Before voice acting became ubiquitous in video games, dialogue had to be communicated through text. This meant that dialogue was generally experienced in two ways. By watching subtitled cutscenes, or by tapping through text.
This activity was, by nature, passive. The exception is games where you actually had to make dialogue choices to guide the narrative. In those cases, dialogue was a gameplay mechanic rather than an expository tool. But for the most part, when you experienced dialogue you weren’t playing, and when you were playing you weren’t experiencing dialogue.
As voice acting became the norm, the nature of dialogue presentation changed, albeit slowly. A significant majority of Skyrim was click-through dialogue, but there are some notable exceptions. One good example is found in the College of Winterhold questline. As you advance through the Labrynthian, dragon priest Morokei speaks to you. His voice and speech grow ever more menacing, and by the time you make your way to him, you’re primed for a daunting battle. There’s a unique aura to the experience of hearing him as you cut down ancient Draugr that wouldn’t quite work the same if you had to stop and read dialogue or watch cutscenes in between fights.
But the most salient example of a gaming experience that would be impossible without voice acting overlaid over gameplay is The Stanley Parable, which is entirely held together by how the narrator comments on, reacts to and often preempts your choices.
Fast forward to more recent games, and you find that the idea has gained momentum. Developers strive to integrate dialogue into gameplay so as to make it invisible as a separate entity. Red Dead Redemption 2 presents a compelling example; considerable exposition and character establishment take place while you’re on horseback alongside allies, riding to a quest location. Of course, the same mechanic can be found in GTA games as well, trading in horses for cars.
While the model has its critics, I find it brilliant because it kills a few birds at once. It solves the passiveness of clicking through dialogue by integrating it into a more engaging activity, and it solves the passiveness of traveling to quest locations by peppering it with interesting dialogue. It humanizes your characters, who might otherwise lack personality outside of cutscenes and dialogue prompts (that is, when you’re actually controlling them).
It’s important to realize that such storytelling is non-trivial to achieve. In Red Dead Redemption 2, interruptions to the dialogue are seamlessly recovered from through scripted segues (the characters will remark something to the effect of “So as I was saying…” and launch back into their dialogue) — this way you don’t ‘lose’ dialogue by doing something unexpected.
It also requires the designer to carefully pace quests so as to allow the dialogue to fit synergistically into the gameplay — you can’t fit three minutes of dialogue into a horse ride that can be completed in thirty seconds. A nuanced push and pull between the needs of the narrative and the needs of the gaming experience inform the precise balance that is struck, and it is hard to find a balance that all gamers would agree with.
There are more interesting ideas waiting to be discovered in organic video game storytelling. In Red Dead Redemption 2, horse riding dialogues were recorded twice — as normal speech, and as a ‘shouting’ variant for when the characters are further apart. The interplay of dialogue and gameplay is fertile grounds for such innovation.
Most modern games have absorbed this paradigm shift to varying degrees. Naughty Dog’s Uncharted and The Last of Us games are shining examples. Ghost of Tsushima adopts the horseback dialogue mechanic. In the midst of this decades-long shift, Final Fantasy VII Remake’s storytelling is an anachronism, a conspicuous reminder of why the paradigm shifted in the first place. The Remake is new and shiny, from cutscenes to voice acting to gameplay. But the storytelling is ported as-is from the 90s, and it shows.
In Final Fantasy VII Remake, dialogue sequences break the rhythm of the game. The most trivial expositional conversations are handed to you as laborious (and admittedly attractive) cutscenes or click-through dialogue.
Even the occasional walk-and-talk dialogues manage to make themselves intrusive by forcing Cloud to slow down to a snail’s pace while they transpire.
The one exception to this rule is one of the early quests with Aerith, where Cloud and Aerith keep up a lively banter as they make their way back to Sector 5.
For precisely that reason, this quest becomes one of the more competent sub-plots; Aerith chips away at Cloud’s reticence throughout the quest such that by the end of it, the two are (almost) friends. Such moments are rare in the game.
The walk-and-talk (or ride-and-talk or drive-and-talk) mechanic is a way for you to feel more connected to the character. Controlling one aspect of the character (riding/walking/driving/fighting) creates the illusion that the character’s other actions also emerge from your will. Put simply, moving the character while the character speaks creates the illusion that the player is volitionally doing both. As games get better at melding narrative and gameplay, they get better at creating more immersive experiences. If a significant portion of the narrative is seamlessly stitched into situations where you control the character, even tightly defined stories (such as in Naughty Dog games) can give players a sense of agency.
The other extreme is when a game is cleanly divided into two halves — the ‘movie’ half that presents you with the narrative, but little control, and the ‘game’ half that presents with you control, but no narrative. This creates two versions of the character — the puppet you control, and the movie character that you passively watch. Final Fantasy VII Remake tends toward this side of the spectrum, and the effects are noticeable as it stands next to so many modern AAA titles that have taken the other route. It is not laziness that informs this decision — filming cutscenes is not inexpensive. Rather, it is a misguided sense of spectacle that drives the narrative decision to show as much as possible through flashy, life-like cutscenes. In the game’s defense, a video game story written decades ago isn’t really designed to be told as more recent games are (Final Fantasy XV’s story, notwithstanding its many issues, was told in a much more organic, gameplay-integrated way, but it was designed that way from the ground up with the campfire activities and car rides, among other things).
Another interesting recurring theme is using exploration and movement as an opportunity to flesh out characters and lore as you move through the game. The Last of Us or God of War’s treasure trove of in-gameplay dialogue, much of which is optional, exemplifies this.
Conversations between Atreus, Mimir, and Kratos in God of War completely transform the exploration experience; you’re always on the lookout not only for a new location, quest or armor, but for the next interesting snippet of history from Mimir, or the next poorly told story from Kratos.
In conclusion, dialogue and gameplay have become ever more intertwined, creating more immersive experiences that are pleasing on multiple levels. Interesting dialogue can enrich an otherwise uninteresting game mechanic, as we see with Kratos and Atreus in the boat. Expositional dialogue can be elegantly delivered to the player amidst more passive, but necessary, activities, as seen with Red Dead Redemption 2’s horseback conversations. Dialogue can define the gameplay, as creative endeavors like The Stanley Parable demonstrate.
These developments are promising, for they constitute yet another dimension of video games coming into their own as a medium for storytelling unlike any other.