Three years ago I unexpectedly became Lo-Fi Games’ narrative designer for our huge 355 square mile open world RPG, Kenshi. Being a sandbox, there exists no linear narrative to tell Kenshi’s story, which poses a problem: how do you breathe life into a world that has no preset path to take the player’s hand?
Well, here’s what I learnt along the way of Kenshi’s development, step by step, from good old research and simple trial and error – mainly error, but hey, that’s the beautiful shiny silver lining of failure… So whether you’re writing a sandbox, a story driven RPG or any other game in need of dialogue, I hope this guide helps add energy and meaning to your setting.
1. Starting off: Build your world
It goes without saying that fleshing out the setting of your world should come first and foremost before you start work on player interactions. Dialogue should have some kind of meaning, each conversation should act like a piece of puzzle to build your picture, to reflect the world and it’s story. Without some kind of core backstory or setting, it’s difficult for events and people to make sense or to have consistency. Some basic steps for fleshing out world lore:
- Begin with the geography. Draw out the layout of the world map: swamps, mountain, plains, rivers and towns. Next, write up a short text that describes the world setting and its features: it’s atmosphere; races, cultures, main cities; fauna and flora. Add details: what does X animal eat? Does it travel in packs? Is it hostile, tame or a pest? What is it’s given name?…
- Start filling the world with basic nations. Outline your setting: who lives there, why do they live there…. Think about the conflicts: who is fighting with who and why are they fighting… Make a timeline of of events: wars, waves of immigration, ensuing wars and assimilation, natural disasters, shifts in power balances… Depict what the present situation is: it’s politics, economy and warfare.
- Flesh out the specific races, factions and townships. What are their beliefs and morals? What god(s) do they worship (if any)? Any sexism, racism? Who are their heroes and who are their chief enemies? Who rules the main capital? Where are the main trading flows? Who protects these trade routes?
- Extras. Are there any local mythologies and rumours? For example, a fabled monster: where does it dwell? Who does it affect?
2. Next: Establish your style
Firstly, you’ll need to keep a consistent mood for your game. Will it be humorous and lighthearted? Brutal and violent? Creepy and atmospheric? Emotional? Non-linear games will need to decide just how much dialogue will be available. For example, will interactions be limited purely to main gameplay events? Or will it be more broad, such as including lighter, more entertaining conversations that don’t necessarily lead to any kind of action or repercussion?
These additional conversation types help set the mood of the world, provide information, tell mini-stories and feed hardcore players’ curiosity. The drawback however, is that they can be rather boring to drudge through if a player is only interested in important ‘quests’ and opportunities that contribute only to the main story.
As an old school gamer, I feel compelled to speak with every single interactable NPC, kind of like a gaming version of FOMO. And this hurts my head. Despite being bored to tears by their stories that I have no interest in, I begrudgingly become the virtual agony aunt of that game world.
3. Interactions: Know the different dialogue types
- Usually short, single sentences that an NPC will utter when in close proximity to the player.
- Can be a small glimpse into the backstory or setting of an area. Use it to add atmosphere or flavour to a scene such as a bustling tavern full of drunkards.
- Can be a personal reaction to the player and their current situation or reputation. This can be an effective way of personalising a player’s experience with specific reactions to their character and achievements.
- Either a one-liner or a full conversation
- Includes gameplay tips and hints for the player. E.g. asking a retired bounty hunter how to find bounties
- Or it can simply be informative on the world lore or the main story. E.g. grilling someone for info, usually an official person or a barman
The Life Story
- A way to tie in an explanation of world lore and setting through the story of an individual. The speaker will either briefly mention or go into great detail about their past or current situation
- There are no results, actions or benefits to be gained from taking part in the conversation
- Can be comical and entertaining but is particularly effective for evoking emotion and atmosphere
The influential Conversation
- A more in-depth reaction and opinion of the player, current situation or world setting. E.g. A refugee or a soldier might challenge the player about their stance on a war
- Includes thorough debate where the player can respond with a variation of moral and political standpoints
- Certain answers can offer a chance to affect relationships with special characters or factions
- An NPC with knowledge of a specific point of interest on the world map. E.g. A bumpkin telling exaggerated rumours of a terrifying beast
- Can be a chance to ask for more info about this legend or point of interest
- Possible mission
The Companion Interlude
- Remarks or full conversations that are personal to the player’s squad. A particularly good example of this is the squabbles and musings between companions in Dragon Age. Their conversations were witty, character building and even added to the current atmosphere to make the game feel more alive. The Dungeon of the Endless elevator events are another more simple example of this.
