Monday, June 7, 2010

Dialogue vs Combat (Part 3)

RPGs are frequently about the story and the characters. It's the story-telling in an interactive form that attracts so many ardent fans. Whether they're gripped by the epic tale of their character, or if they become enamored with the NPCs (and some players certainly do!) players come to love the reality in which the game is set.

But with only a story, an RPG would be little more than an interactive movie. So RPGs cater to the desires of the player to engage in glorious battles, defeating their enemies against overwhelming odds, playing out the fight scenes that would be present were the story simply a book or movie. This not only provides a lot of excitement and challenge for the player, but they also feel more invested in their protagonist because they have take control of their development and directed their actions in epic combat.

Okay, so he's not an RPG villain, but he is practically the epitome of epic combat.

Dialogue and combat supplement each other wonderfully in an excellent RPG. The story provides a rich narrative and world for the player to experience and direct the actions of their character, and the combat raises the tension of their journey as they grow in power and deal with more fearsome and deadly enemies to eventually overcome a great challenge or adversary.

Obviously, the first means to balance dialogue and combat is to not inundate the player with too much of either over a given stretch. When the player is getting pressed with a lot of quests and dialogue, throw in a short, sharp combat to break it up.

For example, take the encounter with Garrus and Dr Michel in Mass Effect 1. On the citadel, the player gets a serious case of "too many quests" syndrome. Everyone wants Shepherd's help with something, and has a lot to say about it beforehand. This encounter starts with a short action cutscene where Shepherd's entrance allows Garrus to take a shot in a hostage situation, and then combat ensues.  It's a refreshing fast-paced change to the slower dialogue that the player has been experiencing for a little while.

Is my heatsink overheated or isn't it? I guess you have to ask yourself one question...

Of course, the flipside when you have lots of combat is to simply throw in a conversation or cutscene. This is great because it reminds the players of why they are doing a lot of fighting, and potentially raises the stakes of the conflict.  Just like a good protagonist in a movie makes a viewer care about what happens to them, good plot development in a game makes a player eager to prevail against their enemies.

Another excellent means of providing players with an optimal balance of combat and dialogue is choice. (Yes, regular readers, I'm talking about choice again) If you actually allow players to pick whether they are going to pursue a quest through diplomacy or simply killing all their opposition, then you win on two counts. Not only do you let the player feel in control of the game (because they are!), but you also let them decide whether they want more or less combat. This approach will need extra work on the scripting side of things in addition to the work required to produce a dialogue and a combat focused quest, but even a few of these will really add to the player's sense that they are in a "real" world. Now, while Planescape: Torment probably isn't the best example of balancing dialogue versus combat (as it had swathes of text you had to read through), it did provide the opportunity to fight or talk your way through numerous encounters throughout the game.

The time for diplomacy has ended!

While mixing up combat and dialogue is the obvious choice, it is possible to provide variance within the presentation of each to keep them both fresh.  For starters, dialogue should never go on for too long without the player being forced to do something, it's a game, not a movie.  The player should also be forced to make different sorts of reactions, whether deciding how to pursue a particular quest, either sweet-talking or insulting an important NPC, or getting their character to deliver a rousing speech to an audience.  Combat can be varied to a great degree by pitting the player against different enemies or forcing them to use different tactics.

Finally, there's also the (sometimes dreaded) fallback of providing mini-games to add another gameplay element, but that's probably a discussion better left for another time...


  1. Nice articles.
    May I ask you where the big bull with four arms come from? I mean the name of the Videogame.
    Thanks :)

  2. The top screenshot with the giant four-armed bull-headed monster is from Serious Sam, an over-the-top first person shooter.