In playing Skyrim for Interrupt Request, it occured to me that there is an RPG element that seems to have taken a bit of a step backwards: The dialog option. In some ways, I think this is the fault of console gaming, but it’s probably more to do with worries about the customer base that’s driving the simplification of how we “role play” with our role-playing games. I thought of this when I ran across a nifty way to make your own text adventures quickly and easily, contrasting my hours playing Infocom games as a lad. I found myself wondering why the dialog interface to games hadn’t improved by leaps and bounds the same way graphics had, bringing us cinematic visuals with cue-card menu-driven “interaction” which is less compelling than having a conversation with a chatbot on your favorite instant messenger client.

My bet is that if I asked, “why not use a method where the gamer can type their answers in the hopes of getting a more realistic result from an NPC,” the reasons for avoiding this idea would be multifaceted, which I list behind the break:

- It’s too complicated for consoles. Let’s get this one out of the way first. Yes, you can hook up a keyboard to most gaming consoles or used a texting keyboard that grafts to your controller, but it’s not standard equipment so games tend to leave out just about everything to do with text aside from entering your digital alter-ego’s name, if that. I’d see this as a way to sell graftible keyboards. One could also borrow a keyboard from whatever computer is available in the house, or get an el cheapo one for as little as five dollars, depending on where/when you shop.
- We’d have to take misspelling into account. I can download a spellchecker for my web browser, most word processors come with them, and if you just limit yourself to the words you want the game to know, Zork always told me “I don’t know what the word ‘asjferjg*headdesk*’ means.” It would probably be easy to license a predictive text program like the ones that are on most cell phones, or suggest words (or names, especially) if they’re not quite right. One could even allow users to customize the dictionary, turning “u” into “you” as desired.
- It would break the flow of the game. Most of the games I’ve played present you with a dialog option and (usually) stop the rest of the universe until you finish chatting. I could go and spend a year with a monastic order of humming mystics and Mass Effect wouldn’t care until I finally chose what Shepard was going to say about his favorite store on the Citadel.
- Making up your own sentences is too cumbersome for gamers to have fun. This would be an odd argument from an industry that keeps making more and more complex inventory management systems and button combos to execute various (often necessary) attacks. I’d make it optional as well, or even have a kind of hint system that prompts you after three fruitless tries with something like “Maybe she knows something about the Amulet of Jimsoks?”

One of the main reasons I’d like to see this is to give the player a chance to emote, even if it’s fruitless. Being able to say something with a bunch of exclamation points on the end can be satisfying, as you imagine screaming at the merchant who won’t sell you Mystic Item Component #25 for the gold you have. Conversely, if games had little scripts on the lookout for certain words, maybe being a little more verbose could get you replies that weren’t obvious at first. With some tweaks to how voices are played back from NPCs, certain word choices could illicit more emotional responses. I just think it’d add a level of interaction that’s been degrading over time, and might be fun to see in a future first-person RPG. Besides, if you get frustrated with the game, it was always fun to see how many swear words it knew and how it would admonish you for using them.