You know what makes good game dialogue? Ambiguity. Take the Witcher 2 for instance. That game is full of morally gray characters saying morally gray things. They show who they are without saying what they're about. It's a simple trick that, when used correctly, creates complex characters. Let's look at an example:
You play as Geralt, a human hybrid, or witcher, who has some funky powers that make him a natural for the freelance fighting of monsters. Early on in Flotsam, the first town in The Witcher 2, you can convince Loredo, sort of the town sheriff/commissioner, to release your friends from the gallows. This might make you think Loredo is an all right fellow. He won’t hang innocent people, he can be reasoned with.
In many RPGs, a good action denotes a good character. You pick the good replies to the good characters because that's how it's supposed to work when you're playing a hero. It’s all very binary. Good choice, bad choice. Mass Effect 3 is a great example. The good answers are on top, the mean answers are on bottom, and occasionally a neutral answer appears in the middle—that usually pops up to give you an out when romance is an option and you don’t want to trash your love-crossed crew member. If you’re playing as good guy, you can, and probably should, always pick the top answer.
Not so with the Witcher 2.
Later on Loredo, the man that spared your friends from execution, is kind of a dick to you and said friends. He also tries to short change you on a payment for a dangerous task you undertake for him. So maybe he's not the great guy you thought he was. It’s here in most games that you’d turn the binary switch. He’s bad now, so now he gets the bad responses. But…he showed kindness earlier, so is he all bad? Could he redeem himself? In real life, many of us would take the wait and see approach. Maybe later on, when things shake out, he’ll prove himself to be a man you can count on. The Witcher 2 lets you wait and see, to an extent (it’s a game, and does still have limitations).
When Loredo questions you about your knowledge of what’s happening in town, you have a few options. You can tell him what you know, change the subject, or deny knowledge. Ambiguity is at work here again with a very small but important spin. Like Mass Effect, Dragon Age 2 and other fully-voiced RPGs, the Witcher 2 doesn’t display the exact text your character will say. Instead, it offers the gist of his response. This system keeps the pace of dialogue snappy, and makes it less repetitive—it’s no fun to read an option and then hear your character say the exact same thing (as the first Witcher game did). In this particular example, the dialogue option is something like, “I don’t know.”
Now in most games, if you were to select “I don’t know” you would also be selecting to remove knowledge from your character. For the sake of the binary dialogue system, he or she would literally not know what was happening in town, even if you, the player, knew. But pick that option in the Witcher 2 and Geralt replies with something like, “What I do in town is my business.”
How ambiguous! You didn’t remove information from his head. Geralt knows. He’s choosing to withhold information. Loredo was a jerk earlier, despite his initial kindness, so maybe he doesn’t need to know what Geralt is up to in town. This ambiguous response doesn’t hurt the flow of the storyline or the quest, but does add a layer of complexity to the character. It also changes how you feel as the player.
The Witcher games put you in control of Geralt, and it’s up to you to choose his skills, control his actions and play his story. But you aren’t Geralt. You’re more like his director, the angel and the devil on his shoulders, maybe even his conscience. The ambiguous dialogue implies that he is his own man. Think of that pause in the conversation—the one that pops a selector on screen for you to choose an answer—as a reflection moment for Geralt. That’s when you appear, on either shoulder.
“You know what’s going on in town Geralt, but Loredo is a tool, don’t tell him.”
“You know what’s going on in town Geralt, and Loredo should probably know, he is the sheriff after all.”
You pick, Geralt listens. You feel in control of the story, even though it’s not your story. This is what excites me about video game storytelling. Imagine watching a scary movie, and right before the character goes down the dark hallway where the killer is waiting, you yell, “don’t go down there” and she doesn’t. She listens, and lives to see the next scene. Was that decision to keep her alive a good one? You don’t know yet. You’re the director, but you haven’t read the whole script.
Again, that bit of ambiguity is a very subtle difference. The Witcher is still working on the same “If this, then that” system that powers every other game, but the smart writing and language muddy it up a bit, make it less apparent. That is the brilliance of The Witcher 2, that is why, if you have any interest in what can be done with video game narrative and dialogue, you should try it.