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AGDC: Blazing The Trail For Hot Game Dialogue

Kevin Kelly
September 17, 2008

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The Austin GDC is focusing on audio and writing in games this year. While technology has made audio more and more important in making an immersive game experience, good writing has always been key to making a great game. Just travel back in time and ask the guys at Infocom, who had entire games consisting of nothing but writing.

The "Blazing the Trail" panel was meant to provide game writers with the tools that they would need to construct good game dialogue, although it quickly turned into a one-woman show. DB Cooper (not the famous hijacker) is a voice-over artist, actor and producer, and she's also quite a personality. You know the kind of person who could fill an airplane hangar with their voice? That's her. She was joined onstage by Maryanne Krawczyk who has written for television and video games, including God of War, God of War 2, and Area 51. She's also working on the upcoming God of War 3, but she vanished into the ether after the panel so we couldn't quiz her about it.

After the break you'll find out how the panel went, and get plenty of tips and tricks for aspiring game writers. Read on, Macduff!

The panel turned into the DB show, probably because Marianne is very soft-spoken, and the other panelist Pat Fraley (another voiceover artist) wasn't able to show up. However, DB created (with Pat's assistance) a sweet handout full of tips, which you can read at the end of this post. DB explained that the point of the panel was to stop bad dialogue before it even hit the page, so it would stay off of Audio Atrocities. If you've never been, it's a delicious, snarky website devoted to outing extremely bad game dialogue. They don't just reprint the dialogue, but they also provide clips of the audio as well. Awesome.

DB explained that most actors get put into a sound studio without much background information on their characters -- they're just handed an Excel spreadsheet chock full of lines and they have to hit the ground running. Marianne mentioned that she lobbied for God of War 3 to have a table read with the actors, which they approved, and that it had a positive impact on the dialogue and helped them make changes easily, before they got in the booth to spend the dough on the recording sessions.

DB said that games "live or die by their writing," which can be true for games that need good dialogue. Obviously, Geometry Wars didn't need a cinematic screenplay to go along with it. However, for those games that do, DB went through the tips below step by step. If you're thinking about becoming a games writer, copy these down and take them to heart, because they come straight from the horse's mouth.

Blazing the Trail For Hot Game Dialogue

How you say it / Why you say it

Directing with emotional states is kind of like painting by numbers. Many writers will include a word like "angry" before or after a line when they want a character to deliver that line angrily. When an emotional state is given as the direction, you can often end up with emoting or "indicating" from your actor -- they'll fill in what you're looking for, and "color inside the lines." It's one color of emotion pasted over what's being said.

However, when you offer instruction about the intent of a line or a scene, you allow a tapestry to be woven in the actor's creation of the character. Let the actor know what is at stake (the objective: the missing saddle is a crucial part of the plot, the exit is nearby, time is running out to find the book). This allows the actor to create the emotional content.

Sometimes, it isn't actually the character's emotion you're looking to affect -- it's how you want the gamer to feel.

Try to make changes from adverbs or emotion names to objectives, infinitives, or actions. Instead of "angry," think of saying "belittling him," or "covering fear." "Deadly serious" is a good way to describe HOW the character is saying something, but WHY is the character speaking that way? To warn. To instruct. To get his partner's attention.

Use Archetypes

When you are describing your characters for the actors, we often see what Pat Fraley calls "Star Serving Suggestions."
  • "Like Kathleen Turner in Body Heat"
  • "Think Tom Welling in Smallville"
  • "Martin Sheen as Robert E. Lee in Gettysburg"
When you write the description for a character, think about the type of character you want, rather than movie or TV actors who have done roles like that character. Otherwise, your actor may believe you want an imitation of that star's performance, rather than a new creation. There's also the possibility that your actor isn't familiar with the particular role you're citing, and so has nothing specific to go on.

Try to find the archetype instead. With the Kathleen Turner example you probably want "a Femme Fatale." The Martin Sheen example is also described as "Hero-turned villain. Noble general for a losing cause." What you want is the talent's personal take on the Femme Fatale or Once-Noble General, and not an impression of how those stars would have fulfilled those roles.

