Writing the PC's Dialogue

As a player or a developer, how do you like the PC’s dialogue to be written? In Blood Money, the PC’s dialogue is only ever chosen by the player, so you have one of the below styles:

She gives you a sly look. "So, are you in?"
  #"Yes, absolutely."
"Wonderful," she says. "I'll see you at the treasury tonight."


She gives you a sly look. "So, are you in?"
  #I agree, and shake her hand.
    "Wonderful," she says. "I'll see you at the treasury tonight."
  #I'm not sure about this. I'll talk her out of it.
    The police will be watching the treasury closely tonight, and the moon is so bright that it'll be hard to hide. When you tell her so, she sighs. "All right. But you owe me."

In some games, though, the PC has dialogue that isn’t chosen by the player. So you might have something like:

She gives you a sly look. "So, are you in?"
  #I agree, and shake her hand.
    "Absolutely," you say.
    "Wonderful. I'll see you at the treasury tonight."
  #I'm not sure about this. I'll talk her out of it.
    "Have you seen the moon tonight?" you say. "It'll be impossible to hide."
    "But we need that money," she says, but you can tell she's wavering.
    "The police will be crawling all over the place," you tell her. "It's too dangerous."
    She sighs. "All right. But you owe me."

As a developer, I haven’t done the last one very much. It feels quite appealing, but I wonder whether it might feel more railroady. As a player, I’ve found it can help the PC feel more concrete and fleshed out (Tally Ho did it particularly well to reinforce the voice of the game), but at the same time you run the risk of having dialogue that the player doesn’t think is right for their PC. So what do you enjoy? Are there CoGs or HGs where the PC’s speech has worked especially well for you?


The latter is definitely fun and lets you develop the conversation more without a million choices. The tricky part is that you have to write additional dialogue for the MC that is consonant with the original choice. It definitely makes you spend more time on the wording of the original choice.

I think that if a writer likes to write dialogue–what you give up in defining the MC’s personality you more than make up in getting the conversations to be looser and more like people actually talking.

(In Tally Ho, I could cheat a bit by having the MC have responses like “I see what you mean” and “It is indeed an unusual situation” that can be taken either as assent or mild disapproval, because that’s in genre.)


I feel the last format has the most potential, but it’s also the most controversial if done incorrectly. You can take or give autonomy to the player. The Mass Effect games took this approach and on a couple of rare occasions I remember regretting a choice because of what the following (“expanded”) dialogue was.

OTT E.g. If you have an option “I like you” and then that expands into “…and I want you to marry me”, I feel like that steals my autonomy and makes too many assumptions about my actions. Maybe I just like them as a friend? Etc.

EDIT: That said, it’s things like that which allow characters like Shepherd to be more than a shallow husk.


This is one element of how much agency is granted to the game-player. Often, the latter style is more appealing when it is done “correctly” because the author/developer and the game-player seem to be on the same wave-length or page, so to speak. Yet, when the author and the game-player are off from one and the other in matching the tone, inflection, etc., the later type of dialogue causes more of a dissonance that can derail the gameplay.

If I could, I would always write in the latter form (and it is what I attempt) but feedback and outside reaction will prompt me to pull back into the former type of dialogue.

If you, as a writer/developer, take the view that the MC is your character being influenced by the game-player but not exclusively controlled by them, the latter form of dialogue gets easier to justify and pull off. If you, as a writer/developer desire the MC to be given total agency by the game-player, then any fault in that dialogue is magnified and it snowballs until the game-player feels railroaded.


I honestly have a hard time playing any game that hasn’t the latter choice. The first two ones never makes me go past the intro (with maybe an exception or two). They just feels nude, like a plate of spaghetti without the sauce.


Is there a benefit to the former? Personally I feel it could offer a more immersive experience – you’re totally in control of your character.


Honestly, I try to rotate all of the above and more. I like variety, I don’t want my choices, dialogue or not, to feel too “samey” to the reader. I think there are pros and cons to different choice structures and I try to sense out whichever feels right for that scene.

That being said, whether you type verbatim what the character is going to say or occasionally speak for the MC, I personally think the trickiest part is conveying a commonly understood tone. Two or more people can all read the same sentence with differing emphasis, humor, sarcasm, anger, etc. I don’t think there is a 100% foolproof way to always make a reader interpret it how you, as the writer, hear it in your head, but I think there are ways to add flavor text so that they can be assured that it will fit what they want to do with their MC’s personality either way. I think BioWare’s dialogue wheel is a famous example of a big title company trying to tackle exactly that problem. At least without full voice acting, we have a little more wiggle room here. :sweat_smile:


Some players (self included) prefer for there to be less ambiguity when it comes to the choices you make in a conversation. Things like the dialogue wheel are stylish and streamlined and all, but one of the benefits of older-style of typing out text prompts is that… well, you know what you’re saying. And in games where most of yourplot relevant actions are through talking, knowing what you are saying is kind of important.


Just a video relevant to the topic.


I really struggle with this issue.

For CCH3, I’ll keep my same “limited MC dialogue” approach, just to be consistent. I don’t think I’ve had the MC speak in the prose during the series at all, at least not that I recall. I fear this has contributed to the NPCs being much more interesting than the MC, as the NPCs can banter back and forth in the prose sections, while MC only “speaks up” at choice time, so there’s not much of a flow.

I would definitely want to try the second approach if/when I write something else.

