Any RPG worth its salt will have a multitude of ways to approach a given obstacle. Do you kick the door down and introduce everyone to your favorite laser rifle? Do you sneak in through the air ducts with your best John McClane impression? Or, do you come equipped with a silver tongue, armed only with your words and crossed fingers that your charisma rolls don’t come up snake-eyes? If you favor the Captain Picard approach and diplomacy is your passion, you’ve probably wrangled more than your fair share of dialogue systems over the years with varying results. With so many games focusing on slick combat systems revolving around how best to reduce your adversaries to a fine paste, perhaps a step back to examine the other end of the spectrum would prove a worthwhile endeavor.
Using speech as a mechanic in games has been something developers have wrestled with for years; Bethesda, for instance, seems to frequent the more basic approach of having a flat skill check. Is your speech skill high enough for this dialogue option? Yes? You may pass “Go” and collect $200. Easy, simple to understand, doesn’t get in the way, and doesn’t offer much in terms of actually roleplaying a speech-based character. On the other hand, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is an example of a game that tackles dialogue from a more mechanical standpoint. Talking your way through situations is integrated into gameplay choices; you pick dialogue options, and gauge reaction based on what you’ve said. You can then use these reactions to make a more educated approach for your next dialogue option. Dialogue sequences at pivotal plot points play out like tactical boss fights where every choice you make could sway the situation in or out of your favor, though these sequences are not so numerous that a play-style specifically tailored to speech skills becomes viable as a singular style of progression (looking at you, forced boss encounters). Games like Mass Effect use special dialogue options as a reward for committing to a specific play style, locking unique and often influential choices behind a morality system. While this serves as a nice reward for being purely altruistic or evil, it sometimes hinders the ability to play a morally gray protagonist. If it’s fair to say that triple-A titles have always shared a timid relationship with dialogue as a mechanic, we need look no further than the realm of isometric cRPGs to find the more ambitious approaches on how to deal with the spoken word.
Which brings us to a developer that has made strong dialogue and character writing a proud calling card of their design philosophy: Obsidian Entertainment. Mostly known for their contributions to larger franchises with Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords and Fallout: New Vegas, Obsidian was eager to make waves with their own IPs, and Kickstarter answered the call. Marketed as a spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate, Obsidian released their own isometric cRPG Pillars of Eternity in 2015. With a strong cast of characters, a distinct and well-crafted world, and an audience craving old-school RPGs, Obsidian had quite the hot commodity on their hands; hot enough to merit a sequel, it turns out. With Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire, Obsidian clearly had innovation on their mind, often to a fault. Introducing a slew of new mechanics from multi-classing to the infamously ill-fated ship combat, Obsidian was not content to play things safe. Given their fondness for dialogue, it’s no surprise that a few of these new mechanics found their way into the dialogue system.
Like many party-based RPGs, how you choose to carry yourself has an effect on your companions’ opinion of you. Pretty standard fare as far as the genre goes. Each companion has a certain personality, and that personality dictates how they respond to your actions. Where Pillars of Eternity II takes a more innovative step is its incorporation of this mechanic between companions. Not only do companions have a responsive relationship with you, they also react dynamically to each other. If you have a companion who is consistently anti-religious, they will begin to develop a contentious relationship with the devout priest of the group the longer they’re around each other. These tensions can boil over in heated arguments between companions, and the escalation feels genuine thanks to the nature of the constantly developing relationships. Given that these are reactive to dialogue, these conflicts develop naturally (for the most part) as a background to simply playing through conversations, giving everyone’s dialogue a new level of complexity, not just the player’s. It’s an earnest yet imperfect attempt at more natural evolution of character through dialogue, and while it may have stumbled in terms of execution, the ideas behind the system represent an ambitious evolution of much simpler mechanics introduced all the way back in Baldur’s Gate. Obsidian was clearly passionate about dialogue as a tool for dynamic storytelling with Pillars of Eternity II, and that passion shines through in the finished product, even if their innovations are a little rough around the edges. But where Obsidian was taking positive steps in a more conventional cRPG setting, a small indie developer from Estonia was about to raise the bar for years to come.
