The key difference between good, emotional writing and stiff, stagnant dialogue.

  • Strak
  • 04/21/2022 04:42 AM
Writing. The telling of your story, the way your plot unfolds, the depth of your characters. This has been one of the most challenging aspects of game development for me to overcome. I'm still not the best writer, and I never will be, but I can at least share with you what I've learned in the hopes that it will help you improve. This article will not necessarily be about the quality of writing, but instead about a simple technique that can be used to bring an incredible amount of depth to your current writing.

Writing out a new story can seem like a daunting task. You have so many different aspects to keep in mind. What does this character think of that character? Do they have an affectation in their speech that you need to keep consistent? What knowledge is common between everyone, and what things are only known by select few characters? If something is common knowledge, does the player know that, and if so, how? And yet, while all these things are important, there is one commonly overlooked detail that I've noticed in a lot of games. It's something small, and very simple to implement, but when used effectively can enhance your existing writing manifold.

I'm talking about pacing.

Now, what is pacing? Simply put, it's the pace at which the player receives information or views a cutscene. Pacing can be done in many ways, but I'd like to share with you a few of the techniques that I've learned that can help improve the pacing of most dialogue exponentially. Note that the techniques I'm using are tested in RMVX, but I'm certain that it's possible to use these techniques in just about any maker. I'll share with you the two main methods I've used, and why I use them.

Method One
The first method is line breaks. This is arguably the most important method for pacing in dialogue that I've seen. It's also quite possibly the most overlooked. I might also be using the terminology wrong but this is my article so deal with it but I don't really know what else to call it. In RMVX, there is a simple method for implementing a line break in your dialogue windows. Simply adding "\!" to your text boxes will pause the text as it appears on screen at that point. The game will then wait for player input before displaying the next line. My suggestion is to put these at the end of every sentence in every dialogue window, with the exception of ones that the player is expected to breeze through and encounter many times on their journey (such as innkeepers or merchants).

Using this method, you can pace out your conversations in a unique way. You might be thinking, "what difference does it make?" And honestly? A ton. Let me explain why.

By putting line breaks at the end of each sentence, the player will be more likely to actually read each sentence, one at a time. Human brains are weird. We don't read things one letter at a time, or even one word at a time. Wichh is wyh I cna splel soemtinhg otu leik tihs adn yuo cna raed it jsut fein. As long as the first and last letter in a word are in the right place, your brain will do most of the work for you to make sense of it. The same goes for sentences. When you're reading a sentence, your brain is basically reading ahead for you. Your eyes are seeing the entire sentence, even if you're only focused on a single word at a time. So your brain will sort of fill it in for you as you're reading.

Now, if you have a dialogue window pop up with four sentences, the player is technically reading all of them at once. Sort of. Don't ask me to go all sciencey on why this works, just trust me for a minute. When this happens, it removes the emphasis on any one sentence, and leaves the whole dialogue window feeling a bit stiff and rushed. You might have phenomenal writing skills, and there might not be anything wrong with the writing itself, but if the pacing is bad, it might still feel off, even if you can't put your finger on why.

So what does adding line breaks do? Simple. It emphasizes each sentence in the dialogue. Instead of reading ahead and potentially skipping a line of dialogue that was maybe pretty important, the player has to actually do some sort of an input to continue the dialogue. Unless the player is bored (which is more about the quality of the writing or the patience of the player than it is to do with pacing) they'll be less likely to skip through your dialogue. This method basically forces the player to read one sentence at a time, adding pauses in the dialogue in their own head as they're reading. Then when they're ready for the next line, they can press a button and keep reading.

When you do this, it adds more emphasis on your writing, more depth to your characters, and is a much more natural method of storytelling. I wish I'd learned this years ago, but honestly I just learned about it this year. I have to thank LittleWingGuy for that, because I noticed it when replaying Villnoire. I missed a chest in a dungeon and couldn't go back, so I had to reload the save after watching a cutscene. When I got back to that cutscene, I found myself skipping through the dialogue, and that's when I noticed that he'd implemented this technique in his writing. It was so subtle that I hadn't even noticed it during my first playthrough, and wouldn't have noticed it at all if I wasn't trying to skip through the cutscene. But once I noticed, it was like a light switched on. I've been busy rewriting my own games to implement this method, and the results are astonishing. My writing was never bad. It simply lacked pacing.

Well, okay, some of my writing was bad. But mostly is just lacked pacing.

