Design With a Grain of Salt: Dialogue

What is this nonsense?

So in this periodic series, we’ll be discussing the nature of game design in a freeform fashion. There are no rules! Taff the po-lice!

I’ll be doing these posts periodically to let the public know what goes through my head when I’m designing things. A lot of you are budding designers, or want to get into the field. Maybe you’ll learn something. Maybe I’ll learn something. Maybe we’ll all just stay dumb. Let’s find out together!

On Dialogue Screens

So, in Pandemonium: The Adventure, we have a unique custom-made dialogue system. It incorporates elements from a lot of different styles, and brings them together to make an effective system.

Here’s a screenshot:DialogueShot00
In case you’re wondering, Mei and Nadia in this shot haven’t been colored yet. Still, it shows off the features I need it to. Let’s examine them:

  • There are two dialogue boxes in this shot. One at the top, one at the bottom. The dialogue box not in use is cleared and greyed out. Characters on the right side of the screen use the top box, the ones on the left (usually the player’s party) use the one on the bottom.
  • The character who is currently speaking is highlighted while the others are greyed out slightly.
  • The background is greyed out.
  • All of the characters relevant to the discussion are present, and usually have several emotions they can display.

Let’s talk about some other features that can’t be shown in a screenshot:

  • When dialogue is occurring, characters never move in the background. The engine is perfectly capable of allowing this, but it is a design choice not to use it. The exceptions are automatic animations such as wings flapping. Since the background is greyed out, this is usually not a big issue.
  • Each character has a different ‘voice’. When their text is writing to the console, a different sound plays based on who is speaking. Some NPCs share the same voice, but two users of the same voice are never present in the same conversation.
  • Characters rarely change which emotion they are displaying when they are not speaking. Sometimes they do, usually as a result of something another character said (such as “Calm down” removing the “Angry” emotion), but generally they do not.
  • During cutscenes where the characters must speak and actions must occur, the background is blacked out. The characters announce what they are doing and sound effects play as appropriate.

Now let’s take a look at a different system of dialogue:


This is taken from an RPGMaker sample game. I found it at this link. Here are some differences:

  • Characters continue to animate while the dialogue is up. In many cutscenes, characters will move and act while the dialogue is up, often while it is scrolling. The screen is not darkened on purpose.
  • Even when not in a cutscene but still in a dialogue, characters still animate (such as their idling/walking animations). While this is often unavoidable as it’d look strange if they stopped, the screen is not darkened.
  • There is a portrait next to the dialogue, in addition to the character’s name.

Now, not all of the things going on here are necessarily bad. Some are just different, but as a designer we need to be constantly asking ourselves what works and what doesn’t, and more importantly, why.

What am I looking at?

During dialogue sequences, the player is obviously going to be reading the dialogue. Various people read dialogue at different speeds. During this time, their eyes ought to be ideally focused on the dialogue (duh) and their peripheral vision can see the rest of the screen.

What this means is that you, the designer, need to make every attempt possible to guide the player’s eyes to the dialogue. You must therefore also make every attempt possible to not guide the player’s eyes away from the dialogue. This is why I have chosen to darken the background in Pandemonium: The Adventure, and to make sure cutscenes never take place while dialogue is scrolling. I want the player to be paying attention to the part of the screen with the dialogue flowing, not the constant character animation.

If there is a cutscene going on, the dialogue stops when it’s time for characters to act. The screen loses its darkening and usually about 0.5 seconds elapse between the dialogue fading out and the actions starting.

We can also take note of one of the big advantages of having two dialogue boxes, as well. During a scene where there are two or more characters speaking, the fact that the speaker has changed is visually obvious because the dialogue begins rendering on the other part of the screen (and, in Pandemonium’s case, the voice will change as well). The player’s eyes will also draw across the character portraits on their way to the scrolling dialogue, catching the emotional change in their peripheral vision. Because characters rarely change emotions when the dialogue is scrolling, the player’s eyes will not be drawn back to the main field until it is time to switch speakers or start a new speech paragraph with the same character.

The Fine Art of Portraits (hurr hurr puns)

Portrait selection is crucial to display an emotion (though good writing can convey emotion independent of the portrait, or with no portraits). The problem with many projects is that they have portraits and then do not use them correctly, despite them taking up screen real-estate. In the above RPGMaker screenshot, we can see that this is some minor NPC character the player has never met before and probably won’t be seeing again. This is not an important character, but they have exactly the same emotional range as the protagonist does.

In Pandemonium, the player character, Mei, has nine emotions. Florentina, an important party member, has seven. Nadia, a minor recurring character, has one. NPCs often have one or none depending on how important they are. When speaking to minor characters, only one dialogue box appears and the screen is not darkened. This is to indicate that this dialogue is considerably less important than the ones with more important characters.

If every character has one portrait, this is the same effect as no characters having any portraits. It’s not that it is absolutely 100% vital to follow this rule, merely that an opportunity is missed and it is entirely a design problem. The engine is perfectly capable of not having portraits for every character, yet the game developer chose to give them all portraits and names.

Cutscenes: Doing and Saying

Please observe this video, starting at 5:25.

This is a video from the SNES version of Final Fantasy 6. In this version, there were no portraits in the game (the GBA version added them). In order to communicate quickly who is speaking during a cutscene, the last character to perform an action is usually the one who begins speaking. While the character’s name is written as they speak, the player is not reading that section explicitly, they are going to be half-skipping it subconsciously. You can improve this subconscious reading speed by making the cutscenes to match. This is why characters in these cutscenes often perform a seemingly pointless action (such as waving their hands or nodding) right before they speak. It’s also why the Power Rangers never stop waving their damn hands around, and why the camera can’t keep still.

I Don’t Know How to End This Article

I’ve got nothing left to say on this particular topic for the moment. That’s it. Go away.