Developed by ZA/UM and released in October of 2019, Disco Elysium is an isometric cRPG that is ferociously intelligent in both writing and game design; to say it broke the mould in terms of what’s possible in RPGs would not do it nearly enough justice. Dialogue isn’t just a mechanic in Disco Elysium, it’s the mechanic; it should come as no surprise that the game has frequently garnered the praise of “the best book you’ll ever play” from it’s passionate fanbase. Being a detective story with little to no combat encounters, Disco Elysium faced the challenge of how to make a full experience entirely through the strength of its speech mechanics. Amidst a myriad of innovations, two in particular stand out as exceptional.
First off, the game is littered with speech checks, but instead of taking the traditional binary route of having a failed check result in a “fail state” for that particular dialogue, Disco Elysium has all kinds of different responses for failed speech checks. This was most likely done due to the fact that these checks aren’t a “flat” check like Bethesda titles. While your skills in Disco Elysium raise your chance to pass a check, it’s still based on a D&D style dice roll at the end of the day. With the possibility of failure always present, ZA/UM decided that those failures don’t always have to be negative. A rather mundane example: One sequence in the game leads to a character throwing you a key, resulting in a dexterity check to see if you catch it. Failure, as you might imagine, is a little humiliating. The key soars right by your open hand, striking you square in the eye. In this instance, you can choose to get defensive about your blunder and attempt to solicit a bribe from the character who threw the key, claiming that he has technically “assaulted a police officer.” It’s not the most honest thing to do, of course, but the option does result in a crisp $20 you didn’t have before if you see it through, and it’s all the result of a failed skill check. Design decisions like this one make the world feel responsive and dynamic, and the clever writing keeps dialogue interesting even after a failed skill check, reducing that urge to reload a quick save after every “failed” conversation.
The second (and arguably most mechanically creative) decision in the design of Disco Elysium is the “Thought Cabinet”. Robert Kurvitz, the game’s lead designer/writer, has spoken at length about this idea and how it came to be such a prominent mechanic. He talks about how the team struggled with the idea of having tangible progression in a completely dialogue based RPG; in more traditional settings, you fight battles, get loot that improves your character, and are more equipped to handle larger challenges as a result. If everything in your game is based on conversations, how do you “become better equipped” for larger challenges down the road? Their solution was a system that allowed you to “loot” conversations. Well, what kind of loot do you get from a conversation? Thoughts. After certain conversations, your character might walk away with something to think about (literally), resulting in a tangible thought. These thoughts can then be “equipped” in the Thought Cabinet, allowing the main character to ruminate on them. After a certain amount of time, these thoughts then evolve into a permanent buff, giving your character that important RPG sense of progression. Not only does the “Thought Cabinet” function as a progression system, it also helps define who your character is and what kind of officer he’s going to be as the game goes on. These thoughts can range from small scale (Why can’t I remember my name?) to larger philosophical debates (Should I consider the merits of Communism?). This gives multiple runs of the game a great deal of variety in how you interact with people. Are you a self-loathing communist who can’t stop apologizing, or are you an over-confident “superstar” cop that thinks facism is the next big thing? The Thought Cabinet not only solves the dilemma of progress in a completely dialogue driven game, it also gives depth and development to the main character without taking control away from the player. It’s that wonderful combination of ambition and excellent technical craft, resulting in a system entirely unique to Disco Elysium that serves multiple functions in both gameplay and narrative.
Perhaps it’s unfair to compare games like Pillars of Eternity II and Disco Elysium to triple-A fare; apples to oranges and all that. Having intricate systems to make dialogue-heavy mechanics viable just doesn’t seem to be a focus of larger developers in today’s market, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that; this isn’t an assertion that every game absolutely requires a fleshed out dialogue system. There are plenty of games whose lack of dialogue can be just as effective; games like the Dark Souls series, Journey, and Shadow of the Colossus come to mind, where the storytelling and world building is left to the visuals. What’s important to take away from developers like Obsidian or ZA/UM is that if your game does have a dialogue system, how does that dialogue influence gameplay? How do our choices in conversation inform the character we’re playing? Is dialogue another tool in our arsenal to be wielded, or is it just the “talky bit” that gets in the way of the next chainsaw fight?