no chance that Conviction made it all the way through its 10 years of development (or whatever) without somebody pointing out "hey, all of our enemies are saying stupid shit and they're saying it all the time." The problem, I would guess, is that the designers had concluded it was better to provide the player with a few extra scraps of information than build environments that made sense. So they threw out  credibility and narrative coherence to make an easy game a little easier.

A few games that did it right

I don't think all secondary dialogue is bad. It's necessary in sandbox games, and can be helpful in action games if designers take time to do it right. The games that do dialogue best, predictably, tend to be those that pay the most attention to every aspect of their presentation. Here's a short list of games that did interesting things:

1. GTA:SA, GTAIV, and especially RDR. Rockstar's skill at dreaming up clever pedestrian lines is unmatched, but in my opinion they really hit their stride with SA. If you look at the credits for RDR, you'll see that like 20 people are credited with "Additional Dialogue"; having a bunch of people work part-time on dialogue works better than a few full-timers, who will run out of ideas.  

RDR appears to have separate line pools for individual characters, whose names are visible during duels and card games (like the racist conspiracy theorist who kept warning about "the Jews" as I played poker in Armadillo). The downside to this cool idea is that the line pools remain fairly small, so you get the same lines over and over: hearing "that old-timer done shit himself agin" over and over as I played Liars' Dice drove me nuts***.

2. Bioshock. The Splicer dialogue is creepy as hell, and benefits from being hard to understand.

3. The Uncharted series. Naughty Dog seems to script tons of lines for the protagonist(s) to shift focus away from what enemies are saying. The writer then has a very clear situation to work in, and maybe fewer lines to write in total, if they don't have to write as much random enemy chatter. This (along with the talent of their writers and actors) works to great effect in Uncharted 2, where the script is polished and well-timed. As I understand it, most developers don't do as much of this because scripters will scream bloody murder about it, as the scripting for all levels in development changes constantly and fixing every line is a time-consuming chore.

If you remember other games that did a nice job with secondary dialogue (again, fully-voiced dialogue drawn from a pool of interchangeable lines) mention it in the comments; I'm sure I missed many good examples. 

Update: At the risk of making this post even more sprawling, here's a partial run-down of other games with well-done secondary dialogue that have been suggested in reddit comments and personal emails, but haven't shown up in the comments below:

4. Half-Life 2: Commenters unchow, polpi, and my friend Zack Kimble thought of the radio communications between Combine soldiers. unchow writes: "The Combine situational dialogue isn't directed at Gordon, it's radio chatter spoken to other Combine, and that female voice giving orders and information to the Combine in the field. And that's the only thing that makes sense in that context."

5. Psychonauts and Brutal Legend: Commenter watercup suggests these for "terrific" random lines, and also mentions Telltale's recent Tales of Monkey Island and The Devil's Playhouse.

6. Far Cry: On reddit, avatar00 writes that "the mercenaries would have side conversations about their lives that made them feel like they weren't actually replaceable. Also, the secondary dialogue changed from them not giving a second thought about killing the random guy to actively fearing your presence as the game progressed."

7. TF2 and L4D: Forbizzle suggests these, as does Brady in the comments below. I hadn't thought much about multiplayer games in writing this post, as I usually imagine secondary dialogue coming from NPCs and enemies. But these games' "contextual dialogue," as Forbizzle puts it, is amazing and deserves mention. In L4D, the writing works so deftly that I never mind the characters talking so much. Valve kept the contextual lines brief and functional ("Reloading!" or "Pills here!") and balanced them out with the witty scripted conversations that reveal the survivors' personalities.

*I was an assistant writer on The Punisher, Saints Row, and Red Faction: Guerrilla. Don't ask about the punctuation of "Saints Row," I had nothing to do with that. Disclosure: my father was a writer at Volition at the time, which certainly helped get my foot in the door.

**Not actual dialogue. I'm sure in trying to come up with intentionally bad lines as examples for this post, I've replicated things I once wrote with a straight face. But I'm exaggerating, obviously: not every persona will egg you on, and they will often say things like "Alright, I'll tell you whatever you want!" But they won't say "Oh God, please please don't kill me!"

***Liars' Dice wasn't really a big thing in Texas saloons in 1911, was it? Kind of expected they'd be playing faro or some other impenetrable game.

