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Dear Writers, Don’t Neglect Ambient Dialogue

It can be easy to forget those little conversations, but they can make all the difference.
This article is over 10 years old and may contain outdated information

Having recently played through Square Enix’s new Thief reboot, I was struck by a moment early in the game’s first few missions. I was sneaking through part of the city, near to the docks, minding my own business, hoping that no one would mind if I casually snuck into some poor mug’s house and stole the gold (gold!) cutlery set that was neatly laid out on the table.

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Down below me were a group of guards doing the rounds. There were quite a few of them, and when they walked past each other they would stop and have a little chat. I can’t quite remember what it was about, but it had something to do with some woman’s jewellery going missing I think. Then they’d carry on doing the rounds. Then they’d meet up again, and what would they talk about? The woman’s jewellery. Apparently both men had severe short-term memory loss.  

Considering I was sneaking about swiping multiple sets of cutlery for quite some time, I ended up listening to this same canned conversation about three or four times.

It was only about two lines of dialogue, but what it managed to do is completely destroy any sense of immersion that the game had managed to conjure up prior to that point. No longer were these guards actual guards, they were just drones; little more than Shadow and Pokey from Pac-Man, waiting to gobble me up if I made a mistake.

 The plot might have been stupid, and full to bursting with some dreadful dialogue, but the city itself had plenty of potential to be its own character and draw the player in.

Granted, I found the game a shallow, boring trudge with an unlikable main character, and a plot that seemed to be making itself up as it went along; but the one thing that it did have was a brooding Gothic city and bucket loads of atmosphere. All it needed to do was keep the facade up long enough to trick me into pretending this was an actual city. The plot might have been stupid, and full to bursting with some dreadful dialogue, but the city itself had plenty of potential to be its own character and draw the player in.

Unfortunately, I never felt this and in large part I blame that on the writing, and in particular the ambient dialogue.

I never got the sense that this was a city full of different people. Instead I just heard a few boring titbits about some missing loot that so-and-so had dropped or how someone had caught this plague that was going around. The best part however, was how the city was apparently on the brink of revolution.

The revolution in Thief looks like the most underwhelming event in the entire game, considering the only people who ever seemed to rebel were an angry rabble-rouser I kept seeing on the corner of a street, and a violent squad of armed men that had taken it upon themselves to now police the streets. I’m not saying that games writers need to have a degree in Sociology to  accurately depict an armed revolution, but there’s something lacking when the only thing that can be gleaned Thief’s portrayal of the entire event is “if ordinary folk get a whiff of power it’ll send them into a violent and bloody rage.”

Where were the political complexities, or how such an event would affect ordinary people?

How about overhearing a bunch of rebels arguing about whether to use violence or not, or a family that is at risk of being driven apart by their different political beliefs? Not only would something like that be more accurate (protests are rarely one giant omniscient mob of people), but it would have also added texture and drama to a story in a way that wasn’t thrown in front of the players face in a badly directed cut-scene. It could have just been gently blended into the game as a bit of random dialogue that you would have been accidentally overheard.  

The same goes for the fact that ordinary citizens in The City are suffering from a plague. There’s the odd little conversation you can overhear about it, but we never really get a sense from the way people are talking or behaving that this is something new and threatening. It just seems to have been placed into the story to ramp up the stakes. It kind of reminded me of The Phantom Menace, where we were told lots of things but never actually shown them.

Here again, a little bit of dialogue could have gone a long way.

Snatches of conversation could have enlightened gamers about someone trying to smuggle in a new (probably fake) cure, or maybe we could have heard a doctor trying to explain to their patient that things aren’t going to get any better. Better yet, how about we actually see people suffering from the disease being herded off by the city watch. We could have had some townsfolk cough and then nervously attempt to cover it up. Instead we have a guard coughing and then, in the most bored tone possible, wonders aloud whether he’s infected with the plague.

Little bits of random dialogue and small events really help immerse us into an environment. A lot of the time, I think games writers forget about how important these bits of dialogue are simply because they’re so low-key. These aren’t the dramatic turning points of the game’s plot, but just little everyday things that can make a virtual world feel just that bit more real. I suppose it’s like working as an extra on a movie or TV show; it’s not always going to be the most exciting job, but it’s necessary in order to create a believable world.

When done right ambient dialogue can add so much.

Some of the random scraps of dialogue that Ellie and Joel in The Last of Us adds a lot to how we view them as characters. When Joel admits he’s stolen and killed in order to survive, it adds another layer of complexity to his character–whilst Ellie’s naïvety is shown through how she reacts to buildings and places she’s never come across before; such as when the pair arrive at a hotel and she has no idea what a hotel is.  

There’s no perfect “right” way to do this kind of dialogue, and I do think it can be more difficult to make work than a normal conversation in a cut-scene, but overall it’s what makes game worlds that much more believable. I mean, what do you remember of Skyrim‘s conversations? It’s not the main plot, or even one of the other questlines, it’s the fact that every guard you meet has had an arrow through their knee and now they’re no longer an adventurer.

With open world games becoming increasingly popular, there’s going to be even more worlds in desperate need of some good conversations. After all the epic plots of doom and destruction, and the dramatic internal struggles of the protagonist, I hope someone cares to make sure they give “Dave down the road” a decent line or two of dialogue that he doesn’t happen to spit out every three seconds like an automated Pez dispenser.

It’d make me believe in the world a little more at least.

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