I think part of the issue is that choices are supposed to be around 15 words max, at least as a best practice, so that only lets you type out about one real sentence of proposed dialogue, which ain’t much. But if the author decides to characterize what the MC will say in the choice, then the reader’s expectations of what the MC will say on the next page may not match up with the characterization.


As a writer, I feel strongly in favor of the second style. I’m sure that if I try to hew to the first style, I would get bored of my protagonists and lose interest in their story arc. That won’t do at all. If I can’t stay interested, how can I possibly expect readers to care? It’s on me as a writer to communicate to the reader the range of personality choices they can expect to find in the game, and sooner rather than later.


One thing that I am wondering is…

Is there a difference between choosing a sentence and having that lead to a discussion (option 3 above), and any other choices? I mean all choices are like that, if you choose #I shoot him, you get a whole detailed scene on how the fight progresses, not a lot of further choices detailing the rest of the fight.

Why is it okay to be less detailed with action scenes than dialog?

(this is not meant to be agressive, I am honestly curious what people think).


It is my belief that action scenes are more fluid in our imagination than dialogue scenes and actions can be embraced easier because they are more open to interpretation then dialogue for most people.


As a reader i mostly skip the action scenes, but not the dialog. I am bad at imagining action scenes. I love them in movies, but can’t imagine them so i skip over them, but i never skip dialog.

This might be just me though :smile:

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#"Yeah, sure."
"Yeah, sure," you said, with your lips in a smirk. Of course you were being sarcastic.
"Yeah, sure," I said, with my lips in a smirk. Of course I was being sarcastic.

I’m going a little off topic, but this issue is primarily a second-person perspective problem. With the two examples above, you can imagine a reader who intended to be sincere would take greater offense to the first example. It’s a poorly worded-choice, to be sure, but it illustrates the inherent difference of an author’s intentions and way of speaking vs a potential reader.

In 2nd person, ‘you’ are literally putting words into the reader’s mouth, and if they didn’t sign off on those words (via clicking them in a choice) then you risk upsetting them. This increases a hundredfold when there’s romances in the mix. Talk about a hellish environment to write in!

I think the best solution is to just be brave and write the best story you can, even if a few readers cry foul. It’s not worth turning your protagonist into a mute just so you don’t step on anybody’s player agency. Geralt of Rivia is more interesting than Link will ever be.

Aside from bravery, something to seriously consider is personality stats. The most important part about using these stats is to show them. Your reader will absolutely go along with it so long as the Player Character acts according to their stats. If the PC is impulsive, for example:

*if (impulsive >= 50)
"Yeah, like hell I will!" you yelled, flashing a rude gesture.

This is a great way to squeeze more dialogue out between choices.


I am more and more coming to realize that I am doing a lot of things you’re not supposed to do, but here we go :slight_smile:


Definitely no right or wrong answer in this case! It’s really interesting to hear different perspectives.

Your comment about description in action vs dialogue is giving me a lot of food for thought in particular - I guess with fight scenes, you would generally have choices within the fight if it’s a big one, to make the pacing right, but wouldn’t necessarily have blow-by-blow choices, or it’d get tiresome.

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Question: do you still prefer this approach, or are you doing it because you are kinda locked in from the earlier stories and you wish you had done a more Mass Effect-y suggested dialogue situation?

I am more for that than the literalist one, though I do have a mix in NPT. But I am less concerned about blank slate PCs than a lot of people here.

I don’t really think that I can agree with @MultipleChoice about first or second person having anything to do with this.

I would get equally frustrated in @MultipleChoice example no matter the point of view because problem is not a matter of PC personality, but the fact that a choice ultimately does not do what I thought it would do.

Dialog is extra prone to this because a voiceless text has a hard time conveying tone and tone is vital to the meaning of dialog.

Besides I’ve read a lot VN’s, the majority of which seems to be in first person and a lot of those VN’s have readers give the exact same complaint about dialog choices - so yeah, it is a problem of telegraphing the choices properly.

Though, I too prefer the more defined protagonist. I don’t really begrudge people who wants more control. Ultimately, there is no one good solution here other than trying to telegraph tone and context for the choice as much as possible, so as many as possible pick the option they actually wants to pick.


Yup! I agree with this. :blush:

The first option is what I like best. I write in first person, and as someone who likes writing a lot of dialogue, I dislike “silent” protagonists. It feels like the PC is not talking at all, which hurts my immersion more. It feels boring to me when you just tell what the PC said. I’d rather have bland dialogue than letting me fill the blanks myself. :confused:

That said, if context is a problem, why not take the third (or fourth in this case) option? I do this in combination with the first option especially when making an important choice, so something like:

	# "Um…" I'm not really comfortable talking with new people.
	# "Hi! What's your name?" I hold out my hand. I like meeting new friends.

It’s a bit longer, but there’s dialogue, the intention is clear, and it feels like the choices are also part of the narrative so the following conversation feels more natural.

You don’t have to add “context” for every choice of course. If the choice isn’t immediately clear, then adding something like I say, sarcastically. at the end of it is good enough.

If you want to be even more immersive with the choices, you can also do something fancy using multireplace, like:

	#@{(shy > 50) I smile and nod. Of course I want it.|"Of course! I always wanted to have one."}
	#@{(shy > 50) I shake my head. I don't really need it.|"No, I'm good. You can keep it."}

…so personality checks aren’t just in the narrative.