Dialogue Options: Where’s the Rhetoric?

Last year, Stephen Beirne pointed out the way dialogue in video games is treated as an obstacle—not a part of gameplay. Beirne’s right. But, I’m going to look at why Beirne’s right, particularly for games with dialogue menus.

Simulation is not a part of dialogue in video games. Video games do not simulate human everyday dialogue. Normal people say “uhm,” they sneeze snot awkwardly down their face in the middle of conversation, they yawn in the middle of interesting conversations, and they mess up their words. If you’ve seen the L. A. Noire Bloopers / Outtakes video, this should be obvious. But, not doing simulation for dialogue in video games has some important repercussions for what we should expect from video game dialogue.

When simulation is off the table, video game dialogue must only exist to move the plot. Beirne’s point is that dialogue unfortunately works only to move the player to the next gameplay. But, even if video games were to break that old narrative/ludology divide between talking bits and playing bits, the lack of simulation in dialogue means the dialogue must drive the story. Few games break this rule of simulation: Fable 2 and Fable 3 may be good examples of games where you can play through an inane conversation with an NPC—yet, the Fable series doesn’t do simulation of dialogue.

Dialogue that exists only to move the plot is a norm in fiction; however, it coincides with dialogue that develops the characters. This is where video games often fail: They develop one character in dialogue. But, this is made worse in games with dialogue menus.

When games, such as Mass Effect, use dialogue menus, the menu and its resultant dialogue needs to be constructed rhetorically—not just as a fiction dialogue.

An example from Mass Effect makes a good illustration—BUT, Mass Effect isn’t the best game of the generation, especially for representation of communication. After all, this is the series where you spend the majority of a game convincing a group of disparately motivated people to help you by doing quid pro quo missions—because obvious pandering always changes a person’s mind? It’s also the series where an artificial intelligence leading a genocidal army of curators goes through the trouble of wiping sentient life from the galaxy to collect genetic information—because it was too hard to ask? And, it’s the series where the ultimate galactic weapon is a giant microphone that lets a single, sociopathic soldier speak on behalf of the galaxy to an artificial intelligence with social anxiety. So…, let’s say we shouldn’t expect great things:

Early in the game (Vancouver), Shepherd is on board the SSV Normandy SR-2, standing precariously on the open ramp of the hovering space ship; Anderson is standing precariously on a piece of wreckage; Asheley (in this case) is an old friend/old frenemy/complete stranger to the player-character standing near Shepherd. They share the following conversation where the player gets one of the first dialogue menus of the game.

Ashley: Welcome back Shepherd

Shepherd: Thanks

Anderson: Shepherd!

Shepherd: Come on!

Anderson: I’m not going.

Anderson: You saw those men back there. There’s a million more like them, and they need a leader.

Then, dialogue menu appears with “If you stay, I’m staying” or “The hell you’re not.”

No matter which you choose, Shepherd actually says, “We’re in this fight together!” The following conversation is the same for either choice:

Anderson: It’s a fight we can’t win. Not without help. We need every species and all their ships to even have a chance at defeating the reapers. Talk to the Council. Convince them to help us.

Shepherd: What if they won’t listen?

Anderson: Then make them listen. Now go! That’s an order.

Shepherd: I don’t take orders from you anymore, remember?

Anderson: Consider yourself reinstated… Commander! You know what you have to do.

Shepherd: I’ll be back for you. And I’ll bring every fleet I can.

It’s rather lazy that either choice results in the same words from Shepherd—and worse that the conversation does not change at all regardless.

If the dialogue menu’s options don’t have different outcomes (by which I mean different responses—not necessarily different effects), why not stick with scripted dialogue? In a bit of a “Fuck Videogames” moment, Mass Effect 3 is saying “I need you to use a dialogue menu” not “I need you to develop the characters of Anderson and Shepherd with a conflictive dialogue that explains why Shepherd, soldier-extraordinaire, is going to be Earth’s best diplomat suddenly”. As silly as it seems, we’d get a better product, better dialogue, from the latter than the former.

