You won't hear videogame people talk the way they talk in Oxenfree

Title You won't hear videogame people talk the way they talk in Oxenfree
Author Tom Chick
Posted in Game reviews
When May 28, 2016

I just tried to play Cinders, a visual novel with intricate artwork, distinct characters, and moderately intriguing worldbuilding based on self-aware fairy tale tropes. "Tried" is the operative word..

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I too am intrigued by dialogue in video games and how it might be improved. You say that Firewatch is an example of a game with an established protagonist, do you also feel that it contains naturalistic dialogue? Firewatch's creative director Sean Vanaman essentially created Telltale's The Walking Dead, including its dialogue system which was, at the time, unique for featuring a (visible) timer.

You say that you would rather read a story written by an author than a game designer. Wouldn't you agree that games with recorded dialogue are more closely related to film and television than literature?

This game is easily my happiest video game discovery of 2016, and I'm thrilled that you enjoyed it as much as I! I also noticed the overlapping dialogue of the characters here, and I agree with you--I've never seen this in a video game before. Characters talk over each other and interrupt inappropriately or get carried away with excitement the way teenagers do. And it's so, so wonderful.

I like the use of "naturalistic dialogue" here in your review too, Tom. I think that phrase implies dialogue that is meant to sound natural and real to the audience, which yes, definitely. But if someone wanted to say to me that real teenagers don't talk this way, I think I might see that point to an extent. But what this is, at least to my ears, is dialogue that sounds real and natural, that is, it has that feel. It is, I think, the effect that David Mamet gets in his best plays, or Michael Chabon in his best novels. Real people may indeed not talk exactly like this, but in my mind's ear it sounds like the way they talk, or at least the way I want them to.

I really really liked Oxenfree, but I felt like the conversations had one nagging flaw. Namely that I was never sure whether clicking on a dialogue option would interrupt what was currently being said or whether Alex would wait to deliver her line until the other character was done speaking. If there'd been consistent handling I'd have been more comfortable either intentionally interrupting or holding off. As it was sometimes I interrupted something I wanted to keep listening to and sometimes I waited a little too long and the option to say something went away. They are very well written and delivered, though. And I was surprised how creepy bits of Oxenfree were, having expected more of a young adult mystery handling.

The description reminded of Façade, though my memory may be off target. Conversations going on with or without your input is pretty standard these days though, featuring in anything from Dreamfall Chapters to Telltale's The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us games.

Oh, sure, I've definitely seen conversations that don't involve the player's character. That's not what's unique at all in Oxenfree. I mean, really, you can technically say any game with guard chatter has conversations that go on with or without your output. :)

I'm talking more about the way Oxenfall handles the flow of a conversation. It just sounds so natural, so much like people talking in real life. But it might just be me. I have a really hard time with the stilted turn-based dialogue in most games. It was so refreshing to hear something different in Oxenfree.

Sure, Firewatch has great dialogue thanks to the script and the two very good actors. I love the character interaction in Firewatch! But it doesn't do what Oxenfall does with its overlapping ensemble, speech bubble system, and improvisational acting style. Instead, Firewatch is the traditional menu based dialogue. As for Walking Dead, I didn't care for it. If that's where Vanaman has his roots, I'm glad he's come as far as he's come with Firewatch . I only played some early episodes of Walking Dead, but it turned me off Telltale Games. I should probably try something they've done more recently. Have you played a lot of Telltale stuff? Any recommendations for someone who didn't care for their Walking Dead?

As for the comment about stories written by authors instead of game designers, that was really just a comment on the quality of writing in the visual novels I've tried. I don't necessarily need good writing in a videogame, but I do in a visual novel! I do, however, kind of disagree with your question about games with recorded dialogue. The way dialog exists in a game is very different from the way it exists in film or television. In fact, I suspect it's a very different skill set.

You're absolutely right, but I think -- and maybe I'm just rationalizing here -- that's intentional. It's like an actual conversation. Do you jump in or do you wait? Heightened, of course, because it's a videogame, but it creates that same sense of "do I speak up?", which isn't something we're accustomed to in videogames, which either wait patiently or show us a bar slowly moving down. I think you kind of have to let go and roll with it when you're playing Oxenfree.

I stopped playing Telltale games after my disappointment with The Walking Dead Season 2, so I unfortunately wouldn't have much to offer in terms of recommendations. Have you ever written down your thoughts about Season 1 in detail? You've got me interested.

Would you mind elaborating on why video game dialogue is closer to literature than film and television? You say that Firewatch has great dialogue "thanks to the script", which immediately makes me think of it in terms of a screenplay. For what it's worth, Vanaman studied film and writing at USC.

