The Usefulness of Text for Exposition in Computer Games

In the modern computer game, text is a critical element. It has always been used for framing the action of a game, or tutorials, but today it is much more extensively: characters say lines, items have descriptions, codexes are filled with backstory.

The act of reading is an interactive one. In a given sentence, like this one, you read one word at a time, moving onto the next only when you are ready. When you finish it, you move to the next. Only when you finish a page do you flip it, and you have a lot of control over the delivery of the text: its speed, cadence, voice, and so on.

We all know what hell it is to try and read a book at the same time as somebody else. You never finish the page at the same time, and someone is always left waiting for the other to finish. It’s no fun.

Yet, since the advent of sufficient technology for audio playback, computer games indulge in this sort of thing all the time. They take no greater pleasure than making you wait for a character to finish saying their line, while you have long ago finished reading the dialogue box or subtitle. It is the same pain of reading the same page of a book with another person.

Developers eventually realized this, and crafted a solution: allow the player to skip the voiced bit by pressing a button! Because of the pain of waiting for your slow (but good intentioned) reader, skipping the voice over is almost a necessity. However, using this feature results in dialogue where characters finish half a line before starting into the next one, over and over again, skipping, stuttering. It’s not a great fix; merely a band-aid. What if we instead disposed with voiced dialogue altogether?

The suggestion might be made to just get rid of the text on the screen, and leave the voice behind. But what could be more frustrating than this? The very purpose of a game is to have a dialogue of play with the player. Back and forth. Interactivity is the name of the game. Leaving the player to listen to an audio file in between that interactivity creates friction. A game should remain a game at all times.

And so, if something is to go, it has to be the audio file. Keep the text. Of course, an expensive game needs to have the feeling of being expensive, and so includes things like fully voiced dialogue, but at some point it has to be seen that this stuff interferes with the game at hand. And when something is at odds with the game itself, people start to skip it, and the result is a lot of wasted content, a lot of developers’ wasted time, and a lot of players’ wasted energy.

The text doesn’t even need to be presented dully. Text can be scrolled onto the screen with all sorts of various effects at the pace of an average reader’s speed. I have seen some games which have options for text speed. Maybe we should put this option before the game’s startup, like we do for gamma correction and brightness now. And a game would be wise to include a button that can be held to increase the text’s speed. All of these things make text a great interactive element of any game.

With that said, a key advantage of the computer game over other sorts of games is that of sounds, animations, and the such. Of course these things should be used. Some games have played with getting audio over scrolling text by having characters make noises that approximate a language while the text appears. With this method, the player gets the flavor of the text that’s being read, while keeping the interactivity. It works no matter what speed the text plays at. And if the dialogue is fast forwarded or skipped altogether, it sounds just fine.

This is not all to say that fully voiced dialogue has no place in a computer game. Certainly it can be used very effectively. Acted dialogue can be listened to and parsed by the player without reading anything. That is its advantage, and some games have capitalized on it. In space fighter games, for example, characters will come in over an intercom and chat while you are in the middle of flying your ship. You’re in the middle of combat, focusing on the fight, but also attempting to listen and parse what the characters are saying. And real decisions must be made: how important do you think this information is going to be? Should I sacrifice my focus on the action to listen for a moment? Suddenly, this is all starting to sound like a true game.

For the majority of situations where all the game is trying to do is deliver some information, though, simple text is better. It keeps the interactive element of the game alive, even though hard coded dialogue and other story elements are necessarily un-interactive in the grander scheme of the game.

Games where voiced dialogue is a true element of the game are few and far between. Much more can be achieved beyond simple information overload game play with it, I suspect. It’s an area ripe for new, novel game ideas.