Goal Based Dialogue System

I did some quick research on dialogue & storytelling systems and listed some links too (check comments on that previous blog post).

I started thinking that currently the “choose which line to say” leads to some sort of immersion break and the conversation might not flow optimally. I started thinking that since “micromanaging” is generally a bad thing in game projects, and since “pick the words you say” is somewhat about “micromanaging the conversation”, could the be better approach?

In project work, the approach is “result oriented”. Instead of telling coders how the name the functions and where to move the mouse, you tell ’em what you want (and perhaps give some restrictions that affect how to do it).

How would a dialogue system work if it was like this? Instead of choosing line A, which leads to choise B which leads to choice C which leads to situation N, you’d simply choose that “I want to get to N”. Then, depending your skills/tone/attributes/actions-you-done/state-of-world you might watch different dialogue, have automatic responses, and get to situation N.

I think this is slightly difficult to describe, and right now this is merely an idea, and I don’t know if some or many games are already using something like this.

I just feel that since sometimes the purpose of dialogue is to get from situation N to situation M, then perhaps it might provide more smooth and (perhaps even more immersive flow of discussion) when you need to select what you plan to do. If for example you are working on to complete Quest X (and need to get information regarding that), your discussions will be different when you are focusing on “Just fooling around”.

This system won’t solve the issue of “how much content needs to be written”, but is perhaps just a different take on commonly used dialogue tree.

What you think?

Juuso Hietalahti


  1. Interesting, Juuso. As I said, I guess it depends on what your design goal is. In an RPG scenario (which is where I usually see dialog playing a big role), I think this would tend to take too much control out of the player’s hands. However, I could see a game with more indirect control, like Majesty, working well with this. As you point out, it works well in a “manager” type game. Hrmm, maybe a new type of RPG that combines typical gameplay with some manager type aspects? Maybe running a thieves’ guild?

    Something to think about. Thanks, Juuso! :)

  2. I like the idea, actually, and it solves a problem that’s been plaguing my gameplay experience every now and then – that sometimes dialog options don’t convey intent properly. There are times when I run into a dialog tree and it goes into places I’ve never intended to go not because of skill check failures, but because my character apparently had a completely different idea of what that line of dialog meant. If my save was hours before the dialog option… it’s frustrating to no end.

    I think a system like this only make sense when there’s some difficulty in reaching the intended goal. Take the castellan for example… you would start the conversation by selecting the intention “obtain locked door key”. Then, select an approach… intimidation? bluff? diplomacy?

    The dialog unfolds. Some approach might directly lock up the intended goal, others might open up sidetracks that allows the player to refine the path to the goal (“where is the key” -> “obtain key”) as well as the approach.

    I imagine some sort of visible diagram would be tracking the dialog’s progress, marking off stages of the dialog, options available, and how close/far the current situation is relative to the original intent.

    If anything, this is going to be even *less* immersive than dialog trees, but I’ve always wanted goal oriented conversations to feel more “tactical” compared to its combat counterparts. Having a goal, spatially laying out the field of conversation topics, and making moves to advance/attack/defend toward goals just feel so much better than making a single speech skill roll.

  3. Mass Effect and Alpha Protocol use subtext as its key, and in some cases it tests against stats to make it work. A movie plays out, but the game chose the conversation.

    Alpha Protocol does it best, it seems to me, as the results are reputation based (which changes dialog and game options). I managed to get through a difficult combat portion of the game through a dialog sequence.

    Mass Effect 2 greatly improved upon Mass Effect 1’s failings, but made the “choices” seem much more diametrically opposed. A “Renegade” Shepard in ME1 could still be respectful, whereas in ME2, he’s just a dick.

    As a text based RPG, such as Fallout 1 and 2, more options seemed available. If your Charisma or Intelligence was quite low, the dialog game was practically unplayable (on purpose). A low intelligence speaks with “Ugh” or grunts. This made things far more immersive.

    As Fallout 3 was fully voiced, it made it difficult to implement these options and allow people content to the game.

  4. I guess we are bit different. I just believe that if I have a dialogue options where I need to click 7 different options to get to “quest available” point… I just feel a bit like “why not have just one click”?

    True, there’s some control taken away (the possibility to choose every line), but if that’s replaced with meaningful choices, could it make things more interesting?

    I don’t have the answer, and like for example you merc pointed out: “even if the outcome is the same, I do enjoy having choice between loot/avenge”. And the player’s perception of control is very important.

  5. This idea sounds interesting, but as some commenters already pointed out, it takes the control from the player.

    That was one of the reasons I wasn’t exactly happy with Mass Effect dialogs: while they were cinematic and beautiful, sometimes I felt that I lost control over the character and he spoke/acted on its own.