I thought The Wolf Among Us was quite a bit better than The Walking Dead, although I couldn't say if you'd like it if you didn't like The Walking Dead.

My absolute favorite of their stuff is Tales from the Borderlands. But I've loved all of their stuff, Walking Dead included, and Life is Strange was one of my favorite games of its year, so take my recommendation with a grain of salt.

I like the idea but if that's the intended effect, it doesn't work for me. It just feels like inconsistent response to my input screwing me over. Not to the extent that it ruined the experience for me or anything, but annoying nonetheless.

For once I get to read one of Tom's reviews for something I've already played, and even better I agree with the high praise. The game seemed slight at first to me but as the horror elements were revealed and the characters fleshed out, I loved the unique conversation system.

Sure, fair enough. It certainly left me wondering what tidbits I might have missed!

I guess in something as imprecise as human interaction, I don't really mind inconsistency, especially when the interaction feels so human. But as a reaction to the traditional turn-based dialogue menus, it totally worked for me.

Gah, I'm not sure where you got the impression that I think videogame dialogue is closer to literature than film and television! I don't think that! Videogames are almost always visual presentations like film, television, plays, or comic books. Literature relies almost exclusively on prose and imagination. Videogames are almost the polar opposite of that! Sorry for the confusion. I think you might be conflating my reference to visual novels with videogames in general.

I haven't written up any coverage of The Walking Dead. My frustration was with some clunky puzzle bits (I specifically recall an annoying motel battle) and contrived character interactions. I also didn't really buy Clementine's voice acting, but I liked the presentation of that character and her relationship to, uh, I forget his name. I've been told they did some cool stuff with Clementine in later episodes, so I'm sometimes tempted to get further into the series. But really, it just didn't grab me, so I didn't pick up any of the later episodes and haven't tried their stuff since then.

What was disappointing to you in their Season 2? I don't mind spoilers, BTW.

Like with Barac mentioning Tales from the Borderlands, that's a hard one for me to get excited to play. A werewolf story? There are almost literally no good werewolf stories. None. Zero. Nada. Zilch. Seriously, try and think of one. And Borderlands stuff that isn't written by Anthony Burch?

I need to get over those prejudices and try one of these, right?

An American Werewolf in London was a good story when I watched it.

Telltale games follow very specific formula that becomes very tiresome soon. I don't think they'll be able to continue like this cause problems are very obvious even if you play only some of their games.

1) Episodic nature hurts those games very, very much. They must have 5 major choices per episode and they get them whatever the price. Because of that many choices become forced and other character just have to remind you about them couple of times even though there's no other effect. The most baffling are those moments where the game says "Bob will remember that" 3 seconds before Bob gets suddenly murdered. This happens much, much more often than you can imagine.

2) Telltale is afraid you'll think you made a wrong choice. Therefore every choice is this forced grey are, you are chosing between two evils. In most cases though you chose between pleasing/displeasing one of two characters and it either doesn't change their attitude or those characters are mutually replaceable. For example if the guy hates you he'll add something you did in his hate speech but his actions remain the same. There was one moment in their games when you chose between two guys and the one you didn't please would betray you 3 or 4 episodes later - but he will ignore every other choice you make during this time. Last Telltale game I played I didn't care about any choices - I knew nothing will get better or worse whatever I do.

3) They refuse to upgrade their engine. They're working with Game of Thrones franchise, Warner Brothers and Ubisoft and their games look atrocious. It's not even the models and testures being straight out of PS2 era, the problem is animation: it was created for their Sam and Max cartoonish adventures and now they use the same facial animation for Tyrion Lannister as the one was used for mad bunny. It's on the level of, say, Knights of the old Republic from freaking 2003, and that game was prettier now that I think about it. I can't understand how they still manage to do this.

4) They completely destroyed all puzzles more complex than grab a stick lying near the thing and smash the thing with a stick. Even quick time events often don't have fail state. It now feels not like an interactive movie but like an irritating movie that sometimes wants you to react.

Oxenfree has none of those problems and I really liked it.

You've forced me to pick up Banshee Chapter and 2 exceptional screamers in first 9 minutes of the movie forced me to drop it till the room is lit by the sunlight. Thanks.

Tales is simultaneously funnier than the Borderlands games proper and an honest-to-goodness good story with great characters and a surprising amount of heart. And I thought Borderlands 2 in particular was hilarious, so that's a high bar to clear.

Seriously, it sounds like the worst of the bunch, as a pitch, but it's secretly the best.