One of the interesting things about dialogue in video games is that it usually falls pretty firmly into one of two camps. You’ve got your standard cutscene dialogue, where characters give fixed lines in a set structure according to a pre-determined flow and rhythm. That’s just about every cutscene in existence, but also things like scripted in-game lines – like instructions from other characters about what you should be doing. The other main option is your BioWare dialogue, the type that’s built around a game mechanic allowing you to ‘play’ a conversation. Dialogue wheels or branching tree structures are both pretty standard in RPGs, for instance, where you can go up to people and ask those kinda generic checklist questions. Do you have any quests for me, can you tell me how to complete the quest I’m already on, can you help me jump through this hoop or tick this box.
With that second one, it’s worth noting that the system developers use to organize dialogue often serves as a comment on the nature of conversation. That might not be the intention of the developers, but when you systematise dialogue as a part of your game, you’re inevitably going to imply something about how actual dialogue ‘works’. In the case of a standard RPG, for instance, dialogue is often depicted as transactional. Choose Option A to be mean and get ten mean-person points. Choose Option B to get nice points. Choose C to find out more. Rather than representing the natural ebb and flow of interpersonal relationships, the push and pull of status and deference, the dialogue wheel is functionalist in the extreme. In The Witcher 3, for example (below), the developers colour-code dialogue options so you know what progresses the conversation and what’s a conversational cul-de-sac. If you want to progress to the next stage, you can pick the yellow option, but if you want to have a bit of yakka, you can pick the white option. It’s actually most evocative of business meetings: there are items on the agenda, and you can draw out the discussion one way or the other, but eventually you’ll make a decision from a limited pool of options and move on to the next point.
It was with some excitement, then, that I discovered the dialogue system in Signs of the Sojourner. Released in 2020, Signs is the first title from Echodog Games. It consists of travelling around and having conversations with different people, and trying to scrounge things for your shop back home. Its dialogue system is set up kinda like a game of dominoes. Your cards have two halves. The first half has to match the previously played symbol, and the second half offers a second symbol for the other character to respond to in turn. In the image below, for example, I would need to play a card with a triangle on the left, to match the one that’s been played, and then on the right it would need a circle or a square or something – one of the symbols that the other guy has in his hand. This guy who I’m talking to mostly deals in circles and squares – so in order to get the best results, I want to play cards with circles and squares on the right, so that he’s able to create a match and continue the conversation. If you can’t play a match, you make a conversational mis-step. You say something accidentally offensive, or you just fail to click. Too many of those, and the conversation ends. Essentially, you and your conversational partner need to chain together a series of symbols, and keep that chain going long enough to have a productive conversation. Otherwise, you stop talking, and you don’t get whatever you were after.
You can see immediately how this system of dialogue, as a system, has a more nuanced approach to what conversation is actually like. It tells us things about dialogue that you don’t see in your typical RPG system. For example, Signs clearly understands that dialogue is a back-and-forth process. You say something, and I respond, but I respond in such a way that feeds back into what you were saying, so that you feel empowered to continue on and say something else. We all know what it’s like when someone takes what you’ve said and goes off on a tangent that you can’t relate to. You say something about your pet frog, and they go oh I squished a frog once when I was driving through the back roads of Mozambique with my PE teacher, who actually had just been divorced, and we actually – and you’re like uhh okay that’s cool I guess. And the thread of the conversation drops away. They didn’t feed it back towards you in a way that allowed you to respond.
