What Makes RPG Dialogue Great (And How It Can Go Wrong)

What Makes RPG Dialogue Great (And How It Can Go Wrong)

We spend a lot of time watching video game characters talk.

Sometimes they’re perched in dimly-lit inns, plotting out their next moves over frosty mugs of Genuine Medieval Ale. Other times they’re exchanging snarky quips between rounds of troll-hunting or alien-squashing. Or sharing awkward pleasantries afterrobotic sexual encounters.

Japanese role-playing games are especially dialogue-heavy. When we’re not watching our characters talk, we’re seeking out new conversations; if you enter a town and don’tgo around starting chats with everybody you see, you’re totally doing it wrong. Non-player characters usually have interesting or at least helpful things to say about a given situation. When they don’t, we get mad. It feels like a waste of our time, a disrespectful abuse of an important gaming ritual. It’s frustrating.

(Incidentally, I’ve never seen an RPG that tries to justify these non-stop verbal volcanos. It’s never quite clear why random people are always willing to jabber at your character before he or she says so much as hi. And how the hell does your entire party fit into one tiny little tent? Let’s move on.)

But for something we spend so much time reading and watching, dialogue is sure hard to properly analyze. What makes a given line or scene interesting? What makes it work? What makes it not work? What makes you want to chuck your computer at the screen and tell Vincent Valentine to stop whining about how sad his life is?

It’s tough to pinpoint exactly what makes dialogue flow, which may be why we’re so quick to jump to easy adjectives like good, bad, and all of their respective synonyms when we describe the way characters are written. It’s also tough to look at dialogue as an objective art; like food or paintings, your average character’s line could be delectable to some people and dull to others.

Like any good video game, great dialogue has a certain flow.

But there are tricks. Rules. Rhythm, for example: like any good video game, great dialogue has a certain flow. Words bounce and move in certain directions, with certain cadences and beats. You can tell when the pulse isn’t there.

Sometimes this rhythm is achieved through mirroring language, synonyms or antonyms that echo and play off one another like dance partners at a ball. “Such a big sword for such a small girl,” a character might say. Other times it’s about striking balance between long and short sentences: “My life is a chip in your pile. Ante up!”

Some game designers even play around with what the video game form can do to the rhythm of dialogue. In the adorable lawyer sim Phoenix Wright series, for example, text makes bleeping and blooping noises that vary speeds depending on how fast a given conversation is moving. And the music pulses alongside the beat.

Sharp writers have mastered techniques like the rule of three, a well-regarded principle that can be used both for drama and comedy thanks to its timeless formula: setup, climax, payoff. Sentence construction is made much easier when you have rules to follow.

Dialogue in a video game, like dialogue in a movie or a television show, should ideally sound like real life, but smarter. This is easier said than done. It’s particularly hard for video games that take place on planets full of elves and space orcs and magical crystals. It takes a certain level of talent to make dialogue sound natural when you’re stuck with names like Balthier and Cait Sith.

But even when a line doesn’t sound like something any sane human being would say, it can still be memorable. It can still be catchy. Final Fantasy IV‘s classic “you spoony bard” is part gaffe, part translation quirk, and 100% unforgettable. And it’s hard not to be endeared when FFVI‘s Kefka spits out ridiculous half-curses like “son of a submariner.”

Let’s look at some dialogue in action. Take a look at these lines from Lunar 2: Eternal Blue, a wonderful classic JRPG that was released for the Sega Saturn and then again for the PlayStation in 2000. Some background: you’ve just met a wayfaring gambler named Ronfar, who has agreed to join your party and help you save. This is because Ronfar is a good guy, but it’s also because he feels extraordinarily guilty about his inability to save his lover, Mauri, when she suffered some mysterious illness a few years back. (There’s more to the story, but I won’t spoil it here.)

Here’s what he says (to himself) a few minutes after agreeing to help you out:

What Makes RPG Dialogue Great (And How It Can Go Wrong)What Makes RPG Dialogue Great (And How It Can Go Wrong)

There are two main problems with these lines:

1. They’re completely on-the-nose. There’s nothing to think about, nothing to infer. Ronfar is saying how he feels when he should be showing how he feels.

2. Who the hell would actually say something like “All that I care about now are the dice”? Even as an internal monologue, it just sounds clunky. Say it out loud. It’s tough to get through. Ronfar might be trying to convince himself to forget about Mauri and whatever psychological issues he’s associated with her trauma, but these few lines just don’t feel natural. They don’t feel like something anyone would think to themselves.

Not to pick on Lunar: Eternal Blue, a game chock full of hilarious writing and charming characters, but it’s this sheer lack of subtlety that often hurts JRPGs. People don’t say what they’re thinking. We don’t need to see what goes on inside their heads. And if we do need to peer into their internal monologues, we should see something a little more interesting than blunt variations on “here’s how I feel right now!”

Ultimately, dialogue is at its best when you don’t even notice that it’s there. If a writer is doing his or her job well, you won’t spend time thinking things like “what a witty line” or “that language sure felt clunky.” You’ll just think of a game’s characters as people on your screen, people with personality traits and quirks and interesting things to say. They’ll just feel real.


