essay, video games

Words, Words, Words

I’ve been playing Oblivion. If you’ve seen this blog in the last few days, you’d know that I have been on a mission to play through non-linear open-world games and explore different aspects of their rule sets and ability to communicate both from within the frame of mind of the character and that of the player looking through the eyes of the character into the worlds. I’ve also been exploring the dissonances that arise when I, as a player, decided on actions that the character I am role playing as would not take. Basically, I’ve been blogging on my personal journey through the various actions I take in the game. Now, I’ve said all that because I noticed something today that I should have picked up on a long time ago: the dialogue system in the game is mostly context-free.

I’ve talked some of my often inability to discern in adventure games on how to handle the nouns of the games and their interactions together. There is a special grammar that must be learned that, as far as I can tell, is learned only through the action of play within that genre and cannot be learned through work with any other genre of game. While playing adventure games, the gamer comes to learn the possible interactions that each noun, object, can have and how the designer has expressed this finite set within the game’s world. Put another way, it is like reading genre books. Over time, you subconsciously pick up the motifs, tropes and understanding of how most of the possible interactions work so when another book you read is placed within that same genre, the conventions and even subversion of common tropes can be understood with very little work. This grammar or realization of the context of certain operations helps those that play the adventure genre frequently, they become “well versed” in how the mechanics can work from their previous experiences and be able to predict most possible interactions given a certain verb expression system despite having the nouns change from game to game. Given my thinking on this subject, you’d think I would have noticed that the system of communication within Oblivion uses a noun system that is often without context.

To understand why I might have missed this idea and why it is important, I need to point out something that both Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas have in common that I gave little thought to while I playing them. Their dialogue system pre-populate the choices that can be used in any conversational context. When in a dialogue with anyone, there is a finite and written out sentence structure that can be picked from. This is a very predetermined way of communicating. The game will know, because a programmer set it down, what the player’s possible choices are within any situation. What this creates then is a way from which the player can act out a role using the subset of choices however limiting they might also be in turn.  The player must read through and select the option that they want their character to “say”. There are no free expressions of improvisation, all choices exist within a finite although expansive set. This in turn, as was mentioned, allows the player a guardrail to steer their character, a script of some sort where they can mold, moment to moment, how their character will act from the possible choices. While this might limit the overall creative expression of the player within the game, it also promotes creativity within the world-space by forcing the character to speak in a manner contemporary with the world and context. All conversations then are  always context-sensitive with the game providing the overall tone and outlined character expression space for each interaction. Oblivion does not have this.

Instead of having sentences to pick from, Oblivion has, for the most part, just key words and phrases. During any conversation encounter, these collections can be picked from and used at any time while the menu allows that possible choice. Why this is interesting for its context-free nature is that it promotes a situation where the character not only has no physical voice — as is the case with all three games — but renders the character in a very real way a mute. Other than the fact that the words appear on the screen in my experiences — I use captioning wherever possible in order to view the writing of games —  I could very well believe the character to be deaf as well. Since it is rare for possible interaction based nouns to disappear from the conversation menu, it could very well mean that the character is not listening to what the other NPCs are saying. That is, other than the fact that the journal that is part of the in-game mechanic system renders certain key facts within the first-person written narration style I mentioned in a previous post. Given this situation, I began thinking about ways I might justify the expression of this mechanic using in-game reasoning.

Since many of the character race options are not native to the Imperial City, the center hub of activity, I begin to consider linguistic shifts in meaning among the various races that make up Cyrodiil. Each race should have a central ability of expression, in other words a language. So, given that, I began to wonder if the context-free conversation options could be explained though translation errors. Basically, assuming an unfamiliarity with the language of land which my character is in, what if there is only a set number of words that she knows? Like, for example, a tourist who brings a language-translation book to a foreign land and uses it to translate certain phrases. The character then would only know new words as they were used in space of the conversations that she overhears or is a part of, which is a reflection of what happens in the game. As new people and concepts are added via “listening” — however that happens — the character then gains the ability to have a conversation about that new idea. My thinking then is that the character is ‘learning’ the language, gaining new possible interactions as the number of conversations grow. This is, of course, the natural way many people learn a new grammar as well.

It became interesting to me to discover that this context-free system gives way, in part, to a context derived system that is generated not by the character and mechanic interaction — as the Fallout games do — but by the player himself. While new choices are highlighted in the conversation menu, the player must maintain the purpose and direction of the conversation. Tone though is still missing but is made up for by the crossing of the player into the character role. Instead of the generated sentences, the player must remember which key phrases and words the character and NPC is interested in discussing. The dialogue exists not a natural way but as a result of struggle to comprehend on the part of the player. This struggle then leads me to the interpretation-understanding theory where the player is forced, through the continuous use of the conversation system, to learn the  grammar of the world as the character does as well adding possible noun choices over time as the number of conversations increase.