From that perspective, the conversation system in Signs is really exciting. It replaces the functionalist dialogue trees of your average RPG with something relational, something that takes place as an actual two-way dialogue rather than like a Q&A at a team meeting. It also opens up certain opportunities to explore the emotions attached to conversation – not in terms of your reaction to the things that people say, but in terms of the emotions that are elicited by the nature of conversation itself. Let me give you an example of the difference (with content warnings for alcoholism and domestic violence, for this paragraph only). Some of the most lauded writing in Witcher 3 involves a character known as the Bloody Baron, who you meet at the start of the game. His story arc takes up most of the first act. The Baron is a local lord and a raging alcoholic, a consequence of long years away fighting wars for his king. His wife, tired of his frequent absence and his use of alcohol as a coping mechanism, takes a lover, and eventually leaves the Baron, taking their child with her. The Baron hunts them down and orders her to return home. Although it’s not his intention going in, he ends up murdering the lover in a fit of rage. His wife, understandably distraught, tries to kill the Baron with a knife, and he disarms her and beats her into submission. That violence goes on to become a baseline part of their relationship. By the time you meet the Baron, he’s a sotted, abusive drunk who knows that his behaviour and relationship is wrong, but doesn’t know how to fix it. He’s wracked with guilt, and yet seemingly unable to break his destructive habits. There are other parts to the story, but just from that – I mean, you know, it’s sad. The whole thing is sad. When you hear him talk about it in conversations, he obviously hates the person that he’s become, and it’s sad. That’s an example of the things that you say or hear in conversation creating certain emotions. That’s specifically not what we’re talking about with Signs of the Sojourner.
I mentioned earlier that different characters in Signs have preferences for different symbols – so the guy in the image above likes circles and squares. Different characters all have different personality types, meaning they usually only possess certain symbols in their conversational repertoire. For example, at the start of the game, before you start travelling, you only have circles and triangles. And in that context, there are some characters who at first you can’t successfully speak to. You have no common ground with the diamond-square people. There won’t be any matches, and you will fail the conversation. That’s a neat way of exploring the idea of two people being on totally different wavelengths – and it’s particularly poignant because there are conditions under which you could have succeeded. There’s a system in place that will let you vibe with these people – you’re just not taking advantage of it. Signs emphasises your failure to communicate by offering you the avenues to success. It’s frustrating, because you know that under different circumstances you could have got along fine. And that’s the difference between Signs of the Sojourner and most other game dialogue. Where games like Witcher 3 might startle or upset you with the things that characters say, Signs walks you through the range of emotions attached to the flaws and limits of communication itself. Sometimes you know that you’ve got the cards to communicate well with a certain person, but you don’t draw them. That happens in conversations – you know you can get along well, but sometimes it’s just not there. And sometimes you’re out on the road for a month, maybe a little more, and you come home, and you’re exhausted. You’ve learnt all these new ways of communicating and you’ve impressed all these different people, and then you realise you’re barely able to hold a conversation with your childhood friend. Too much has changed. You’ve changed. You’re somebody else now, and the way in which you communicate is the marker of what you’ve lost.
I should clarify here that even though the dialogue system in Signs is obviously better than the standard dialogue trees typical to The Witcher or other similar games, that doesn’t mean that every game going forward has to take this approach. I don’t think Signs has single-handedly ruined dialogue trees. It’s a marker of progress, but progress is something that happens slowly, and sometimes almost without anyone noticing. Back in June last year, I reinstalled Mass Effect. I was planning on giving it another run-through, to see if there was anything interesting I wanted to write about. And I didn’t get all that far. Everything felt artificial. The dialogue felt staged, simplistic. You could probably argue pretty convincingly that The Witcher killed Mass Effect. When you’ve got characters like the Bloody Baron, this horrific, awful, pathetic person who is somehow still, amidst all of that, absolutely compellingly human – there’s nothing like him in the self-conscious theatricality of Mass Effect. And, just as The Witcher showed up the ham-fistedness of Mass Effect‘s morality system, Signs of the Sojourner does, in its turn, reveal the weaknesses and immaturities of the dialogue tree. It shows how smarter systems of dialogue can speak powerfully about the nature of communication and relationships. I don’t think it heralds a massive change in how we make video game dialogue, but it is an outpost along the way. Dialogue is getting smarter. It’s not just what is being said, but the systems and processes being used to say it. It’s a good sign. Stay tuned.