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GDC 2014: Engineering Better Dialogue

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There’s a reason Bioware is recognized as one of the strongest presences in the world of video game narrative, writing, and dialogue, and unsurprisingly it’s because they value the text just as much as they do the polygons, textures, and other technical aspects. Sheri Graner Ray, CEO of Zombie Cat Games, and Jennifer Brandes Hepler, whose writing credits include Dragon Age Origins, Dragon Age 2, and Shadowrun, spoke at GDC 2014. They broke down some general guidelines for writing dialogue in games, specifically Bioware-style games and MMOs, and had some very useful tips for games writers and anyone else interested in the process of writing compelling dialogue for characters.

As you may have guessed, dialogue trees have what they referred to as pinch points, where all your decisions ultimately funnel into the essential quest or info that moves the plot or story forward. The challenge is getting to this pinch point without destroying the player’s illusion that they are in control. For the talk they used the classic example of the NPC who orders you to go kill some rats, illustrating that how you frame the request and when you present the info makes all the difference.

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To help build this illusion, Sheri and Jennifer explained that there are generally three player types that need to be accommodated in the dialogue options:

-The Eager Player: Just wants the necessary info to move forward, not interested in much else.

-The What’s in it For Me Player: A player who wants more information before accepting; specifically, knowing what the rewards are.

-The Aggressive Player: Refuses to to do everything, trolls NPCs, but still needs to progress in the game.

They also had a solid series of dos and don’ts for aspiring games writers or anyone else who enjoys digging into the dialogue of the games they play:


  • When writing video game dialogue trees, think of it like playing Jeopardy

Work backward from the base quest requirement -- for example, killing 12 rats -- and create questions that naturally lead to the answer. Start at the end of the conversation with the key info and work backward.

  • Create a Conversation Hook

Have the player overhear the beginning of the plot before they’ve decided to engage the plotline/quest. Give the NPC sympathy by making them seem at least a little proactive.

  • Create a Quest Hook

This needs to characterize the NPC and make the player care about their problem. Also needs to give the critical info that moves the plot forward. Ensure that there is an immediate call to action.

  • Make two full drafts: one for the NPC to ensure they are interesting and fleshed out, and then one for the player, focused exclusively on giving them the information they need.


  • Don’t make the player endure conversations that don’t have a point.

If it can be removed without affecting the game, take it out.

  • Don't include information dumps/walls of text

Don’t force your lore and backstory upon players; they should always be the ones moving the conversation forward, and slowing down to force them to read an NPC’s history should always be optional.

  • Don't include spoon-fed choices

Make the player feel autonomous, like they are actively choosing to move the conversation forward.

  • Don't include text options like “Next” or “Tell me More”

Forcing the player to interact passively with what you’ve written pulls them out of the game and bores them. The player has to be the core of the conversation, not the NPC.

  • Confusing goals

Ending the conversation without the player knowing what to do is a big mistake. Include the essential information right before the player’s interaction occurs in the dialogue tree to ensure that they see it.

Video games require a special style of writing, and adhering to these tips will go a long way to keep the player invested in your world and moving forward. A big thanks to Sheri and Jennifer for the talk, and make sure to follow them on Twitter: @twylite1 and @JBHepler.

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