When was the last time a game’s dialogue moved you? I think for me it was Gone Home, but it was the first in a long time, a lengthy history of AAA games and phony space marine tragedies making it an isolated and profound experience to actually care about what someone was saying. The idea of a character’s lines having any kind of emotional resonance (and them not being a grizzled middle-aged dude talking with gravel in his throat) was alien, but also warmly welcomed. It was so superb, in fact, that I came away from Gone Home feeling not just a disdain for the current standard of writing, but also thinking – ‘why do most games even bother?’
Hear me out on this. There was once a time where almost all games would forego dialogue, and it was a rare occasion for your character to talk at all. You might occasionally have some NPC’s lines pop up on screen at the beginning or end of levels, to tell you your princess is in another castle, but the lack of real writing talent wouldn’t matter because that was as far as it went. Now, we have games packed with 5-minute cutscenes of characters babbling out lines written by a guy who couldn’t make it writing movies. This is a gross misuse of the medium, one in which our own interactions could tell a story far better.
I recently played Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, and it was superb. If I may give the premise, a mother of two boys has recently drowned in a fishing accident, and now the father is sick, leaving the boys the task of travelling to the Tree of Life to obtain the cure. It’s a straightforward plot not unlike a hundred fairy tales we’ve all heard as a child, and for most games would be a minefield of clichés and clunky, ‘sad’ dialogue. Instead, Brothers completely opts out, and has all the characters speak in a totally fictional language. At first it seemed disarming, and I felt out of the loop, until I really thought about the situation. What would I say if I had to watch my own mother drown? How would I express my grief? And most importantly, how much could a game writer potentially butcher that situation?
As I travelled through Brothers‘ staggeringly beautiful world and faced insurmountable odds without a single cheesy line uttered, I realised I felt the same way I did the first time I journeyed through Shadow of the Colossus, and Dark Souls. Both games do admittedly have small dialogue sections, but they’re fleeting and minimalistic. Both games are virtually hint-free (same goes for Brothers) and are very light on the cutscenes, and they elicit an extremely unique reaction from myself as a player. While in other games I would carry on and continue fighting to see what would happen next for my in-game character; I was only playing to continue his or her story, to see what twist would be in store for them. In these titles, where I was left to discover the mechanics on my own and explore of my own volition, I was playing as me, and for me. Wander says nothing as he topples another Goliath in Shadow of the Colossus, because the talking is up to me, my internal dialogue fills the gaps. Just as my own brain screams in elation at Dark Souls when I beat a boss, while my character remains motionless, so too does my mind know what the brothers are saying to each other, because that interpretation is left up to me.
What’s frustrating is the half-measure many games go to with this concept. We’re all familiar with the silent protagonist – everyone from Link to James Bond – and this seems to me like an attempt to capture this feeling whilst being reluctant to make a world which tells its own story. Now, we play first person shooters in which our character is yelled at and lectured to while appearing bizarrely tight-lipped, and nothing could kill my immersion faster. The silence works in the above-mentioned games because there is a world in which our own exploration does the talking, but hell, if someone was literally talking to my face, I can’t believe I would mysteriously choose not to reply. There’s even a cutscene in Metro 2033 where our weird, mute character is being briefed by a commander, even asked a question, and he does not respond. The commander is baffled. So was I.
Games have a unique position in storytelling, allowing us to interact first-hand with the world we’re presented. In Brothers, I came across a mountain littered with the bodies of giants. Their blood washed down the mountainside in waterfalls. I did not need to be told about it, nor did I need to hear the two sons’ commentary on it; I spent 30 minutes exploring the whole area, and coming to terms with the grim sight. We need more games to have faith that this is more powerful than any hamfisted line they could come up with it about it. Let the world do the talking.