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When Games Speak

Dialogue. You can find it in any game. Whether they are seen or read, every game has quotes; some are memorable, some are easily forgotten. Maybe we experience it while obliterating our friends on Xbox Live, or while we’re being chased by ghouls down a dark hallway with only a baseball bat for defense. Sometimes it waits, hidden in the depths of a game’s menus, quests, inventories, narration–or as easter eggs to be discovered and enjoyed. Any gamer who has ever laughed, wanted to break things, or felt their heartstrings being tugged at while enjoying a particular game was most likely influenced by a demonstration of superb writing.

Of course, dialogue hasn’t always played an enormous part of the gaming experience. In the old days, some of the greatest games featured little or none. In Donkey Kong, all Pauline knew how to scream was for help, so you did as she asked. You climbed those ladders, jumped over those barrels, and rescued your girlfriend with a limited vocabulary. But what about your happily ever after? Why exactly was DK so angry, anyway? Couldn’t he find his own woman without resorting to stealing Mario’s? These kinds of questions–okay, maybe not those exactly–were on many gamers’ minds. To sum it up, Donkey Kong lacked depth and dimension. Its simplicity begged for that extra something to make its star the loveable ape he is today.

It called for conversation. Words. A more tangible plotline. Something relevant to Donkey Kong himself, later on to Zelda, to Zidane Tribal, to Lara Croft, to any character and every character. Take BioShock, for example. When you confront Andrew Ryan in his very own office for the first time, he has quite the speech for you. “The assassin has overcome my last defense, and now he’s come to murder me. In the end, what separates a man from a slave? Money? Power? No, A man chooses, A slave obeys.”

As he continues, you begin to realize that you might have been making a grave mistake. “Would you kindly? A powerful phrase. A familiar phrase?” As Andrew Ryan falls by your hand, you are told exactly what you might have feared from the beginning. You have been used as a pawn. Your caring, dashing Atlas isn’t who he seems to be. But who is he? Why has he manipulated you? A series of images couldn’t have conveyed this properly, nor could a simple command or a change in music. It’s the dialogue here that forces you to reevaluate your actions deep under the sea. It’s the dialogue that makes one wince slightly for what the main character has just done; the realization that his role as a slave has been fulfilled and that he is no longer of use.

That isn’t to say that dialogue takes on only epic exchanges of emotion. There are memorable lines, profound lines, and some that are just plain stupid. Some are meant to put together a story; others are meant to make us laugh and introduce us to a more lighthearted side of the game’s creator. In fact, entire games are created as parodies, or to poke fun at popular genres such as No One Lives Forever. When the heroine, Cate Archer, is cheesily asked for her phone number she retorts, “I’m in the book. Under ‘police department.’” The fourth wall is broken as the man (a contact from Berlin) responds to rejection by saying, “Why must I be made to say such stupid things?” You’re laughing as you realize that this game doesn’t take itself seriously, a rare trait in the gaming industry.

In Katamari Damacy, there are tons of humorous and some totally absurd descriptions of items and people that you roll up in your fledgling star. For instance, if you acquire a butcher knife and go into the menu to admire your collection of items, you will find this underneath the knife’s image: “If you hold this and make a scary face, people will run away.” Then, there is a line about chickens: “People eat these, and their eggs, too! They have very tough lives.” There is a humorous sentence for every single piece of the Katamari world that you roll up, and it’s an incentive to try and complete all of the item groups. Plus, when you’re finished with that, you can go browse through all of the condiments, animals, toys, rainbows, and people you’ve turned into stars. Little things such as this can turn ordinary games into intriguing purchases that you can keep coming back to for a few laughs.

Dialogue can also be used to acquire information about characters; their background and life story. In order to truly get to know someone, one speaks to them. It’s the same way in video games, except the conversations are often one-sided. Squall Leonhart in Final Fantasy VIII frequently makes reference to the stupidity of his comrades in parentheses, giving true insight into the antihero that he really is. Not only does he make biting remarks about his friends, but his innermost thoughts are revealed as well, such as not wanting to die. We would never know these things about him otherwise. In God of War, a different take on a one-sided conversation takes place. Kratos’ rueful tale is related to the player by the goddess of the Earth, Gaia. Kratos wasn’t about to sit and narrate his own adventures; he’s the type of man content to just forget his past. Luckily, we have a matronly presence like Gaia to walk us through the story and give us a little insight into this destructive and determined man with a mission to fulfill.

Also, let’s not forget that dialogue also plays an enormous part in allowing gamers to truly integrate themselves into the story that they’re playing through. In games like Day of the Tentacle, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Deus Ex, Mass Effect, or others similar to those listed. In KOTOR, dialogue decisions along with actions and combat determine which side of the Force you will ultimately be assigned. Effects like this promote replayability for branching paths and different endings.

Classics such as Mario, or even the first incarnation of Zelda, previously had little need for speech beyond its apologies for forcing you to explore the wrong castle (thanks guys! really appreciated that), but their successors clearly did. Without any kind of speech in games to help us to understand the characters we are playing as, move integral parts of the story along, inject a little humor into otherwise stuffy or mediocre games, or to make them feel a little more interactive, our gaming adventures would be akin to Pac-Man zooming around the board gobbling up the dots. Games could never be any more complex. And I don’t know about you, but I simply LOVE to be able to deliver snarky one-liners as a Jedi Knight in training or even a dorky teen in Coke-bottle glasses, just because I can.

What’s in the future, then? One can only hope that technology and artificial intelligence will evolve enough where you will actually be able to interact with NPCs as fluidly as you can mow down enemies. Being able to create your own character, choose your gender, race, background, and personality would be a definite plus and possible draw for non-gamers. Taking cues from chats online such as A.L.I.C.E., or even Jabberwacky would mean enormous strides in immersing yourself in a world beyond yours. Imagine being able to form real bonds with imaginary entities. It all seems like a dream, doesn’t it?

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