The presentation of written dialogue in games can have a huge impact on how a scene is perceived by the player. There are a few scenes that really stand out in my mind when I think of game dialogue, and each of these scenes does something special with its dialogue that is unique to the video game medium - something that books and movies simply can’t replicate. I would posit that there’s even an art to to good game dialogue presentation, for whatever weight that carries. Let’s take a closer look.

Ocarina of Time

Ocarina of Time did some excellent pacing in certain dialogue boxes within the game, but one thing I noticed when replaying it on N64 in recent months is how dreadfully slow the dialogue felt in much of the game. But that’s primarily because after beating the game a dozen times, I don’t want to sit through every NPC’s speech one character at a time. A slightly faster character-drawing speed, and perhaps a skip-ahead button for repeat playthroughs, would have been welcome.

With that knock out of the way, what makes it good? For one, I think it was actually really smart idea to have NPC-spoken dialogue to draw on the screen slowly, while written dialogue (such as signs and gravestones) appear instantly on-screen. Immediately you get a different gameplay experience to represent reading versus speaking. Even though both types of dialogue are, in fact, forms of reading from the player’s perspective, they feel like different experiences.

There are also a few instances throughout the game where NPC dialogue is paced in such a way, word-by-word, that replicates how they would actually be speaking. A great example of this is the carpenters’ dialogue in Gerudo Fortress. In the second-to-last dialogue box of this exchange, the carpenter’s speech stops being drawn character-by-character (normal flow of speech) and switches to word-by-word, a pattern which rolls into the final dialogue box telling Link to “Watch out!”. When I read this in my head as it’s presented on-screen, I understand that the carpenter’s tone has shifted, and he’s suddenly afraid of something. I think the literary equivalent would perhaps be adding a descriptive sentence between the dialogue boxes, something like “The carpenter shifted his focus behind Link, his eyes filled with dread as a shadowy figure approached the cell.” Maybe something less cliche than that, but you get it.

Paper Mario

Paper Mario (N64) knew how to have fun with its genre in a time when we were just coming off of the JRPG craze of the SNES era and heading into this revolutionary new world of 3D games. The game shed a lot of the complexity that JRPGs had developed over the years and brought to the table a super-approachable RPG with a charming cast of characters and environments. But without fawning over the actual content of the story, I want to focus specifically on its dialogue presentation.

I vividly remember the use of text animation in this game’s dialogue boxes, something that I don’t think I had seen before that. Granted, I hadn’t played many RPGs before this when I played it for the first time (not even SMRPG, which I still have not finished to this day). But take a look at a few examples:

(volume warning on the clips below)

  • Toad guard is incredibly scared of the Boo from the Haunted Woods. Not only does his dialogue text shake to represent that he’s scared, but it shakes more as the conversation progresses.
  • The Boo Painting has a static-effect applied to his dialogue, which indicates that his voice is somewhat… distant. It’s breaking up. It’s emphasizing that he’s not entirely material… or at least more immaterial than a Boo already is? And keep watching that for a few seconds to see…
  • Lady Bow’s introduction, which is in large, wavy text that takes up the whole dialogue box.
  • Much more subtly, the Boo yelling after watching his friend get eaten (alive?). Notice that the text isn’t just drawn into the dialogue box, it’s slapped on there, indicating the dialogue has been expressed with force!

And all that is just from a portion of one chapter of the game. There are examples of techniques like these used throughout the game, and whenever they’re used (or when special animations are intentionally not used) I’m definitely able to hear the characters “speak” in my head. I would love to take some time and find all the other subtle dialogue tricks in this game that I haven’t conciously noticed before.

Paper Mario’s successor continues to innovate with text animations, but TTYD also brings a new set of dialogue box visuals to be used when important characters are speaking. A few examples:

  • The totally-not-perverted TEC speaks with a dialogue box with sharp corners, a thick bezel, and a classic command-line terminal color scheme. On top of that, he gets a distinct sound effect when his dialogue boxes open and close, as you might expect from a computer with some sort of voice-recognition/response system. This really drives home the point that Peach is essentially alone here, and her only outlet of conversation is with someone/something that doesn’t speak anything like her or anyone she knows.
  • When being “cursed” by an evil chest, the chest’s dialogue box will transition from the normal cloud-like one into a more sinister jagged one, accompanied by a synthy minor-key arpeggio (forgive me, I just mash music words together sometimes) for his open/close sound effect. But his dialogue box is only about as sinister as the curse he places upon you, since he’s not been deemed special enough to get a whole new color scheme.
  • Peach as possessed by the Shadow Queen receives a similar treatment: white text on a deep purple (shadowy-colored) background with irregular edges. Her open/close sound effect seems to be the standard one for dialogue boxes, but with some discomforting jitter added.

You get the idea. Every aspect of the dialogue box can be customized to help characters speak to the player, and I think this plays a huge part in making the dialogue and characters of these games so memorable.

Animal Crossing

Where would any good dialogue discussion be without mentioning Animal Crossing? The series’ trademark Animalese chatter has stuck with every iteration since 2001. I could listen to gameplay blindfolded and as soon as a character speaks, I would know exactly what game (series) you’re playing, and maybe even which character you’re talking to. It’s really the simplest thing, too - Animalese takes pre-recorded voices for pronunciations of each character in the alphabet and plays them as each character is drawn on screen. I’m sure there’s more going on, technically, but that’s the gist of it. And it works surprisingly well! Take a few voice samples, tone them up and down to fit the personality/animal, and you’ve got a whole simulated language going.

I don’t really have much to add other than pointing it out, but I definitely learned to love or hate the sound of certain villagers voices when I played the game as a kid. I really learned to hate the sounds of Tom Nook’s kids on the 2nd floor of Nookington’s… but let’s focus on the positives! Worth noting that the Paper Mario games use dialogue chatter as well, not quite to as much of a memorable effect, but I feel like it’s all part of the recipe that goes into executing good dialogue.

Undertale

I also want to give a shout out to Undertale, which does more than just use the techniques above, but enriches its entire story with them. But it also throws on the so-stupid-it’s-funny joke of having the characters Sans and Papyrus literally named after the fonts that they speak in. That aside, we’ve got:

  • Mettaton’s dialogue pacing compared to the other characters emphasizes that he is talking like a machine. A pretty old machine at that. You can see pacing at play again during the quiz show, when Alphys answers a question for you, and her dialogue pace changes from excited to embarassed as she realizes how she’s acting.
  • Text animation is used all over the place, especially in the battle scenes. Just watch the Mettaton fight in the clip above to see how text animation is used for comedic effect.
  • Every major character has a dialogue chatter sound that reflects how they would speak. Sans and Papyrus probably have the starkest contrast, indicative of their polar-opposite personalities. Sans has what I would describe as a “laid-back, mumbling” chatter while Papyrus has a much more uptight-sounding “punch” to back his dialogue.

I think I’ll wrap it up here. Point is, there’s a lot of work that goes into crafting a great written dialogue experience, and I think it’s a fascinating channel through which to tell a story that you can only experience in a video game. Spoken dialogue has replaced a lot of written dialogue in big-budget games today, but that’s not necessarily a move for the better. Fallout 4’s story suffered tremendously, in my opinion, when moving to a voice-acted protagonist, but I’ll save that discussion for another day. I look forward to seeing more innovation in this field!

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