If you believe (like I do) that a true Computer RPG is an attempt to recreate the experience of playing an RPG, then soon you get to the topic of the CRPG's conversation system. Just like in an RPG, the players should feel they can do anything. And when chatting with an NPC the player wants to say anything and get a valid response.
That might seem near impossible given difficulties of the current state-of-the-art conversations with consumer electronics (Siri, Alexa, Google, etc). But in a game setting, players may be more forgiving when talking to an NPC than I am when I can't get Alexa to play the correct song.
Traditionally, in CRPGs there are two competing goals that designers try to balance:
Goal 1: Make the User Interface intuitive.
That is, they want it to be easy to respond. This might be a simple multiple choice list to "select from these responses" or an advanced "emotive" radial menu. To me, this has always felt like an over-correction to the poor user experience of "chatbots" in MUDs.
And of course, there are other constraints that push designers to focus on intuitive UI (lack of keyboards on consoles, need for simplifying localization,discoverability of dialogue trees, etc).
Goal 2: Allow user to make meaningful decisions.
The seeming "holy grail" of narrative design is to give the user a sense that the conversation is not "throw-away"... that their decisions matter. Is that Warren Spector's mantra?
There are countless examples (and probably a ton of Gamasutra articles and GDC talks on this very topic).
- 2004: Improving Player Choice (Gamasutra)
- 2012: Sid Meyer on Interesting Decisions (GDC 2012)
- 2014: Making Decisions Interesting In Games (Gamasutra)
- 2014: Meaningful Choice (GDC 2014)
- 2017: Meaning and Choice (Gamasutra)
Blah, blah, blah...
Don't get me wrong, those are awesome and interesting evaluations of how to give players the ability to feel like their choices matter... but is a meaningful decision really what governs a good conversation? Think back to your best conversations in real life. Of course conversations are not only useful when they involve meaningful decisions ... and as a result I don't believe it should be the driving factor in how we build a dialogue system.
Yes, yes.. good writing is important. But that is content, not the system. We'll get to the content later.
Instead (and I"m going to start sounding like some Ultima series fanatic) to me, Richard Garriort (...de Cayeux something or other) made a mistake in an effort to achieve the first goal (Make the User Interface intuitive) as he steadily improved conversational UI. Lets take a moment to look at
In Ultima V and earlier, you entered the text you wanted to say via a keyboard. The problem is not only that players have to type what they want to say. It's also true that players may not know what input choices are available to them.
Side note: I don't know if it was true for all of them, but at least for Ultima IV, I remember the system only recognized the first four characters of whatever you wrote. (That is "HEAL" or "HEALTH" or "HEALXXXX" all were equally understood as "HEAL").
As we move toward Ultima VI, players still must type, but you can see that the user has highlighted text to indicate their various options.
And then by Ultima VII, we have moved completely away from the keyboard input and now we have a set of options you can click with your mouse.
Which of course is practically the same UI we still have in Skyrim almost 20 years later. Most CRPGs still use simple multiple choice conversations.
Don't break what works?
It has worked for 27 years.... yes? Well, I argue that it doesn't really work if your goal is to recreate the kind of experience you get with traditional RPGs. That is, it can feel more limiting. Have you ever thought, "Seriously, THESE are my choices?" By giving the illusion of choice, the result can make the player feel like they are reading a Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) book instead of participating in a conversation.
And what do players do? They run through all the conversation options and then repeat the conversation by selecting different options, just like I used to keep a finger in all the pages of the CYOA books. Players start gaming the system instead of enjoying the conversation.
And now game designers try to discourage this player behavior. For example, in Witcher 3, when faced with a important decision in a conversation, after the player makes their choice they are immediately thrown into a way-too-long series of cut scenes. I assume they do this to discourage you from loading a previous save and going through the whole thing again just so you can see what happens if you answered slightly differently. Maybe that's a good strategy for "meaningful decisions".. but it certainly doesn't make for fun conversations. (It would have been fun to at least try to tell Yennifer what I really think of her... even if her response was "I don't understand.")
By building additional layers on top of the multiple choice conversation system in order to prevent players from gaming the system, we've already lots the battle. At this point, game developers are now like a desperate Oz. Dorthy knows Oz is behind the curtain, but we're going to keep throwing distractions at her to see if she'll go back to the conversation we wanted her to have.
And interestingly, this feeling of being limited to a particular set of options was not an experience back in Ultima IV. Of course the players options were limited, but the players didn't know what limits were. Is there more this NPC can tell me? I just don't know?
In fact, when I think of a game that must thrive on building relationships through conversation with the NPCs (I'm talking Stardew Valley), you'll notice that there really isn't much "choice" in the conversations at all. The NPCs spend the majority of dialogue asking rhetorical questions... and instead, the actual choice is provided through the actions the players take. For example, do you give Abigail her favorite present on her birthday or not? The player conversation in Stardew Valley is just a bunch of rhetorical content! Excellent.
And although Stardew Valley's lack of conversational choice isn't exactly the answer for this project, it shows that multiple choice conversation isn't necessarily the actual constraint we might think it is.
Specifically, I think the problem of multiple choice conversation goes back to that gut reaction: "Are THESE my only choices". Well...what if they weren't?
Last week I was attempting to explain my perspective on this to my good friend Matthew Moore (game designer of Bring Your Own Book fame). While he listed off a variety of games that explore pushing "meaningful decisions" and applying pressure to quickly make a choice in game dialogue systems .. I described it like this:
We've been chatting for the last hour, but you never brought up Star Trek. You didn't present me with the "ask me about Star Trek" option. But if I were to ask you about Star Trek, I open a conversational gold mine.
In real conversation, the person you are talking to doesn't have a multiple choice table of contents on display. I must discover what I can talk to you about... and there is a type of joy in that discovery... in unlocking the knowledge that is trapped inside. I just need to know the conversational "key".
In Ultima IV, players eventually learn that some people know about runes, some know about mantras. And there is some RPG special sauce when I learn I could have asked at anytime... an experience that is different than simply "unlocking a conversation choice" that in the end just feels scripted. Players want something more like the experience when your Game Master acts out the dialogue you are having with the grizzled innkeeper.
I didn't have to have Adrian tell me to talk to Matthew about Star Trek... I could have brought it up in my first conversation with Matthew ... but I am happy that Adrian suggested it.
And that is what we're going for in The Euphoria Project. We are building an conversational dialogue system that is balancing an even more important 3rd Goal...
Goal 3: The Joy of Discovery through Exploration
Basically, the goal is practically a "conversational Scribblenauts", and I think we're close through a combination of a multiple choice system with an additional of "Ask me something else." option that allows the player to ask their own custom phrase.
The basics system is now in place. Now comes the next big challenge as always ... content creation and play-testing!
A Final Thought
As you are designing these systems, please remember that even in traditional RPGs players understand rules and systems exist; they are playing a game after all and that is part of the player contract. But with that in mind, lets not hold the player hostage to our clever writing when we build our CRPG conversation systems. After all, if the GM says "the innkeeper looks you in your eye and asks: Does your mother know you're just a stupid dwarf?" your only options are not, You answer: Yes or No.
Instead, build a system that acknowledges conversation is a game as well.