Me and him. You and her. “Him”, “her”, and all the other NPCs we come across in RPGs and adventure games. Only, of course, we’re not really talking.

“Dialogue”, with or without voice-overs, is usually a sore point in games. The most common method is the menu system. Click on someone, then choose from a small set of responses (typically 2-4).

This is not conversation, it’s play-by-numbers, and often rather dull. On the other hand, unless the “talk” is something involved, it’s quick. Click “1”, click “3”, click “1” and you’re finished.

The advantage of this system comes when you have to talk to a lot of people in a game. You don’t want interminable Q&A sessions. And there is at least a semblance of interaction going on.

Then we have games like Titan Quest, where your character has no “lines” at all. Click on an NPC, and they simply tell you something. “Hi, I’m Diomedes, and I’d like you to get rid of that annoying satyr shaman back there”. It’s all monologue by NPCs, some of them amazingly verbose.

I consider that the worst; you have no interaction at all, and it really reduces you to the “universal gopher” (even if you decide to ignore a sidequest).

I recall – somewhat vaguely now – that in The Pandora Directive there were times when “descriptive” choices came up for Tex, rather than actual dialogue. In those cases, you had to sit there and try to puzzle out what they meant, to get some idea of what he was going to say.

None of these is truly satisfactory. But I doubt anyone wants to go back to the text adventure parser system, where you typed everything in. In a long game, that would be a nightmare, and there’s the problem of what to type in during a conversation.

Now, the above does work in some special circumstances, such as online games like NWN. All the characters and the NPCs have conversations by using a text input box.

But that works because everyone involved is a real person. With a solo computer game, the only real person is the player, and so choice is extremely limited.

On the other hand, do we want anything approximating “real” conversation? Most interactions with NPCs tend to be in the “do something for me” category: “Hi, I’m a cute little kid and I can’t find my kitty”, with typical responses being: “As a defender of good, I will find your lost cat!”, “Maybe kid, what’s in it for me?”, and “Get lost, you stupid brat”.

Longer dialogues tend to be informational; you go through several iteratations, learning something you hope is important.

If we were able to “talk” to NPCs as we talk to each other, would we find that unbearable after awhile? Note that some new system would be necessary, as none of the above could really work well.

Or should we just stick to the menu system, which is at least swift most of the time?