Conveying Story to the Player Without Dialogue or Cutscenes, p1

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Part 1 of 2, by Pieter Parker

With over 320,000 recorded words used in Jade Empire and 20,000 lines of dialogue in Mass Effect (the equivalent of 15-20 movie screenplays for you number crunchers out there), there is no doubt that BioWare games are story heavy games that are rich with dialogue. The question is, are cinematics and dialogue the only way to convey story to the player, or are there other options available to the enthusiastic developer? In short, the answer is yes; and we as both an industry and a fan base are seeing a change in the way story is conveyed in video games.

In Metal Gear Solid 4, there is a segment in the game where the player has to maneuver Snake through a tunnel that is gradually getting hotter. As the player progresses through the tunnel, the heat starts to get to Snake, causing him to fall to his knees as his suit literally melts. By the time the player reaches the end of the tunnel, both Snake and the player are struggling with every move forward, turning what could have been just a cinematic experience into an enthralling gameplay moment. Moments like these in games help to tie the player to the character they are controlling and give them a feeling of empathy for the character.

There are times when actions speak louder than words in life, and this can apply to video games as well. Say for example, the main character has been playing as a Renegade type throughout the game, and is forced to watch the love of his life die? The character may be sad for a while, but eventually he’ll move on and continue to go on to save the world. But what if the main character was a Paragon type? He would surely be depressed to see his lover die, and if the emotions that a normal person would feel when losing a loved one were reflected in gameplay such as sadness and self doubt; or confidence and courage, we could give the player more interesting gameplay scenarios like the one described in Metal Gear Solid 4.

Another way to convey story to the player is having the character more actively interact with the environment around them, such as observing and pointing out things that the player wouldn’t normally notice, or inquiring about it as they walk around with their party members. A good example of how something like this is used and could be exploited more is in Left 4 Dead, where characters will automatically call out the location of health packs and weapons upon sighting them, or shout out the location of a Boomer that is about to attack the party. These types of experiences are much more engaging and likely to stick in the player’s memory than just having a back and forth dialogue interaction where the enemy at hand is explained to you by an NPC.

Header graphic created from work of James Lyall Photography

Pieter Parker has wanted to work in the games industry since he first learned how to hold a controller and after a quick bout of schooling, has since managed to stumble his way into the company he loves, BioWare. In his spare time he can be seen looking up bad YouTube videos with which he can horrify his co-workers; and doing his best to avoid getting shot with nerf guns by his co-workers.