Dialogue: A Writer’s Story Demo (Tea Powered Games)

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Dialogue: A Writer’s Story is the tale of Lucille, a woman who is stuck on a novel, and who goes to her friends and relatives to find inspiration and work past her difficulties. The full game is not yet available, but a demo is free to download. My remarks here are therefore necessarily based just on the two scenes provided in that demo.

Dialogue has some aspects of a visual novel — in the screenshot shown above, Lucille and her brother are talking, and Lucille periodically gets timed opportunities to choose dialogue responses. All of the text is fully voice acted. There is a bar that shrinks as you run out of time to answer, as in Telltale conversation sequences, though there are also some additional dialogue powers that come into play and allow you to gain alternate dialogue lines partway through the timed session.

At the end of your conversation with Lucille’s brother, you get a little summary of how the game thinks the conversation went: were you pushy? neutral? I have to admit that its understanding of what I was doing and why didn’t really match my own.

Not all the dialogue scenes work in the same way, though. The second of the two demo scenes concerns Lucille’s exchange with her neighbor Adrian, who is providing her with information about what it’s like to work in a scientific research lab. Adrian’s dialogue is modeled as a maze, with each location representing a topic of conversation:

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Highlighted text in the maze dialogue indicates things that the player could follow up on, opening new topic-locations. There are also a certain number of “extra questions” available to the player, things that Lucille is supposedly wondering about. If you click on an extra question during the correct topic node, it will expose a new avenue of discussion and reveal new parts of the maze. In the location allegory, it’s like discovering a secret door.

The challenge for the player is thus to figure out when those questions become topically relevant. I mostly found this fairly easy to do, though there was one question where I had to do the equivalent of pixel-hunting and run all over the map spamming that question. The game tries to fight you doing this by imposing a timer — if you ask an extra question in the wrong place, you have to endure a cooldown before you’re allowed to ask any of the extra questions again — but it’s a wait of a few seconds, and if you’re genuinely stuck on what’s going on, you can certainly brute-force the scenario.

Gradually you build up a full overhead view of everything you’ve talked about so far:

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This is a mechanic of exploration, but it’s not really functioning in the way that exploratory conversational mechanics often work, namely by challenging the player to figure out what is important enough to ask about next. (For that, see Her Story, and a lot of ask/tell conversation games in parser IF — there are many many more examples than are currently tagged on IFDB.) Instead, Dialogue‘s maze-conversation interface tells us what’s going to be important to figure out and challenges us to find the connections between those topics and the existing topics in the conversation.

I like to try for the rule of thumb that the thing that we make the player enact is the thing we’re most invested in having her understand — and on those terms, I wasn’t quite sure why, in Dialogue, the emphasis was on the the transitions rather than the substance of the conversation.

It’s also a fairly anti-naturalistic presentation of conversation, one that emphasizes its formal qualities and allows for a lot of repetition of content. I don’t always mind that: in fact, I think that plot mapping can be quite effective. Still, I was interested by this experiment without feeling that I fully comprehended what it was trying to achieve in terms of storytelling or player experience. The full version of the game may perhaps make this clearer.

One other thing about the demo that may also be addressed by the full version: both the example conversations feel a bit shapeless. It’s not clear what the stakes are, or what Lucille is trying to achieve. In the context of a larger plot, of course, that may change.

In any case, it’s a new experiment in dialogue and UI, and I always like to see those. And the demo is, as I said, free.

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