Summary: Dialogue trees are a commonly used technique in interactive fiction and games. What makes this technique so popular? After examining how dialogue trees work, the big question for us is: will they work in voice first fiction and voice games?
Dialogue trees are a common technique used in interactive stories and games. Players / readers use a dialogue tree to determine how they want their character to respond to a specific situation. Selecting a response gives players an opportunity to influence how the game proceeds.
Here’s an example of a dialogue prompt from the Batman video game.
Here’s another example from an interactive story available on the Chapters mobile app platform.
Designers of interactive games struggle with two opposing necessities:
Dialogue trees offer players a clear choice in how to respond to a specific character and situation. Players have a sense of autonomy, even if the choices they make result in only minimal changes to the game..
Dialogue trees offer players a choice from a limited set of options. Since the options are limited, game designers can easily design a different follow on result for each choice. These limits make the game more manageable. The clear set of choices also ensure players can’t try something that won’t work and that would result in an error.
As a technique for driving interactivity in fiction and games, dialogue trees have several disadvantages.
Dialogue prompts presented in the form of a dialogue tree are a very artificial means of communication. They interrupt the game or story flow with a pop-up, instead of just allowing the player to respond naturally to the situation.
The choices in a dialogue tree are static. If the dialogue tree doesn’t contain a response the player would prefer, the player is still forced to select from the poor options offered by the game designers. This can result in player frustration.
Dialogue trees are not well-suited to voice first fiction or voice games. Prompts typically consist of three choices, usually with multiple words and sometimes with more than one sentence. Players need an opportunity to scan the options and quickly consider them before making a selection.
It’s certainly possible to include dialogue options in an interactive voice experience. But the choices would need to be very short. It’s difficult to imagine how the use of dialogue trees in a voice first game could result in a truly positive user experience.
Designers of voice first fiction are faced with a conundrum. The most widely used technique of interactive fiction isn’t well-suited for the world of voice first. Where does that leave us?
Looks like we’ll just have to invent new ways of offering players meaningful choices in voice first fiction. Let the journey continue!