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 noise...like 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.
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**:
"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 think I don't love bashing my forehead against glass, Castle? I eat glass for breakfast! I chew it with my eyelids!"
"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."
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