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“Talk to x” vs “ask x about y”

By BBBen

I’ll start off by saying that most of the ideas contained in this article were not originated by me. Rather, I am summarising the ideas of a number of different people that participated in a discussion on this topic on AGX and the AIF Archive.

After I released Crossworlds Part 3, Delaflunk commented that he liked the “talk to x” system of conversation used in the game, in preference to the “ask x about y” system. This led to a discussion in which a number of styles of conversation in games were debated and weighed up. Talking to NPCs in AIF games can be done in a few different ways and most authors have their own particular style. Sometimes this style is sloppy and other times it is rigorously implemented, as with AIF in general, but below I will outline what the main different styles are and what their pros and cons seem to be.

 

“Talk to x” Style:

The basic “talk to x” style entails the main character simply walking up to an NPC, say for instance Betty, and typing, “talk to betty”. There is no topic chosen, the conversation that follows will be just what the author thinks is most worth mentioning. Preferably, subsequent “talk to betty” commands will get follow-up results, as in:

talk to betty

“Hi,” you say to Betty, “You look good today, did you get your hair cut?”

“Yes,” Betty replies, “Thanks for noticing. Raymond did it.”

“Oh, that’s the new hairdresser?”

“Yes,” Betty says, handing you a card with Raymond’s Hair and Beauty Salon written on it, “You should try him out.”

talk to betty

“Your hair looks really good.”

“Thanks,” Betty says, “Raymond’s a genius.”

In some cases, it may even be necessary to talk to the character again as the conversation can be broken into several parts.

Pros: Probably the best thing about this system is that it’s easy on the player. This is the system I adopted when I started writing games, principally because as a player I did not like having to worry too much about choosing the right topic of conversation. This system also gives the author a lot of control over how the characters interact with each other and prevents the potentially unrealistic results that come when a player calmly walks up to an NPC and says, “Boobies?” (I pinched that joke from Delaflunk’s post).

Cons: This system can feel like the least engaging of all of them. It can feel like the player is simply going up and pressing the “story button”. The plot progresses, you find out what you need to know, and you get no further insight into the characters than what comes out in the conversation. It’s more like the conversation in a book, but fails to take advantage of the non-linearity of the medium.

 

“Ask x about y” Style.

In this style, in order to gain information, a player must go to a character and either “ask x about y” or in some cases “tell x about y”. “Talk to x” will not get a response, and the player must figure out what the topic should be. In the best cases there are many potential topic synonyms used, so in the earlier conversation with Betty, the possible commands could have included, “ask betty about hair”, “ask betty about betty”, “ask betty about raymond”, “ask betty about hairdresser”, “tell betty about betty”, “tell betty about hair”, etc. In some cases authors (like Chris Cole for example) will outline in the readme accompanying their game the more common topics to raise with NPCs. One big plus with this system is that you can increase the ‘sexiness’ of a situation, by allowing the character to ask racy questions, as in:

ask betty about breasts

Betty blushes, then nervously leans in closer and whispers, “You like what you see?”

This allows the character to feel more like s/he is putting the moves on the NPC, rather than allowing NPCs to *ahem* fall in their lap.

Pros: This system allows better character interaction between the player and NPCs than “talk to x”. It also allows conversation to be used for puzzles; the player has to figure out what is important and ask the right people the right questions.

Cons: Though conversation is more non-linear, it can also seem more stiff and unrealistic. More seriously, the player can often be left flailing around trying to “guess the noun” in order to figure out the appropriate conversation topic. This breaks mimesis at least as badly as having fewer conversation options.

 

Menu Style

In the ‘menu style’ a player will generally use the command “talk to x”, and will then be presented with a selection of options from which they can pick a number. A. Bomire has used this system to good effect. It works basically like this:

talk to betty

“Hi Betty,” you say.

“Hi,” she replies, “Nice day, isn’t it?”

What do you want to talk about?

  1. Her new hairstyle.
  2. The Special Olympics.
  3. How great you are in bed.

1

“You look good today, did you get your hair cut?”

“Yes,” Betty replies, “Thanks for noticing. Raymond did it.”

“Oh, that’s the new hairdresser?”

“Yes,” Betty says, handing you a card with Raymond’s Hair and Beauty Salon written on it, “You should try him out.”

talk to betty

“Hi Betty,” you say.

“Hi,” she replies, “Nice day, isn’t it?”

What do you want to talk about?

  1. The Special Olympics.
  2. How great you are in bed.

2

“You know, I’m really great in bed.”

Betty slaps you saying, “Pig! That’s all you ever think about!”

You’ve probably blown your chance there.

Pros: This has most of the advantages of the “talk to x” system, while still allowing more freedom in conversation. It is a system used by many good, non-text based role-playing games.

Cons: It still can feel rather limited, like a kind of ‘sham freedom’. I have never programmed with it, but it seems like compared to the other systems it would be rather harder to implement. Also, it changes the way the player interacts with the game; rather than giving commands, the player is choosing from options.

 

Hybrid A Style

This style is basically the same as the “Talk to x” Style, except that the NPCs will respond to a range of options from “ask x about y” commands. “Talk to x” is still used to push the plot along, but the player can get more non-essential information from the character by enquiring further into certain topics, as in:

talk to betty

“Hi,” you say to Betty, “You look good today, did you get your hair cut?”

“Yes,” Betty replies, “Thanks for noticing. Raymond did it.”

“Oh, that’s the new hairdresser?”

“Yes,” Betty says, handing you a card with Raymond’s Hair and Beauty Salon written on it, “You should try him out.”

talk to betty

“Your hair looks really good.”

“Thanks,” Betty says, “Raymond’s a genius.”

ask betty about breasts

Betty blushes, then nervously leans in closer and whispers, “You like what you see?”

Pros: All the pluses of the “talk to x” system, and it also gains the extra character development of the “ask x about y” system.

Cons: Takes longer to implement than “talk to x” and possibly also “ask x about y” yet does not gain the puzzle possibilities of “ask x about y”.

 

Hybrid B Style

In this style, the character can “talk to x” or possibly “greet x” to get an initial response that can give some conversation topics, but all essential conversation will then be explored with “ask x about y”. It works like this:

greet betty

“Hi,” you say to Betty, “You look good today, did you get your hair cut?”

“Yes,” Betty replies, “Thanks for noticing. Raymond did it.”

ask betty about raymond

“Raymond,” you say, “Is that the new hairdresser?”

“Yes,” Betty says, handing you a card with Raymond’s Hair and Beauty Salon written on it, “You should try him out.”

Pros: This system allows most of the freedom of the “ask x about y” system, but is less likely to leave the player wondering what to do. Other conversation topics outside of the greeting can still be included, and one question can lead to the next, giving a series of insights like with a detective interrogating a suspect.

Cons: The “greet” dialogue can seem a little forced, as in, ‘here are your clues’. If the clues aren’t reasonably obvious then this system can be hardly different from “ask x about y” and shares its failings.

 

Conclusion

It is hard to draw a conclusion about which is the best system. “Talk to x” may be easier on players and give the author more control over the plot, but then “ask x about y” might be more engaging for serious players and develop characters better. My own personal preference, which I’m planning to adopt in all future games, is for the “Hybrid A” style, but this cannot be seen to be definitive and this is an issue in which no side is likely to eventually win out. It is down to each author to decide which system is the best for them, and the best for the players. What is probably the most important thing of all is that the author of the game is consistent, and makes it clear to the audience what system the game uses, beyond that all the systems can be used to create good games.

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