- Can be used either to build on personal backstories, create atmosphere or give gameplay hints.
These next two types are actionable. They carry much more weight and lead to missions, heavy moral decisions or simply surviving an attack etc…
- An NPC expresses a problem or concern. E.g He has a crush on someone who doesn’t like him back. His little brother is missing. His sheep are sick. The town bully is picking on him. He wants sweet sweet revenge.
- This can be a chance to solve the NPC’s problem, possibly for reward such as an item, XP, increased relations, money, information…
- Possible mission
The Moral Dilemma
- A particularly disturbing, emotional, cruel or dangerous situation
- The player will have to make a difficult moral decision to do whatever they think is right (or for the sadistic gamers, fun). The balance between rationality and doing the right thing isn’t always so clear cut; sometimes taking the moral high ground will end up doing more harm than good. Well executed game examples include Wolfenstein: New Order, Dragon Age, Wolf Among us, Walking Dead, Witcher 3.
- Examples include ending someone’s suffering by killing them, sacrificing someone’s life or health in order to save others, or simply forgiving and sparing a repentant enemy.
- The player’s choice in this may affect future story outcomes and relations. Or not. The Moral Dilemma may exist simply to torture the player by reminding them that – even in the bubble of their game world haven – they can never truly escape the cycle of failure and suffering. Harsh.
4. Lastly: Rules of writing interesting dialogue
Lore is great and all, but it’s pretty worthless if the dialogue is written in such a way that it feels like a chore to get through for the player. So, onto tips for sexying up your dialogue.
Opening up: Cut the small talk
First and most importantly, game dialogue does not have to be 100% realistic, following the rules of reality can be extremely limiting to the player’s possibilities (and fun). I don’t make a habit of talking to random bypassers in the street, going into painfully intimate details about my relationship woes, my sister’s kidnap by man-eating orcs or the out-of-date fizzy yogurt I ate for breakfast. I mean, damn, I need a little warming up first…
But in the game world, warming people up is boring. I don’t want to have to small talk my way into a conversation with someone, I don’t want to have to spend ages trying to calm down a severely traumatized damsel in distress before they’ll give me the juicy scoop I want to know. It’s not fun. So don’t fall into the trap of trying to be too realistic, don’t be afraid to jump straight into the sweet, sweet juicy conversation; you can skip the pleasantries.
You can open dialogues with short greetings or longer musings. But try to keep it interesting rather than the usual ‘hi there, sorry to bother you, my name is X and I’m the town blacksmith’. Instead, the NPC could comment on a) the player, how they look or any assumptions or suspicions about them; b) the current surroundings (recent bandit attacks, disasters…) or political situation; c) something personal about themselves, something a family member once taught them; d) moans and gripes about a local person, pest or whatever; e) something philosophical depending on the world religion or society, get creative!
“Ain’t everyday we get visitors in *town name*” – This is short and sweet but sounds less rigid and formal, more relaxed and flowing.
“My sister, *name*, always warned me to stay away from *town name*. Yet here I am without a penny to my name…” – This adds just a little something personal, almost like a regret or reflection that the NPC is muttering under their breath to him/ herself.
“Name’s Doctor *name*, best surgeon you’re gonna find in town! Need a new face? I can give you a real pretty smile ya-… wait… goddammit, those goons took my favourite chin chisel!” – This dives right into the conversation, almost like bait, to steer the player right into the heart of what the conversation is about. It gets straight to the point and leaves the chance to question who these ‘goons’ are etc.
