Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Maintaining consistent voice

Once thing I have noticed with some mods is the writing for characters tends to suffer somewhat. Now, some mods have issues with spelling and grammar, but even beyond that a frequent problem is having inconsistent speech style for a character, or worse still, a single style consistent across all characters. This is obviously something that all writers must consider, whether it be for novels, play, film, any form of writing that involves characters and dialogue. That includes video games.

To demonstrate my point, let's take some extreme examples from Dragon Age.  On one hand, let us consider Alistair, a wise-cracking and somewhat insecure warrior, who perhaps struggles with the hand that life has dealt him. This is reflected in his speech, his choice of words, his ability to make a joke even in dark circumstances, and so on. It comes through in his dialogue.  Contrast his character with that of Sten. Sten's dialogue consists of very words, and he typically interprets everything you say literally. He is direct, has little time for humour or wit, and is driven and focused. They both have very distinct and different styles of speaking, with their words, tone of voice, pace of speech, and every aspect of their dialogue.

Player: What were you doing in that cage?  Sten: Standing.

If you had to write dialogue between these two characters, it probably wouldn't be difficult.  But what about if you're writing dialogue for other, less well defined NPCs? Perhaps minor quests givers whose motives you haven't fully defined? (In that case, you need to give them a purpose first!) Even so, it can be difficult to have a fully fleshed out character with a detailed personality, and in the case of minor NPCs, this sometimes isn't necessary.  However, what you must make sure of is that characters have a distinct voice.

Ensure that every character does not sound exactly the same. Each person will have their own favoured words, or manner of speaking. They could be quick to anger, suspicious, treat the player with disdain, be in awe of the player... there are countless options.  The main point is to ensure that you have a clear picture of their style of speech, keeping in mind the words they would use given their upbringing, social status, and their standing in relation to the player.

Don't make lots of NPCs feel like carbon copies

One suggestion I would make to modders to help them maintain a consistent voice for a character is to try and "get inside their head" as it were, and make sure you have a clear picture of the type of thought process and speech patterns.  It may help to try and write NPC dialogue in large chunks for individual NPCs rather than trying to write for many characters in a short period of time.

For exmaple, if you are writing a quest that involves talking to multiple NPCs, it may help to write all of a character's dialogue for that quest without switching to another character. By this, I mean that once you have defined your quest completely, write all the dialogue for each NPC in turn.  If you have defined the various states and interactions that the player can have with each NPC (and if you haven't done this, you should!) you can write all of the NPC's dialogue without switching characters.

While experienced writers can switch between characters without difficulty, modders often run the risk of having all their NPCs sound almost identical if they switch back and forth between them while writing a quest. If you have done your planning, put it to good use by letting it help you write strong and believable individuals within your work.


  1. You make some good points. I've actually noticed myself suffering this in some unreleased segments of my module, where one of the companion characters switches personalities between scenes, and even in different lines of the same dialogue.

  2. A trick I used in Classic Week was having each companion use a different name for the PC - Invictus would always use "", Guanyin always says "Boss" and Medea uses "Dear". Those quirks are tied closely to their personalities, and would naturally come up frequently. This helped me keep those personalities in mind :)

    While obviously you want all of your dialogue to be as good as possible, I think in a Bioware-derived game you get the most bang for your time investing in the quality of your companions.

  3. Heh, [FirstName/] in angle brackets didn't render :)

  4. This is something I am struggling with right now. I had written a bunch of companion dialogue a couple of months back and now, I am extending that by adding more interjections as well as presenting alternate branches for companion dialogue and getting back into the original flow is a little difficult.

    Another thing I've noticed is that the dialogue writing can get coloured by the short-term flow, especially when writing quest dialogues. When I review the companion interjections in these dialogues, I notice that the interjections I've written vary by the choice the player selects - rather than sticking to the companion's character. This may be the result of just trying to have opposite/favourable reactions by the companions but that's another thing writers should be wary of, I think.

  5. Jye: Yes, having favoured words - whether they are the word the character uses to refer to the player, or merely a couple of choice words in their vocabulary that help dictate the tone of their speech is a great means to do this. I recently wrote some dialogue for a rather pompous character, keeping in mind a few key words that they liked to use helped infuse the entire dialogue with their personality.

    Timelord: It is indeed possible for dialogue to become coloured by other factors. This is particularly the case when you haven't written extensively for the character previously. When I was creating Fate of a City, I had written much of the companion interjections before I had completely finished off their personal dialogue and their romance lines.

    Once I had done these, I went back to all the interjections. While the message of each interjection was consistent with their personality, I found I made a number of changes in the nuance of their delivery to help convey the complexity of their personalities with greater effect.