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J.E. Sawyer discusses dialogue, fan feedback and more

Ausir May 4, 2010 User blog:Ausir

Fallout: New Vegas project director J.E. Sawyer recently posted this bit on his Twitter:

it is fine to have a formulaic dialogue tree structure as long as the content is not formulaic. that's my opinion, anyway.

He also posted more about dialogue at Formspring, where you can ask him various questions too.

Do you have any particular approaches to NPC dialogue/chatter to help with immersivity and without them coming off as useless bots, taking up space, and never adding much lore or relevant information?

I am a believer in what Obsidian calls "barkstrings". Generic, rank-and-file characters in the world typically do not have full dialogue trees. Instead, they have a large list of reactive one-off lines that they will say either in passing or when you interact with them. As long as barkstrings react to things in a meaningful fashion, it's usually more satisfying than drilling generic characters for generic information through a dialogue tree.

Background characters should also be engaged in meaningful action. A world where people endlessly, randomly mill about feels like a world without purpose. Communities should have a focus and characters within communities should have roles that they fill.

Here's a few more interesting Formspring questions and answers from his profile.

What's it like working in a field where everything you put out is scrutinized by online fan groups, many of whom will trash or ooze about the game despite its faults?

You either get used to it or you don't. Some developers never get used to it and basically shut out/write off fan feedback entirely.

Throughout my career, I have felt that it is incredibly important to read and (when possible) respond to fan feedback. It helps professionally ground you and it forces you to defend your ideas to the enduser.

The challenge I sometimes face is getting past my initial aggravation at a person's tone to ask what their underlying concern is. But if I can do that, I usually find that they are reasonable -- even if I don't think I can make them happy.

What kind of balance do you try to strike between player-driven events and plot-driven events?

Within the context of "Obsidian-style" RPGs, we tend to give the player a lot of options, but they are still designer-created events. These options can reward a player's investment or character choices, but ultimately it's just picking from a pre-defined menu.

Personally, I try to push our game play in directions that allow players to create their own stories. I want people to enjoy the stories and characters Obsidian creates, but I also want our game play to be compelling and dynamic enough that player stories overshadow our meager choose-your-own-adventure plots.

Reading through someone else's story can be entertaining and satisfying, but if you get the opportunity to create your own, that adds another layer of enjoyment.

Can a game tell a complex story mostly through environment and inference on the part of the player, or are exposition dumps inevitable?

Certainly. I actually prefer this kind of storytelling, but it can be tricky to pull off. If a developer were to establish hard and fast rules for presentation in a game, I'm sure they could have a rich, complex story with minimal exposition.

I think games like Ico show that developers are capable of presenting narrative in a lot of untraditional ways. I'd like to work on a game with no dialogue -- or dialogue that's all spoken in nonsense/indecipherable language, with intonation and facial expressions being the player's only hints at what's being discussed.

Also, according to Sawyer's twitter conversation with director Duncan Jones, Gerty from Jones's movie Moon was one of the inspirations for Fallout: New Vegas TV Robots.

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