Okay, as I was playing through the end of Blood and Wine I just had one last thing that I wanted to say about this game. First, I'm going to link to this article I found about dialogue. Most of it is about the dialogue in Life is Strange, but the person says some important things at the end.
I once spoke with a 45 year-old salesman who would drop words like “sick” and “dope” in the middle of our conversation, trying to relate, befriend, and earn my trust. It was an empty, and one-dimensional attempt to try and create a meaningful experience. A distraction from any genuine, human moments.
So, what makes good dialogue then?
Okay, I’m not an expert on writing, let alone writing for interactivity. It’s a big undertaking, and I admire those that write for video games professionally.
In my experience, I’ve found good, meaningful dialogue to be something that motivates your morality. Dialogue driven games should be morally evocative in a subtle way. I should react not simply because the game’s prompting me to, but because I’m emotionally invested. I should react because I care deeply about the narrative, and what will happen next.
Jennifer Helper, a former Dragon Age writer says that
"Player responses should come at the point where there’s already information on the table that’s worth reacting to…"
Helper believes that dialogue is a way to carry this information “that’s worth reacting to”. And what exactly constitutes what’s worth reacting to is completely subjective. But for me, it’s acting out of my moral will.
The Wolf Among Us and Moral Dialogue
Telltale’s the Wolf Among Us is a game I found to have morally provocative dialogue choices. Recreating the graphic novel series Fables, the game revolves around fairy tale characters who were recently exiled from Fabletown and their attempt to make a living among us “mundys”. Sheriff Bigby Wolf — yes, the Big Bad Wolf — is tasked with the job of solving a string of Fabletown related murders with the help of Snow (White), Fabletown’s acting mayor.
One scene I found “worth reacting to” was an exchange between Bigby and a pig Colin. There’s a lot of history between Colin and Bigby. As the old fairytale goes, Bigby once tried to “blow his house down.” Yes, Colin belongs to the trio of little pigs. Given this context alone, there is a lot of moral tension.
The first exchange between Bigby and Colin is compelling. There are multiple dialogue choices that are driven by this contextual tension. Here’s a clip of their first interaction:
Throughout this exchange, these are the conversational dilemmas the player must choose to respond to:
Kicking Colin off Bigby’s couch.
Hearing Colin’s plea to not be sent back to “The Farm” — an awful place for nonhuman Fables to live in their exile.
Justifying Bigby’s “Big Bad Wolf’s” actions (like y’know, eating people).
Explaining Bigby’s bloody knuckles to Colin.
Giving an example of Bigby’s kindness.
Giving Colin a sip of water.
These conversational nodes were meant to be morally trifling — there’s no right or wrong answer. The only thing that matters is how you, as the player and as Bigby, choose to react to the “information on the table.”
During my playthrough of this encounter, I felt uncomfortable in the best possible way. I felt uncomfortable realizing the Big Bad Wolf and Colin were under the same roof. I felt uncomfortable when Colin, casually taking a drag from his cigarette, was making sarcastic quips about having his house blown over. I felt uncomfortable when Bigby had to put Colin in his place: “This has to stop. You can’t keep sneaking off The Farm like this.” And my choices in this entire exchange, were motivated by this tension. I felt guilty as a player, and as Bigby. Every dialogue option I chose, was what I perceived to be the most forgiving.
Our own dialogue — our own, unique way of speaking, and choosing how to respond — is always rooted in what we perceive to be the right answer. While Life is Strange had some cringey dialogue, it did succeed in making me feel something. But strong dialogue is wholly immersive — it doesn’t distract, and it isn’t empty. Strong dialogue is purposeful, and it serves a delicate interplay of emotion, morality, and will.
This is exactly what makes Witcher 3 so great. Witcher 3 and Blood and Wine are composed of meaningful interactions that actually make you think. It's not the shitty RPG moment where you have to choose which one of two equally noble crew members lives and which one of them dies. Witcher 3 is made up of real interactions with very real people (yes, they're not actually real, but their stories reflect very real experiences that people have in this world and aside from the fantasy side of Witcher 3 the people could absolutely be real). The "which person lives" choice is shallow and meaningless to me.
Witcher 3 interactions make me stop and deeply think about what's going on. "Wow, this person has been through a lot of shit in their life! This is a really sad story. They're still not justified in the actions they took as a reaction to all the shit they've been through, but this person is just a highly functional fucking mess and I want to help them."
Furthermore, many of the consequences don't come simply from a screen where it shows the two big choices and lets you do whatever the fuck you want independent of everything else that has happened. Many decisions are never actually explicitly presented to you. The consequence is simply a result of how you choose to interact and invest in the characters in the normal interactions. I'm not here to give spoilers away, so I really don't want to say more about Blood and Wine or the rest of Witcher 3, but it's really a fantastic story.