Imagine: It’s Tuesday. You sit down to work on the script for your video game. You get some ideas down on the page/screen.
It looks bad.
You remind yourself that all first drafts are bad. It doesn’t feel good to see terrible dialogue on your screen, but it’s part of the process. You reassure yourself that it will get better.
And then your mind goes there…
You start thinking about games you’ve played with terrible dialogue. Laugh-out-loud bad dialogue.
You don’t want anybody to laugh at YOUR script.
You need to turn your script into something players will love.
But how? How can you be sure you’re doing this right?
Those other writers didn’t set out to write a bad script, after all. They probably worked hard, just like you’re working hard right now.
So what went wrong on those other projects? How can you avoid the same mistakes?
The problem is that game dialogue is unlike any other form of dialogue, because most lines are for the benefit of someone who isn’t even in the scene - the player.
Writing around the player
Good dialog reveals character - and builds relationships between characters. When we talk, we’re doing it for someone else’s benefit. Speakers need a listener - someone who can respond, and keep the conversation going.
But in games, the listener is the player. How can they respond? Maybe through some canned avatar responses, or through action, like punching the speaker or leaving the room. Not great for conversation.
How do we write good dialogue when our scene partner isn’t really there in the scene, AKA the game world?
One way is to use the same tool other script writers use - status. It works for them and yes it can work for you, too.
How to use character status
First, what the heck do we mean by status?
From Talk The Talk: A Dialogue Workshop For Scriptwriters:
“Let’s begin with a fact that underlies all human interaction. Human beings are animals - literally.
“In his book, Impro, Keith Johnstone argues that humans, like animals, take on status roles in their interactions with each other: low status, or high status. If you listen, you can hear these status roles reflected in the way people talk:
Very Low Status: If you’re not using it, could you please pass that pen?
Low Status: Please pass the pen.
High Status: Give me a pen.
Very High Status: [snaps fingers for a pen]
Makes sense, right? We’ve all heard people speak with different levels of status. We do it ourselves. Sometimes we’re high status, sometimes we’re low status. It all depends on who we’re with. A college freshman may be lower status when talking to a professor, but higher status when talking to their baby brother.
Rewrites for lowlifes
We can use status when writing a conversation between two NPCs, like a sergeant barking orders at a private.
But if you apply status to the player character, that’s when things really change for the better.
You can hear it in the muffled dialog from the guard - he’s the one in charge. He tells you what to do, and he doesn’t have to say Please. And he doesn’t much care what you have to say, which is convenient because you can’t speak anyway. This is life when you're low status!
Once you start looking for status, you see it everywhere.
A more recent example is Disco Elysium, where the player character is a hot mess. At the beginning of the game, you’re sprawled out in your underwear in a seedy hotel room and you have no idea what is going on. The avatar dialogue reflects the character trying to suss out if he has any status or not with the people he’s talking to. Can he get what he wants, or not? It’s up to the player to navigate these complicated situations. And luckily, they have a lifetime of experience navigating status, so they know what to do.
Some games even give players the power to build (or tear down) their character’s status in the world. In Far Cry 2, the player built up their status based on how they played the game. NPCs reacted differently to the player, depending on whether they were high status or low status. If you were high status, you were considered more of a threat by the other mercenaries & locals, so they would glare at you directly and menace you. It was disturbing and effective. If you were of low status, they were more likely to dismiss you. The player has to work to build status in the game, just like we do in real life.
So what does this mean for your script?
Well in Far Cry 2 we wrote our scripts based on status. The lines just flowed. We had a much better sense of how people would talk to each other. So when in doubt, lean into status. It will make your life so much easier. Once you know character status in a scene - including, especially, the player’s status - your scripts will come to life. Your dialogue will go beyond just “giving gameplay information to the player.” By weaving status into your scripts, you can reveal character, build relationships, and motivate the player. Hooray for that!
Test this theory. Take a look at one of your favorite games, and watch how everybody interacts. Who is high status? Who is low status? How does the player character fit in?
And which character do you like the most? You might be surprised to see that high-status characters aren’t all that interesting, and it’s the lower-status characters that we come to love!
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Susan’s first job as a game writer was for “a slumber party game - for girls!” She’s gone on to work on over 25 projects, including award-winning titles in the BioShock, Far Cry and Tomb Raider franchises. Titles in her portfolio have sold over 30 million copies and generated over $500 million in sales. She is an adjunct professor at UT Austin, where she teaches a course on writing for games. A long time ago, she founded the Game Narrative Summit at GDC. Now, she partners with studios, publishers, and writers to help teams ship great games with great stories. She is dedicated to supporting creatives in the games industry so that they can do their best work.