“Hear that?.. The crowd… Can barely hear myself think in this bar… A lot of people hate crowds, but me? I love’ em. Can’t seem to shake the feeling of loneliness ever since I left *place*…” – A simple comment on the current surroundings. It adds both atmosphere and a hint of background to the character without droning on too much.
“A woman from the godless lands, huh, don’t get many of those wash up here. Hopefully you’ll talk more sense than everyone else around here…” – A direct observation about the character plus an opinion on the surrounding lore/culture makes this a more interesting opener than a simple ‘Hiya’.
Don’t keep secrets so… secret
This overlaps a little with the above, in reality people aren’t so keen to reveal secrets or taboo subjects with a random stranger. But this is a game, possibly a completely different sci-fi or fantasy setting to our own planet; how is the player supposed to learn about the world if everyone in it is pursing their lips and refusing to talk?
NPCs can afford to talk about things close to their heart, you’ll just need to work harder to make a reason for it so that it seems feasible for them to blab. Maybe they open with a line where they think the player has a trustworthy face, maybe they comment on witnessing the character act favourably to them, maybe they’ve let their guard down with a drunken rant…
If the player tries to probe a character into giving more detail about a taboo subject, don’t just give them a wall with a response like: ‘Actually that’s something I’d rather not talk about right now. I’m sorry.’ Instead, give some kind of hint, something mysterious to tease and peak the player’s curiosity: “… I lost something special on that farm. Staying there brings chills to my bones, so I decided to leave. it’s a dark memory I’d rather not talk about”. People can of course be secretive, but don’t ever miss out on the golden opportunity to tickle player’s curiosities with darkness and mystery (Rule of Life no.132: everyone loves a good tickle).
Another example, as a dialogue opener, the NPC could ‘test’ the player with an ‘influential conversation’ from the above dialogue types: “Nowhere in this world is truly safe, even within the famous *town name* capital there are eyes everywhere… you, outlander, you look well-travelled.. what are your thoughts on… on *taboo subject*?”. This cuts out small talk, plus it still adds some kind of workability.
Lose the boring detail… but don’t lose the descriptive details
Don’t let conversations drag on with back and forth pointless chatter. The golden rule is: does it have entertainment value? Is it informative and useful to the player? If not, cut it, condense it to the stuff that matters. This doesn’t mean a conversation has to be short, just make every word count as something of character, excitement and quality.
In contrast, gorey details and poetic adjectives are great. They make dialogue entertaining. They send chills down our spine and aid us in becoming more emotionally invested in a game – we’ve a shorter amount of time to connect with a character in a game than in reality, and for that we need to work harder to make an impact.
You there, you wouldn’t happen to be needing a sorcerer, would you?
> Player: Yes, but what makes you so special?
Well see, firstly I don’t require payment. Plus I am a decent sorcerer with some crafting skills.
> Player: You’re a craftsman as well?
Yes, like many craftsman, I was originally a sorcerer, studied at the dark master sorcery guild, but I decided to take on crafting work instead. Crafting provides me with a better living than sorcery.
Reading this, I feel like I don’t care. I don’t care that this guy used to be a craftsman and I’m gonna button mash like hell until this boring guy leaves me alone. This is because he’s empty and without much character, it makes him difficult for us to relate to. Not only are his responses not particularly exciting or characterful, but the content of the conversation is unnecessary, it breaks the above rule – it’s not really entertaining or informative enough to stand on its own.
