One of the decisions for which OtherSide has been taking some heat is the choice not to implement conversation trees as in the original Ultima Underworld games.
Let’s poke at that a little more deeply. Thanks to Flug for starting this out (in a different thread):
May I beg to differ with your begging to differ?
I don’t think dialogue is crucial. I think aesthetics are crucial, of which story is one important form, for which dialogue is one useful tool among several.
A dialogue system for “talking” with NPCs is just one means to an end, not an end in and of itself. It would be a mistake for game developers to think a conventional dialogue system is their only option when trying to convey information about the world through people. Among other things, we wouldn’t have System Shock if that were the case, but the objection runs much larger than just one game that capably communicates story even without the usual conversation trees.
Certainly the conversation tree model is a useful and effective tool! NPCs can directly tell the player character interesting or useful things about the world; the player’s conversation choices can help define that character for roleplaying; there can even be mechanical effects and gameplay consequences based on the player’s dialogue choices. Developers generally don’t implement a conversation tree system out of blindly following convention; they do it because they think it will deliver gameplay value for the kind of game they want to make.
BUT that doesn’t imply it’s the only way to get value. And value has a cost. For a given game, there may be some other way to deliver story information and support character-building choices (and consequences) that works better for that particular game, or that has a lower cost to stay within resource constraints. Haven’t we all talked about products whose features considered cool today were invented out of sheer necessity? At some point, every game feature considered a convention today was a risky experiment someone took a chance on.
Not every experiment to deliver story and character-building in some other way will work. Some will turn out to underperform for their development cost. Making games isn’t pure engineering; there is art to it. Someone who can always guess correctly what art will be universally acclaimed by the public should feel free to second-guess other creators; otherwise I think we are wiser to give game devs some breathing room for testing alternatives.
TL;DR: There has to be some leeway for trying different solutions for all kinds of game design needs, including sometimes not implementing conversation trees. Even if some concepts wind up not working out, it’s important to support a culture of thoughtful innovation in game dev or we gamers will get nothing but cookie-cutter experiences… and then we’ll complain about that.
I don’t know if I’d say the “Saurians speak context-sensitive phrases at the player when approached” experiment was a success. I do think it’s important to support developers when they consider trying something different.