I should also mention, there are three more tags that are available to slow your dialogue down and put emphasis on timing, but I personally consider them less important. The first is "\|" which pauses dialogue for one second before continuing. The next one is "\." which pauses for a quarter second, and the last is "\>" which displays the entire row of characters all at once up to the next line break. These can all be used to great effect as well, but in my opinion the line break tag is far more important and should be used far more liberally.

Method Two
The second method of pacing is on-screen interaction. When a cutscene starts, is it just dialogue windows for ten minutes? What are the actual characters doing while they're talking? Are they pacing back and forth? Are they in a heated argument? What does the player have to look at while they're reading this massive block of text?

On-screen interaction (OSI from now on) is incredibly important, and it doesn't have to be a super complex thing to pull off. It can be overused, however. Ironically, I also have to point out Villnoire for this. Although I personally loved the game and how the cutscenes played out, I've read a fair amount of criticism on the length of the cutscenes in the game. And admittedly, sometimes there is a little too much OSI. Watching every single party member walk back to the party leader one at a time at the end of a cutscene is a little tedious. Don't get me wrong, LWG tells a story like nobody's business, and I wish I had writing skills like his. But OSI can be overused if it leaves the player hanging around.

However, when OSI is done right, it creates way more emotion and depth to your scenes. Something as simple as having a character turn their back on the main character during an emotional scene, or pace across the room as they contemplate their thoughts. Heck, even having birds flying past in a cutscene when you're on board a ship makes for a more visually appealing experience. Character movement is huge. Also important is making sure that the characters that actually have dialogue in a cutscene are visible on screen at the time. It's so easy to think "well they're in the party, so they can be represented by the party leader." Stop it. This takes away from the immersion. You may not think it does, and maybe even the player doesn't think so. But when you implement it, you'll notice what a difference it can make.

You can go the extra mile and create custom expressions for your characters if you're good with sprite work. This can be a huge benefit. But it's not necessary by any means. You don't have to be an expert graphic designer or top tier writer. Simply using pacing techniques can dramatically improve the quality of your storytelling.

I'll share with you one last thought before I close this off. You may not be looking to create the next best game, and that's fine. Whatever your goals are, shoot for them, and dedicate whatever time you feel is appropriate to hit them. You may not care about things like this, and you don't have to. It's up to you what you're trying to create. But what I've found is that when you're striving for excellence, there is no substitute for hard work. A lot of these methods are time consuming. Implementing them may feel like a grind, and not worth the time and effort. But it's up to you whether or not you want something that's great, or just good enough. Again, it's your game, your goals, your motives. I can't tell you what to do, nor do I want to. But I decided a long time ago that when I'm making a game, "good enough" is never good enough. If I can make something better simply by taking the time and using what I know, then I will take that time. Because the result will be worth it.

Anyway. That's my spiel. I hope this helped some of you, and if anyone has anything they'd like to add to this, please comment below! Maybe you disagree with everything I said! That's fine. I'm not mad at you, just change. I'm kidding. My hope is that I've helped you, and you can use this as a key to unlocking the brilliance behind your already-exceptional writing.


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The all around prick
Gotta be honest here: I disagree with method one on a fundamental level. I am someone who usually double taps the space bar at the start of every dialog box because I want to read the whole thing in my head. While you're correct in that your approach now forces me to read every single sentence, this also means that the pacing of the dialogue is taken out of my hands, and my sense of flow is disrupted.

Much like reading a book, players have their own voices for the characters in their head that they come up with all on their own when reading dialog boxes. As such, the speed, flow, and intonation of exactly how a character speaks is going to slightly differ from player to player, even if they are invested in your story.

If you absolutely have to add in breaks, I certainly would not do it at the end of every sentence. Rather, it's better to do it at the end of every idea. Take your first screenshot, for example. You have two different ideas in that box: one that describes the state of the mercenary group, and another to name the group's primary client. Those are two different ideas that need some kind of separation, or you risk overloading a player's brain with unnecessary fluff. As such, I only think one line break after the second sentence is appropriate.

Though to be honest, separate ideas should have their own dialog box in the first place. I believe the biggest reason why players start glossing over dialogue is because there is so much fluff and text in each box that they are eventually trained to only skim over them rather than read through them thoroughly. This works fine until they're blindsided by something important that they accidentally skipped over.

Persona 5 is a game with a lot of dialogue. And I mean a loooot of dialogue. And yet, look at the size of the text box for one of the more lengthier lines:

A single idea presented in an easily digestable manner while also being informative about the speaker's ambitions and view of the player character. You'll be hard pressed to find someone who would glaze over such a simple sentence even if they weren't reading attentively. Persona 5 alone has more dialogue than several games on this site combined, so why would they opt for a dialogue box that could only fit a maximum of 3 lines? That's one line less than what RPG Maker's default dialogue box size is.