So, in this case, it would be best either to shorten it, or to make it entertaining by injecting humour, wisdom, emotion or conflict into his replies. Developing his character more, for example habits, speech quirks may make him seem more human and less dull. You can have characters talk in longer bursts with more info rather than playing 20 questions with the player with short, empty responses. Let’s give the above a makeover so that if flows better, adding more personal details should help make it more relatable:
“You’re new in town, right? Don’t get many outsiders this side of the world, guess we can thank the bandits for seeing to that… Let me guess, you’re a flim flam hunter?” (- this is less formal and more natural sounding, plus it hints a little at the local lore rather than empty small talk)
“I see, well ain’t that a coincidence, because not only am I looking for work but I goddamn hate flim flams more than I hate my own dusty mother-in-law! Say, stranger, you interested in having this old man along with you?” (adds some human-ness, adds more of a visual description to the player ‘this old man’, plus shows a humble trait in his character)
“I got sorcery skills that could come in handy… know a thing or two about crafting as well. Used to own my own armoury down south ’til I retired last year, my glitter chest plates were a real hit with the local elk dwarves.” (adding small details and a sense of pride about his armoury brings his character to life a little more. Mentioning the sorcery skills briefly hints that he’s more than a craftsman, but we don’t necessarily need to go into any more detail than that about his backstory. Hints can be much more effective than spelling things out to the player)
Okay it’s not a great example, but you get the idea… Liven it up. Make it flow. Add personality.
Avoid robotic repetition
This only really applies to the ‘one-liners’, for example, Skyrim’s famous guards: “I used to be an adventurer like you, but then I took an arrow to the knee”. If it’s a repeatable piece of dialogue be sure to keep it vague and, if possible, impersonal. This is now breaking most of the rules above but you’ll need to leave out overly strong character traits, specific personal details and in-depth descriptions.
Instead focus on environmental comments or perhaps even create a local mantra, slogan or religious phrase – it can be reused but is subtle enough to hopefully not be noticed. This is a sneaky kind of tactic in giving the impression you’ve not heard the line before… hundreds of times. Okay maybe not, but it will at least not become an irritation to the player.
Templates and examples for getting started
One-liners and companion interludes in particular can sometimes feel a little unnatural to write, since they are essentially completely unwarranted, almost tourette’s-like spasms of random information. In reality it’s the dodgy guy you edge away from on the midnight bus.
But, play in a bustling game city such as Skyrim or the Witcher 3 and you find that actually it works pretty well despite the entire population contentedly yelling disconnected outbursts amongst themselves. Ideas to get you started include commenting on culture, gripes, myths, smells, statues, structures or other unique landmarks such as famous pubs. They can be jokes, simple musings, observations or anecdotes.
Examples: These simple prompts and templates can be useful just for triggering ideas and inspirations for single comments and remarks:
- “You know what I miss? X”
- “One of these days I’ll X and X”
- “I’d have done X if it wasn’t for X”
- “You look like you… X”
- Life motto “In life you gotta X”
- Snide comments (My favourite Witcher 3 example) “Washed your hair lately?”
- World religions “God hates nothing more than X”
- “Think carrying a sword makes you tough? Try carrying your enemies’ X”
- “So this is X? It’s so X”
- “I tried X once but ….”
- ‘I’ve got a craving for X”
- “Have I mentioned I don’t like X?”
- Adding to an eerie atmosphere “Anyone else feel like we’re being watched?”
- “I heard it’s X tradition to do X”
- “I’ve been here before when X”
- “They say there’s X here…”
- “I wonder why X…”
- “Reminds me of home when X…”
5. And last but not least…
Practise and learn from your failures. You’ll write some garbage, and you’ll read it back again one year down the line, and you’ll likely shriek and burn it all in a hideous cringefest. But just remember that it’s all good practise. One must at first suck to be able to improve, after all. You’ll come across creative blocks but push through the bad days and keep writing. After all, often it’s the tough days you almost gave up that you actually end up writing your best work. As Chuck Wendig once said, ‘sometimes the best thing you can do, especially with a first draft, is put a blindfold on, scream **** IT, and run flailing into the story.’
I can’t stress enough how golden this advice is. Don’t be afraid of writing crap. Everything we write will at first be crap, it’s part of the writing process. You then take that crappy writing, and gradually sculpt it, continually making changes and refining it, into something that’s actually good. You can only get better with practise. Find a prompt for an idea, sit down, and just write, no matter how much your brain kicks and drags its heels: Keep writing.