It's no secret I'm interested in how games model conversation. It's an interesting challenge on several fronts; you need to consider how content creators author conversations, how the user experience plays out and how engaging it is as a gameplay mechanic. To this end it's instructive to see what's already out there. This article takes a high level look at "The Witcher 3 : Wild Hunt"'s conversation model from the player point of view.
The player initiates conversation by walking up to an NPC and interacting with them (no different from any other RPG all the way back to Dragon Warrior). Conversation may also be triggered during cutscenes. The vast majority of the plot is advanced using the conversation and cutscene system.
The Witcher has two broad modes of conversation
In consumer mode the player watches and listens to a scene in the game. This is where the NPC speaks and it's often combined with animation and camera work. The game is fully voiced but subtitles are shown center-aligned, at the bottom of the screen. You can see an example below.
I've marked-up the above screenshot. If we break the screen in thirds and then break the bottom third into thirds again; the text is aligned to the top of the middle third. This gives the subtitles lots of space but ensures they don't obscure any action in the center of the screen.
There's no transition for this text, each line instantly appears one after the other like a subtitled movie. The player can skip through these scenes by pressing a button (such as the Square button on the PlayStation 4).
In producer mode the player is presented with a choice of lines to say to an NPC. An example screen can be seen below.
In this mode time is "stopped", the camera moves around and the conversation partner plays idle animations but by default the game is paused and the player has all the time in the world to weigh the choices and chose the one they feel most appropriate.
The last line spoken by the NPC remains on the screen while the player is in producer mode. This gives some context for the reply.
The Witcher's list of replies has some interesting conventions:
- Yellow options indicate the conversation will be advanced. Selecting a yellow option may mean you lose the option to select previous choices.
- Given two yellow options you may only be able to chose one of them.
- Yellow options are always put at the top of the list.
- Options that may change state have a small icon. These include:
- Starting a game of Gwent, the Witcher's card game
- Haggling over a contract price
- Opening a shop interface
- Leaving the conversation
- The exit option is always the last element in the list.
- Options may be locked off. For instance if the Witcher doesn't have the Axii Sign ability (mind-control), he won't be able to choose options with the Axii sign.
- Certain conversation states are timed - the Witcher must make a choice in the time limit or the currently selected item is chosen.
Also note: the text is white-ish with a black outline. This means it's easy to read against any background.
Focus is shown with a triangle pointer and the reply text gets a semi-transparent grey/black box behind it.
Here are some screenshots showing the different types of reply.
This screenshot shows three options and each one changes the state. The top two options go to shop screens and the bottom action exits the conversation. Note that there's no yellow option - this means there's no quest-like choice that would alter the conversation going forward.
The conversation above has a yellow option, so chosing it will change the conversation state. This yellow option accepts a quest. The second option opens a screen to barter the reward for the quest.
This conversation also has a yellow option, this time it doesn't accept a quest, instead it advances the conversation state and may lead to a quest or additional information to be used later.
All options are yellow! This means even if you exit the conversation - that's a meaningful choice. For instance it might trigger combat. Note the second option has the axii icon which requires a Witcher skill to use.
This is a timed choice and adds a little pressure to the player.
Behind the Scenes
The Witcher is a big game, with lots of quests. This means they have pretty good tooling to write dialog. REDKit, the modding tool for the Witcher 2, is probably very similar to the tools used in Witcher 3. You can see if it in action over here.
It's a node base conversation graph similar to those seem in games like Never Winter Nights but with more support for things like voice acting.
The tool itself uses screenplay-style formatting as used for Hollywood scripts. (The industry standard for writing these kind of scripts is a piece of software called Final Draft).
Some General Thoughts
The Witcher really excels at combining animation and camera work with the dialog system. While I enjoyed some of the the Witcher conversations, the majority I didn't find as engaging as other games.
Witcher conversations are quite linear when compared to games like Fallout or Baulder's Gate. Conversations rarely branch and it's unusual to have more than one possible outcome. Because the majority of conversations are predetermined it makes the choices less meaningful. The things you ask and the replies you choose - unless they're highlighted in yellow - they don't really matter!