But that’s just good creative writing, not necessarily rhetorically informed. Dialogue menus, especially, need to rhetorical approaches to their writing because the menu, ideally, allows interaction between two agents—the player-character and the NPC.

In the Mass Effect 3 dialogue above, the player-character goes through a false interaction with the NPC Anderson, who does not respond to the player-character but rather provides a small explanation of one part of the plot: You can’t stay here; you have to go there.

Who is Anderson? What are Anderson’s motives for staying behind? Apparently, being a leader in the resistance in Vancouver, but Anderson’s been in Citadel politics, he’s been a Councilor, or been an advisor.

Writing from a rhetorical perspective places both the player-character and the NPC on equal footing, at least in terms of how important each is to the conversation. And, agents in the conversation speak from the context (remember that rhetorical situation?) and/or they try to identify with the other agent(s).

What we should see from this dialogue menu is Anderson responding to a variety of different dialogues that Shepherd could use. We get a little of the military culture of orders: “That’s an order.” We get the “empty acquisition of the verbal paraphernalia” of identification: “We” (Burke, 1984, p. 337). But we don’t get an Anderson that responds to the scene around him (only to the soldiers, soldiers whom Shepherd’s past might indicate have little value). We don’t get either character displaying an awareness of their roles or the soldiers’ roles. We don’t get any indication of situational awareness—Anderson stays despite no indication of the tactical value or strategic importance of Earth.

Finally, the dialogue menu choices are not built around the dialogue. Instead, the mechanic of the player-character’s dichotomous morality collides with the dialogue menu, and in that collision the quantifiable value of the morality scale wins out over the value of good dialogue. The dialogue menu mechanic is unfortunately overridden (overwritten?) to be a morality selector. Thus, you see occasions where the Mass Effect 3 dialogue menu has the spoken dialogue (or a close approximation) and others where it doesn’t.

While I don’t approve of the media essentialism of Kazemi’s “Fuck Videogames,” I think it works well enough for talking about specific game mechanics. A good dialogue menu is not going to be just fiction writing—it needs to break from the old media of dialogue-in-the-novel. A little rhetoric will go a long way here.

References that are less available, thanks to academic publishing standards:

Burke, K. (1984). Attitudes Toward History. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

About Gaines Hubbell

Gaines Hubbell is an assistant professor of English at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. His dissertation tracks the history of topoi and loci of invention in twentieth-century rhetorical theory, pedagogy, and criticism. His research focuses on the historical and contemporary development of rhetorical theory and its adaptation for newer media environments.
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3 Responses to Dialogue Options: Where’s the Rhetoric?

  1. Huh. Interesting essay. I never thought about this before. I just assumed that verbal dialogue wasn’t “part” of videogames. Unless it was the annoying kind where you’re forced to listed to a character deliver a script that contains little useful information but is a necessary pause so that the game can load. I wonder what would happen if you considered all the nonverbal dialogue, though?

  2. Hmm, I’m not sure. Rhetoric isn’t as useful as a prescriptive/generative guide for nonverbal dialogue–it’s an area that isn’t well-developed in the American rhetorical studies community.
    I generally find the nonverbal communication in games bizarre at best–with characters walking around awkwardly during conversation and the strange, three-quarters constipated, one-quarter concerned facial expressions on Mass Effect. It’s hard for video games to present good nonverbal communication because of the uncanny valley and developers’ push for photo realistic graphics. Portal 2’s multiplayer does nonverbal communication really well comparatively although you play as robots (so no uncanny valley). It would be fascinating to see a game with a dialogue menu that includes the verbal and nonverbal–select “Hello” then select *thumbs nose* to get an anachronistic, sarcastic hello…

  3. Pingback: The Wolf Among Us, Episode 2: A Nick, Gaines, and Stephanie Review | Higher Level Gamer

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