Cut-to-the-Chase Descriptions

You don't need to spend time writing a character's history in your character descriptions. Performers sometimes miss the point when they are asked to sift through a page of information that's really game backstory. Here's what's helpful to the performer:

  • Character Age
  • Body Type or Size
  • Character or Emotional Type, Archetype
  • Hero or Villain
  • Any specific information, which clarifies the above
Realistic Writing
In 'real life,' people are not anywhere near as fluent as they tend to be in most scripted material -- plays, TV, games. Real people start to speak -- then add, omit, or 'rewrite' their thoughts. David Freeman, who teaches a program called Beyond Structure, warns against what he calls "A-B dialogue": statement, response; question, direct answer.

That kind of dialogue is nowhere near as lively as a question delivered with a question, seeming non-sequiturs, self-correction, or interruption. Look at conversation transcriptions in books like You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. You'll see aborted sentences, complete changes of direction, statement and restatement.

Here's a straightforward, simple line:

"I wish Jack was here."

Instead, how about --

"I wish -- dang. You know, it'd really be sweet if we had Jack here."


Sometimes, whether inadvertently or on purpose, punctuation is used to show how the writer would perform a line. Here is where you need to trust your actors. You may be pleased with their take on your scene. Sometimes you can be surprised at subtext you didn't realized was there.

Look at this sentence:

"I wouldn't open that door... if I were you."

The writer's punctuation shows that, by the ellipsis, he wants a pause while the character is thinking, or simply to make it sound dramatic. What actually happens is the ellipsis becomes the focal point of the sentence, and your voice actor will be heading for that pause in every read they give.

"I wouldn't open that door if I were you."

When you leave out the punctuation, you allow good actors to do their work. Better to write a note like "Choosing his words carefully" or "A warning." This note leads your actors toward their action, and gets you the warning to want to hear.

For a completely different take on this line, a direction like "to confuse" or "to deceive" will give you a richer range of choice than "flippantly," and is more likely to give you the irony you're looking for.

Underlining a word generally leads a reader to say that word louder, but this isn't always the best choice. This is probably more about directing than writing, but is included here to give you a look at some other possibilities of stressing part of a sentence.

Pat Fraley has made a nifty list that he calls: The Eight Means of Emphasis.
  1. Louder (the given!)
  2. Softer
  3. Highter in pitch
  4. Lower in pitch
  5. Elongating the word
  6. Shortening the word
  7. Pausing before the word
  8. Pausing after the word
Any of these can be used when dealing with a word or phrase that is especially significant.

The VO Jam Technique

This is also partly a directing scheme, but can be used for hashing out the most fluent way to write a monologue or an exchange between characters. Here's how it works: when faced with difficult or stilted ad copy, it's sometimes hard to get the gist of it, and therefore danged hard to know where the best inflections are. Having an actor use his own words to explain what the copy means allows him to see through the words on the paper to the meaning underneath.

Here's an ad:

Even this simple bit of text can leave an actor wondering where the heck the emphasis should be, and in radio you have very little time to convey anything!

Here's the improv:
How many people know the setting of their water heater's thermostat? You can save 45 bucks a year if you take a look and turn it down. See how else you can save at

Now the voice talent can record the script as written, but he has his own ideas attached to it. This may not seem like much, but it can make the difference between hearing someone "reading an ad" and someone who knows what he's talking about.

Here's a passage from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Lysander wishes to marry Hermia, but her father has betrothed her to Demetrius. He makes his plea to her father, and to Theseus:

I am, my lowd, as well derived as he,
As well possess'd; my love is more than his; My fortunes every way as fairly rank'd,
If not with vantage, as Demetrius';
And, which is more than all these boasts can be,
I am beloved of beauteous Hermia:
Why should not I then prosecute my right?

Here's an improv:

Sir, I come from a good family.
We are as well-known and respected as the family of Demetrius,
and frankly, I am the one who loves your daughter.
I promise you, I can care for Hermia in as grand a style as he can,
if not a better one! But the most important thing is that she loves ME.
Why can't I ask for her hand in marriage?

Once this kind of exercise is used, the actor is less likely to fall into the iambic pentameter trap. He's able to speak the words as written, and to understand the meaning of what he's saying, even though the language is quite lofty.

The jam technique is helpful when an actor trying to wrap his mind around heroic, or even comic book-style dialogue, but it can also be useful when a script is going through revisions. Getting a couple of actors in to help you hear what you have written, and give you their take on what they think the lines mean, can give you the means to make changes that make sense and keep the stuff that really rocks.

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