Update: Reddit commenter Forbizzle points out Idle Thumbs' hilarious improvisation on the same airfield lines in Conviction, about 3/4 of the way through their podcast "Remember The Airfield."

Republished with permission from Post Hype.

Chris Breault is a gamer and freelance writer. He writes about games at, and replies to emails sent to

Team Fortress 2

Distilled To A Purer Substance
Have you ever played a game where the minigames or secondary goals were more exciting and compelling than the rest of the entire game?

It doesn't happen often, but it happens. Through extensive research (asking my friends), I've found that this varies in a highly personal way. I had a friend in high school who could never get enough of KOTOR's Pazaak, which I hated. Whenever I played that minigame I was just dicking around with extra credits, but he had a real strategy and everything! Gosh! And while I absolutely adored the underground mining game in Pokemon Diamond and Pearl, I know a number of people who thought it was incredibly stupid. Kent loves scanning planets in Mass Effect 2; I've only done it for maybe twenty minutes, and I find it dull. On the other hand, I found hunting for arrowheads in Psychonauts to be pretty entertaining-I mean, I spent as long a time amassing a grossly enormous fortune in that game as I spent trying to beat the Meat Circus level. And Meat Circus is a crazy.

Why do we do this? I suppose if the satisfaction we get from doing ‘trivial' and secondary tasks in games is high enough, and if the effort it would take to ‘play the game properly' is too excessive, we'll all just sit around and do the trivial stuff instead.  Which sounds a bit cold and mathematical, but there you go. It's not too much of a mystery why these things happen. I could wax philosophical about the nature of these appealing little secondary games, but they're not really so mysterious either: they've got highly appealing sunk effort/returned reward ratios. And all that jazz.

I think the real question is: why don't we have games for these trivial things, if we enjoy them so much? Why do they need to be secondary? I mean, narrative, pretty pictures, and man-shooting are clearly no longer the hallowed characteristics of ‘real successful games.' What if we could take these big-name games and reduce them down to their secondary objectives– what if my friend could have a game of just Pazaak? What if I could take all the games where I've ever been distracted by a crazy secondary objective and imagine new, ridiculous games out of them?

Er, I can imagine that. Here they go.

Distilled To A Purer Substance

Oblivion becomes: Herbalist Adventure

The most compelling thing about Oblivion is the alchemy.

Yes. I actually believe this. Out of the nearly 100 hours I have spent playing Oblivion in the past year, about 50 of those must have been spent entirely on collecting and combining plants, herbs, fruits, and bits of dead foes into potions. I don't think I've ever gone past the bit in the story where you're on the snowy mountain where the Blades are at. I did that part only once. All the rest of my characters are soft, pasty fellows with ridiculously good alchemy levels and backpacks full to bursting with every possible kind of plant. I once camped out in the basement of a townhouse, hidden in the shadows while the occupants ate dinner mere inches from my face, waiting for them to leave so I could steal their potatoes and make potions of shield out of them. It was my most epic heist ever, even beyond the Thieves' guild!

Furthermore, I don't even use the potions I make: I just carry them around. There's a character from a famous Jack London short story who hoards insane quantities of food: he basically sleeps on a mattress of biscuits. See, I imagine my Oblivion characters sleeping in glass nests made up of glimmering bottles. The moonlight on the bottles, the strange cordials and elixirs sloshing about with the tiny movements of sleep, and all that. I mean, he's got to protect them somehow. And it's picturesque, no?

Herbalist Adventure would be my favorite game of all time. You'd be practically helpless: a weakling lost in a VAST world (let's make it much bigger than Oblivion; make this a Just Cause-sized world, a huge thing with a million different kinds of plants). Your only skill: the ability to turn flowers into juices. All combat-what little of it there'd actually be-would be enabled by the crazy cocktail of stimulants and steroids you'd chug before every encounter. See a kobold? DRINK THAT POTION OF STRENGTH! DRINK TWELVE! While you're at it, drink fifteen potions of shield, a potion of accuracy, a potion of Learn to Swordfight, and a Potion That Gives You a Magic Sword. Boom. All ready to go. You'd spend most of the time just skulking around in the bushes, gathering plants, admiring the scenery, researching and cooking up batches of Magical Buff Stew whenever you find a safe place. You'd cook amazing potions-potions that let you fly or run at a million miles per hour or clone yourself or breathe in lava or eat whole trees or tame bears or summon Panzer tanks or talking whales. But mostly it would be beautiful and calming-mostly it would be zen, my friends. It would be gorgeous.

