Updated: Mar 30, 2020
Dialogue is an important part of any modern video game. The process can be a difficult and arduous one due to the dialogue having deep dependencies on other systems, from story design to animation. There are a number of stages involved in the process of getting dialogue to the audience in games. As Robert Bridgett states in his article for Gameasutra these can be broken down into the following categories:
Design (characters / AI categories / reactions, naming conventions and folder structure etc)
Content Creation (Writer(s) fill out pre-assigned dialogue categories, or create story scenes and dialogue)
Casting (describing character to casting agents and potential actors with sample lines)
Recording (requires export of character script for actor to read) - (notation of required takes) (changes to lines due to improvised performance etc)
Editing (editors cut the required takes from the recording)
Implementation (files are placed in relevant pipeline path to be built into game)
Tuning (in-game tuning of frequency of playback, volume of playback, ducking mixes etc)
Iteration (critical in adapting the performance and script to changing game design and story changes and often loops production back to the 'Content Creation' stage)
Quality Assurance (all lines are tested in the game)
Localization (various language files are made available in pipeline, so language can be switched)
Mastering (all dialogue files are mastered, given same overall level, then replaced in pipeline)
Mix (dialogue is mixed at a consistent and clearly audible level in final mix of game content along with music and fx, dialogue ducking is implemented and tuned)
Having some personal experience recording dialogue for E-learning, I can attest to the arduousness of repeated day in day out recording sessions of often quite dry fact-based dialogue. This can take a tole on the performances and so every care must be taken into making the scenario as streamlined and pain free as possible for the talent to deliver their best. As much time goes into the preparation of the lines during content creation, casting, recording editing as goes into the implementation and testing. The last thing anyone wants is masses of retakes to be done or new lines constantly being added, some is par for the course, but every effort is ensured to minimise this. Not only is there a monetary cost to this but there is potentially a human one also as recording sessions end up going way over time or people need to be called back in for re-records.
Things like having a good script well presented ahead of time with all additional notes for actors, recording in an order which helps the performer such as high intensity first and most repetitive last will help make a session in the booth run much more smoothly.
Once the recording is done, the task of editing is the next step and usually the cost of editing is a major factor as to whether everything recorded gets edited or only those takes that were marked during recording. Communication is key at this stage letting the editors know exactly how the files are to be delivered with no ambiguity. So know what your file format requirements are, I have had a number of clients in the past that have had no idea what they needed until they knew they didn’t need it the way it was delivered, especially true if you are using MP3’s as most editors will not generally export to this file format unless required due to lossy compression.
Implementation of the audio files once recorded and edited should largely be a case of adding the recorded files to the pre-created systems which have been set up using placeholder materials. However, the way in which the audio systems for dialogue are set up is different for every team. There are some general concepts and questions to consider when implementing dialogue, such as why is there dialogue in the first place and what is it for?
One of the main ways in which dialogue is used in games is to guide the player through the game itself. Dialogue lines help to keep the player engaged with the story and move the game forward in the story arc. This can take the form of quests, hints, directions or direct conversations which introduce new characters or information to the player. (Ray, Helper 2014)
One of the main ways developers create these conversations is in the form of conversation structures or dialogue trees. A system of nodes which represent possible paths in a conversation from the start node to the finish node, often with many branches in between. These conversation trees are frequently strung together from end to end with pinch points in the conversations where they join, and critical information or action is required, this is sometimes referred to as a string of pearls system.
There are four main ways to approach dialogue systems. Finite state-based systems, which is the node-based system stated above, nodes, representing states, and directed, labelled arcs connecting the nodes denoting transitions between the states. At each state the dialogue system will generate a prompt, usually in the form of Canned Text. Form Based, which are able to fill several slots from the same input as well as handle input in differing orders. Plan Based systems where the player and system collaborate on a plan to solve a task. Or agent-based systems where the model has the ability to change goal if priorities change in the story arc. (Brusk, Bjork 2009)
A writer then must understand that a players primary concern is plot critical information and that not all players will take the time to delve deeper into the lore of the world or back story to a character presented to them. This is why often in RPG games much of the depth of the lore is given by means other than dialogue, such as books, computers, tape recordings and other sources found in world, should a player decide to find them. Leaving only the most critical plot information for the dialogue.
The methods of how these interactions are triggered are largely done by either player proximity to the NPC (Non-Player Character) or area of the game where a cutscene will be triggered automatically when the player enters a trigger box. Or the player must approach the NPC and press a button to begin the interaction. The choices available to the player are then selected through a menu of options with pre-scripted responses from the NPC appropriate for the players choices. Some dialogue takes the form of conversation between two characters in a cutscene and in this sense becomes more of a cinematic and less of an interactive experience as the player is unable to make choices regarding the dialogue.
Overall, dialogue is a lengthy and challenging process with many stages of development all of which require some finesse for the end result to feel natural and immersive to the player. Careful planning at preproduction, good management at recording and editing and a solid system of implementation and iteration all add up to an immersive experience driven by characters dialogue in game.
GDC Vault - Engineering Better Dialogue, Sheri Graner Ray, Jennifer Hepler 2014
Why in-game dialogue and character conversations matter - Polygon, By Megan
Farokhmanesh @Megan_Nicolett Mar 17, 2014
Gamasutra - A Holistic Approach to Game Dialogue Production, By Rob Bridgett
Gameplay Design Patterns for Game Dialogues – Jenny Brusk, Stephan Bjork, 2009
Dialogue and Conversation Design in Murderous Pursuits Pt1&2, AudioKinetic Blog - Jamie Cross, October 2018