Source: Kotaku

Four Reasons You’re In Love With That JRPG Character

Four Reasons You're In Love With That JRPG Character

When I was a kid, I used to spend almost every summer at day camp. I’d ride the bus up across the Tappan Zee Bridge to upper-lowstate New York, where I was unceremoniously dumped on the grounds and told to go hang out with the other kids in my age group. We’d run around fields and go swimming and play basketball and just generally frolic around, being kids.

But I didn’t want to play sports or hunt for weird animals in the lake. I wanted to think about video game characters. They were more interesting than the people around me. And since I couldn’t spend all day in front of my Super Nintendo, I’d hang out with a small group of close friends and we’d all pretend to be characters from our favorite Japanese role-playing games. I was Shadow.

Today, I don’t spend a lot of time pretending to be video game characters. But I do spend a lot of time thinking about what makes video game characters work.

See, the word “compelling” has become something of a buzzword in today’s gaming industry, but it’s a fitting adjective for great gaming characters. A good character is interesting, relatable, sympathetic, entertaining, and just all around badass. Even the silly ones.

But what makes a character resonate with an audience? Why do we care about the people we play? What makes us want to pretend we’re them, even when we’re away from our television screens?

Here are four potential explanations for what makes a JRPG character compelling.

(And, yes, these reasons can apply to all games, not just JRPGs. But this is a JRPG column. So.)

They’re Really, Really Good At What They Do

As a general rule, human beings are attracted to skill. We’re drawn to people who are capable of feats we can’t accomplish, whether that’s climbing up mountains or sorting through tax code. We’re even willing to forgive or ignore a character’s more despicable traits, if he or she is remarkable in some way. It’s why we fall in love with the superstar thief, the hardened killer. The criminal mastermind.

Maybe that’s why I dig Final Fantasy VI‘s Shadow oh so much. He might have been a coldhearted, nasty piece of work (who would “sell his own mama for a nickel,” according to another character), but he was one hell of an assassin. He knew his shit.

Cloud Strife (Final Fantasy VII) is in a similar boat. He’s whiny. Often annoying. But damn if he isn’t one hell of a mercenary, capable of all sorts of near-impossible acrobatic moves and tricky sword techniques. He’s got balls. He’s willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish his goals, even if that means dressing up like a woman to do it. Why wouldn’t any RPG fan want to be like him?

And there’s that whole save-the-world thing. (Even if he couldn’t save Aeris.)

They Have Genuine Flaws

We fall in love with characters we can relate to. And we relate to characters who share the same flaws and weaknesses that we do.

Look at Junpei, the bumbling goofball (and overall terrible student) who serves as one of your closest friends in Persona 3. He plays both comic relief and actual human being, showing the type of fear, humor, lust, and overall laziness that we can imagine we’d feel if we were in his situation, forced to battle demons after school every day.

Suikoden II‘s Jowy is as flawed as a character gets. His misguided beliefs about the inevitability of war wind up triggering a bloody, multi-year brawl that costs tens of thousands of lives. His mistakes cause nothing but heartbreak for your protagonist and everybody around him. But by the end of the game, we can forgive Jowy for what he did. We can forgive his transgressions because we see part of ourselves in his decisions—we totally understand that he plotted to take down an empire and stick himself in charge because he thought it was the only way to maintain peace. We can relate.

They Make Us Laugh

It’s hard not to immediately fall in love with Estelle Bright, the peppy protagonist of The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky. She’s the type of character who always has something amusing to say, no matter how dire the circumstances. She’ll crack jokes in the face of dangerous bosses and insurmountable obstacles. You’d want to hang out with her.

Final Fantasy XII‘s Balthier, one of the most beloved characters in RPG history, is an all-time favorite because he knows how to make you laugh. He’s a constant waterfall of charm, always offering some sort of witty quip or harmless sexual barb to lighten FFXII‘s overwrought tension. You might not want him around your girlfriend (or boyfriend), but you’d definitely share a beer or three.

The minds behind the various Mario RPGs have also mastered this idea, peppering their characters with warm humor that never gets old. Although the plumber himself never talks, his pantomimes and bizarre movements are as entertaining as it gets. You wouldn’t mind sitting in an audience and watching him goof around for hours on end.

As in real life, we fall for JRPG characters who know how to keep us amused. We love them because we’d love to chill with them.

They Don’t Have Voice Acting

Seriously.look, I went to film school. I’ve seen student movies. I know how tough it is to bring a character to life with nothing but a voice. And I know how many people fail at it.

But as disconcerting as it is to play a game without voice acting nowadays, a bad piece of vocal work does more harm than good. Grating, unappealing voices are a good way to turn an audience against a character and even a whole game. Just ask Infinite Undiscovery. Even when it’s tolerable on the ears, voice acting drowns out the awesome tunes and tracks that makeJRPGs really special.

Bad vocals can undermine just about every other aspect of a great game. They can make a game hard to sit through, embarrassing to play, and just straight-up unpleasant to experience. Can you think of a single great character with an awful voice actor? It’s a shame more JRPGs aren’t willing to keep quiet.


Source: Kotaku