I’ve recently finished the CRPG ‘Knights of the Old Republic’ and, frankly, I’m sick to death of role-playing games that feature odious amounts of combat in the endgame when, prior to that point, non-combatitive options had been offered. But that’s by-the-by; what I really want to complain about is branching dialogue.

‘Knights of the Old Republic’ (KOTOR for short), like almost all computer role-playing games, presents you with the apparition of choices when it comes to interacting with non-player characters. I say apparition because KOTOR ended up aggravating me me so than most CRPGs because it required you to engage in a guessing game of interaction.

Let’s take a hypothetical conversation between you and I. Unbeknownst to you I want to persuade you to drop your evil ways and join me on a quest to pick up takeaways. In real life I can use my many wiles to set up conversational strands to (try to) persuade you; in KOTOR I have to guess which conversational pathway the designer has put in to acheive the effect I want.

Which, might I say, doesn’t always work.

Branching dialogue is an attempt to simulate a kind of interaction within the world. It’s a noble idea, but the fidelity isn’t there yet because, with few exceptions (Facade: Windows only), people aren’t simulating dialogue; they are simply writing dialogue trees.

Trees are a nice idea, but when you are confronted with increasing sophistication on every other level of the game world the simplicity and unpredictability of dialogue trees begin to aggravate the player. I know that if I perform certain actions that the game will respond accordingly; attack a civilian and the guards will retaliate. Steal from a faction and the faction will turn hostile. Conversationally, however, the game presents no predictability because I can’t be sure that my actions are leading towards my intended consequences.

On one level this could be seen as good and accurate; I hardly ever know the outcome of my conversations in real life, so why should the game version be any different. However, in real life conversations I can try to alter a bad outcome by extending the conversation or trying a completely different tack. Games offer this to a limited extent but, by-and-large, you are forced to try and think as the designer.

You needn’t have to, though. Instead of offering you a branching dialogue you could go with completely pre-written conversations and offer the player a set of intentions from time to time. Instead of choosing every and each scripted line one by one offer the player options, such as ‘Persuade NPC to join you’ or ‘Show your distaste for what the NPC has done.’ This way the player a) chooses how they react and b) is given limited predictive power in that they can now know what the point of the conversation actually is.

Increasing player interaction seems to be the buzzword in the industry at the moment and CRPGs are lagging behind. Either we need to take a completely different route in presenting dialogue to the player (such as in the ‘Theif’ series) or we need to go the way of AI (the aforementioned ‘Facade’)… Or use my idea, which has probably been done before.

Oh well, back to ‘Wonderfalls.’