Going back to your game, pick a cutscene and try separating each idea into a new dialog box. If you find you have too many dialog boxes, then your cutscene probably has too much text in it, and you need to trim the fat or break it up with method two.
That's one line less than what RPG Maker's default dialogue box size is.

Over time, I've found that RPG Maker's default message boxes are much longer* than you need to convey a single idea in, so it ends up being a bad frame of reference of how much text you necessarily need to fit within one.

Unless you're doing something very heavy in world lore and proper nouns upon proper nouns, you're probably not going to want to use the default message boxes as a frame of reference of how much text you communicate all the time. Though you can mitigate exceptionally long ideas with pauses (\. , \| , and \!) so that way you're using the full length of the box without overloading the player. A 4-line dialogue message with no pauses absolutely needs to be broken up, and even then you should be using all 4 lines sparingly.

* = Unless you're using a larger/wider font.
I've always felt the opposite in terms of "On-screen interaction" feeling excessive.

A lot of RPGMaker games have the opposite problem... they suffer from too LITTLE happening on-screen, not too much.
Letting the sprites animate and have true movement during cutscenes helps them feel more alive... even if it's just their eyes blinking, or walking back and forth while a new dialogue box appears.

I mean, I agree it can be overdone, but that's simply not something I've seen very often. xD
Prefacing this with, "I'm someone who gets very easily bored with reading. Even if I'm a writer. Even if I'm writing for my own game. Even if my actual day job, in fact, involves reading huge walls of text."

I don't fully agree with your Method One. Having the players mash the button to go to the next line of dialogue seems pretty excessive, and it's definitely something I didn't like to go through back when I had to replay scenes to get screenshots for my review of your game. I wouldn't recommend "line breaks" for ALL the dialogue; I would want it used sparingly and as an effect, not a mandatory part of every dialogue.

However, I do like having pauses between sentences. Sometimes I utilize the short pause between phrases or words or even letters/characters. These pauses suggest the manner in which the character is speaking and thus gives me a better flow of how to perceive the words I'm reading on the screen. (Yeah, I kinda disagree with the first commenter. While people can have different headcanons for how a character speaks on a written medium, the writers are allowed to suggest how their own characters speak their words and sentences. Also consider that there are people like me who see a wall of text on one go and instantly lose interest, and sometimes presenting messages in small chunks can make it easier for us to absorb information.)

Also, very obviously, Method One is not applicable to all games. Text-based adventures, for example, requires the dev to present everything as a wall of text. But I do think Method One is one way to at least introduce a bit more flavor to RPG Maker engine dialogues.

I do agree with your Method Two, meanwhile. The OSI can add nice breaks between walls of text. Like what the commenter above says, even the basicest of actions you can do with your chosen engine - animations, bubbles, and movement routes - can add a little more flavor to the dialogue.

I agree with both sentiments that OSI is underutilized and excessive. For me, it is underutilized in that many games will let dialogues go on and on without even having a single change in the screen beyond the dialogue boxes, and it is excessive in that devs will sometimes have OSI occur while they're trying to give important information in dialogue boxes, making it difficult to focus on just one aspect of the scene.

The only thing I would want to add is my own advice and personal guide on (dialogue box-related) pacing, which is related to some of the sentiments that the first two commenters implied:
  • cut your dialogue and/or narration,
  • learn how to express ideas in less words, and
  • assign a rough number of dialogue boxes that would feel acceptable before the boredom or reading fatigue sets in.

After all, pacing isn't just "how do I make sure the player is reading the important information I placed in the game"; it's also "how do I make sure the player can follow what I'm trying to say in my game".
Great feedback, and definitely some good points here. And I actually agree, excessive line breaks can have a serious impact on replayability, especially if you're just trying to skip through the dialogue. I actually noticed that as well in Villnoire. As impactful as the writing was in that game, it did become a slog to skip through the dialogue by mashing a button. There is a way around that, however.

If you can include an option to partially or entirely skip dialogue in cutscenes, it actually goes a long way towards mitigating the grind. You can keep the impact of the first playthrough, while making the game still very replayable. In BSH, for example, you can hold the dash button to completely skip dialogue. When you release the button, dialogue resumes. The problem is making sure players are aware of the mechanic in a non obtrusive way.

However, that's still just a band aid. Truthfully, you're all right. Dialogue is about communicating ideas and concepts, not necessarily about the text itself. If an idea can be communicated with less text in smaller chunks, that is highly preferable to reading a novel.
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