I started thinking out loud about it on Twitter, but didn’t want to swamp your timeline with it, so I’ll paste what I said so far and continue it here:
Made me realise how many judgements and assumptions we make in saying “Violence is easy to simulate.”
We mean that when you simplify violence into something that is easy to simulate, the fidelity you lose isn’t stuff we care about.
Whereas when we simplify social relationships between people to the same extent, the things we lose seem like a big deal, and the simplification feels crude.
One simplification we’ve learned to accept is a finite list of response options to dialogue. That makes conversations ‘easy’ to simulate, and allows for some authorial intent in defining the character you play, at the cost of some freedom for you as the player. Eg. “I want to tell the Illusive Man to fuck off!” vs “Commander Shepard wouldn’t do that in this situation.”
How much freedom you lose, and how much authorial intent is imposed, is largely up to the developer. Most err on the extreme side of authorial control – myself included. In Gunpoint, only a few dialogue choices in the whole game take you down a meaningfully different path. Most get you a specific response, so that the conversation reads well, then immediately return you to the same state you would be in regardless of what you said. How do I make that not seem odd? I just never give you the option to say something that *would* dramatically alter the course of the conversation.
How far can you go in the other direction? How ‘free’ can a dialogue tree get? There’s always going to be a limit on how much ‘stuff’ you can produce, so a limit to how many options you can account for and offer to the player. Branching gets expensive fast: giving the player four options for their first line only requires writing eight lines – four options and four responses. Giving them four options for the line that leads on from there means writing another 32. The next one takes 128. The one after that takes another 512. And after you’ve written those 680 lines of dialogue, you have an 8-line conversation.
So, that’s why people don’t do that. That’s especially why people making voice-acted games don’t do that. And that’s why sometimes when you say something in a BioWare game, the character’s response sounds a lot like it was written primarily as a reply to one of the things you could have said but didn’t.
So there are a bunch of tricks to make people’s choices loop back to the same point or sound like they made a difference when they didn’t, including defining enough about who they are in this world that you get to restrict them to a certain course of action.
But giving people lots of options is only the most naive, brute-force solution to allowing them more freedom. I said that simplifying the real-world concept of a conversation down to a dialogue tree ‘costs’ us some freedom we care about. In a way that restricting us to effectively only shooting someone in the ‘head’ or the ‘body’ doesn’t. So the challenge in making dialogue trees better isn’t necessarily just ‘reduce the loss of freedom’, it’s ‘reduce the loss of freedoms we care about’.
One freedom we almost always lose in dialogue trees is the option to just bark something nonsensical or offensive and refuse to participate, but that’s not one many people really, strongly desire in game after game. It might be nice to do it once, but ultimately it’s the freedom to not play the game that has been made for you, and you already have that.
So I’m wondering if there’s a way to focus your option-creating efforts on the options players will most want, so that the freedoms they’re losing are the ones they care least about exploring. Obviously ‘good writing’ gets you some of the way there, but that’s not a slider we can vary freely. ‘Testing’ helps too, and that at least is something we can just decide to do more of. But there’s a limit: it’s tough to observe players on a large scale, particularly with meagre resources.
So wouldn’t it be cool if, at the bottom of every dialogue tree in a game, you had a box called something like “What I wish I could say here:” As a player, any time you’re not happy with your options, you write something in there and it’s sent to the developer. It doesn’t help you personally, right now, but the dev can see “Boy, a lot of people really wish they could tell the Illusive Man to get fucked when he essentially recruits you into his terrorist organisation purely by having a spaceship that looks like your favourite spaceship.” Or “Wow, seems like people think they should be able to contact this Alliance Navy they’re an officer of, and who would sure like to know they’re alive now, and could totally solve all the current problems pressuring you into joining a terrorist faction.” Or “Jesus, seems like Tom is really bitter about this one particular non-choice in Mass Effect 2 even though we did an otherwise peerless job in blending an authored character with meaningful player choice over the course of a vast trilogy.”
If I do story in Heat Signature, I won’t do this – it’s better for a game that’s really ‘about’ the story or choices. What I am planning, though, is to write several short, self-contained stories rather than one over-arching one. As you can see from the maths, branching stories get exponentially more expensive the longer they are, so short ones are super efficient and don’t need to compromise so much on player freedom. And you can still have them feed into each other in a few binary, easily accountable ways – though I don’t know how far down that route I’ll go.