Distilled To A Purer Substance

Pokemon Diamond and Pearl become: Magic Dwarf Crystal Garden Tales

I already mentioned that I adore that mining minigame. I also adore Dwarf Fortress. I also adore Minecraft. It all makes sense: I must secretly want to play a game where you adventure in tunnels and grow crystal gardens. Yes. But not like those silly crystal gardens we used to have in the nineties: those are shit. I mean: great caverns of dagger-sharp gems! You'd have to travel around and water them with magic chemicals or whatever and harvest them later. Like Farmville with its guaranteed success, I suppose-but I wouldn't have any of that schedule-your-life-to-the-game nonsense.

No, I'd have giant cave spiders or sand worms or goblins instead. So: the Pokemon mining game mixed with survival horror. Occasionally, you'd have to craft weapons out of the gems and protect your farms from the invaders with cunning traps and desperate barricades. Multiplayer play could be a Garden Siege Mode, or something: people would try to invade each other's magic underground wonderlands with some kind of stealth mechanic.

Yes. Just take the whole Pokemon overworld away. I want my gem gardens and I want my secret bases and I want my capture-the-flag games. I want my silly underground time-wastey tomfoolery, please, but more awesome. Can that happen?

Distilled To A Purer Substance

Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 become: My Alien Girlfriend 1 and 2

Okay, I don't actually want to play this game. But I know people who would! I remember when ME2 came out, all sorts of people were twittering things like "JUST NAILED ALL THESE ALIEN LADIES, WOOO" and I kept thinking things like "Oh my god, Bioware are such a horrible bunch of dicks! They've destroyed love! With a video game!"

But it's not true. They haven't. The universe continues to be not such a terrible place after all. What it needs, though, is a game where this absurd repressed sexual tension can be truly exploited.

What we need is a game where the whole point is for Man-Shepherd to have sex with alien chicks. Apparently, for maximum success, it must actually be Man-Shepherd in the title role. Not a new IP! Either that, or we need a spinoff of Fable 2 where the whole point is to marry people and then have sex with them. Admit it: you have a lady/man/both in every town in that game, don't you? I'm under the impression that most people do. Is it too tempting? Is that what the deal is? Anyway, clearly we need a western game specifically for this kind of stuff. The Japanese have already got this shit figured out, guys.

Distilled To A Purer Substance

Team Fortress 2 becomes: My Hometown Haberdasher

Hats. Whole game is: receiving hats. You run around in a big room with every other online player and trade hats with each other. You can hang out with guys who have the same hats as you. Or maybe you can do a fashion show while wearing a neat hat, or design your own hat? I don't know. Just hats.

Hats. Whole game is wearing silly hats.

Alternately, we could be talking about a game I suggested in the comments to my last post: a game where you simply customize characters. Like the Spore Creature Creator, the whole point would be to give you extensive control over the appearance of some in-game avatar. People love messing around with that stuff: I hear stories from friends who take forever to design the perfect Sim, or the perfect Fallout character, and so on. Clearly, we need more games which make this obsession with avatar appearance more central– games which transform it from petty fiddling into an actual game mechanic. I remember that a young friend of my family's used to be hugely into Gaia online, and from what I saw of it, that game seemed to tap into this customization desire pretty well: the whole point was to get points to buy clothes with, I think. So: games like that, but not totally stupid. A MMO character creator crossed with Spore? Can it happen? I think so.

The mechanics of this imaginary game would revolve around this appearance: you'd have to manipulate it to defeat your enemies. The game I suggested in the post comments was a professional wrestling game where the point was to design a stage presence that would resonate with fans. Best resonance would make your agent cast you as the winner in the staged fight: the better you fine-tuned your look and style to your target demographic, the more often you'd be the winner. Look terrible, and you'd be the heel. You'd spend hours in the editor before every match, fiddling with hair and clothes and catch-phrases and things like that. There could be epic campaign modes, people.

Or could we have something like that with just hats, though? Please?

Republished with permission.

Laura Michet is a student and a writer and a gamer, sometimes, but definitely not always, in that order. You can see some of the things she and her friend Kent Sutherland have written about games at, and find her on Twitter at @lmichet.


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