    I still think that the best dialogue implementation was in PlaneScape and Fallout 1/2. Key points being:

    1) it took your stats & skills into account, giving special dialogue options for those
    2) it added ways to define your character further, using the “lie” option etc. Even if the outcome is the same, I do enjoy having the choice between “I’ll kill you for loot and fun” and “I’ll kill you to avenge that noble knight”.
    3) All dialogue options were clear in their meanings, and the player was in control.

  6. @Brian: to be honest, I don’t know, and that example might be too specific. Or that it needs more characters to control.

    Come to think of if: soccer management games are doing this. In a way. As a coach, you get to choose the strategy and you get to choose players, but how they act depends on them. There’s good and bad players. Some star players might have relationship issues and give poor performance. How you train, choose the actors and set the goals affects the outcome.

    Cliff’s GSB is also about this. You choose star ships, choose parts and stuff… and let them fly. You get to choose, but final outcome might happen differently than you thought. You don’t control just one guy to fly to certain location – it’s in the hands of AI.

    With this in mind, you could have group of heroes. You know that you gotta get through a door. Since you’ve chosen thief, mage and warrior you give them order to work it out. Thief might say that he has friends in his guild that can help get information on where and how to get the key. Mage who had a bad day is very close to throwing a fireball through the door, and warrior is clueless… wanting to kill something.

    So, since thief has most leadership (or perhaps it’s in the hands of the player to pick “the strategy which to follow”) gets to choose and eventually you’d see thief finding info that castellan has the key. They go talking with the chap, and depending on how you chose the “formation” (speaking in soccer terms) they might try intimidate the castellan which might get you the key (=score a goal)… or attract city guards (“opposite team scores a goal” ;))

    Or you could have done more mild way (“defensive formation”), just chit chatting with the castellan, and you could see this dialogue occurring… and by the end of it, your thief might have stolen the key or they might have bribed the castellan.

    Of course there’s issues with this approach, and not even sure if this was what I originally meant… :) The reason why this works so fine in the football field is that there’s limited amount of variables (coaching strategy, training, player attributes etc) and limited amount of events (“number of goals determine who won”). And even though the same events are repeated over and over (“score a goal”), it’s still fun since you get to affect the outcome and there’s variation in teams.

    If this was to happen in RPG, you’d need tons of content, and you really couldn’t have anything “procedural” here.

    I might have sidetracked here a bit… but that’s fine. I merely wanted to think alternatives to the current way of handling dialogue, and of course it just might be possible to write tons of dialogue (easier than adding events ;)).

    Good discussion.

    Getting a bit dizzy here. Somebody else’s turn now.

  7. Some questions to help you flesh out your idea.

    Where do players get the goals? Are they mentioned in the game, or do players have to figure out the goals themselves?

    How do players express their goals when interacting with an NPC?

    How can players get feedback about how NPCs will react (anticipation) or do react (consequences) to expressing these goals?

    Perhaps explaining out a scenario might help flesh things out. Let’s say I see a locked door. The castellan has the key, but I don’t know that. How does my character learn to get the key from the castellan by interacting with NPCs?

  8. I think both of the alternatives have been around, and as previous posters have mentioned, aren’t quite as good as the choose your line.

    Option A – keyword based or free text, is pretty limited with today’s AI. I haven’t played Wizardry 8, but I got annoyed at many of the older titles which used this system.

    Option B – movies based on goals. I think you can see this in a lot of JRPG’s today. Often you get presented a choice, something like “save the princess or take revenge” at which point the characters all talk, make choices, and you just play the battles.

    I am a JRPG fan, but that gets annoying too, since sometimes it is nice to play myself as if I were in the situation. I think Dragon Age got the closest to that feeling than any of the other options.

    Unfortunately, I can’t think of a better system without taking a leap of AI…

  9. Jerrac: you came to same thinking that I started pondering. I started to think that there were those games/movies where you could choose some key actions. Somehow this idea might degenerate to same.

    What I was trying to avoid is the thing some dialog engines offer: you have some choices to choose from, but they all lead to same outcome – so that it’s really irrellevant what you say.

    All this is theoretical jibberish, but perhaps what I’m after is that I want to get rid of irrelevant chat. For example, some RPGs are done so that there’s tons of dialogue. And 90% of it’s irrelevant… you just go through the “hub” of options and choose all the things.

    Sometimes there’s seemingly relevant options, but most often it’s just illusion that breaks after you’ve discussed bit more.

    @Brian: “keywords” system – in my opinion – is step in different direction. I was thinking something like here (in scale of “freedom” or “micromanaging” versus non-freedom in choosing what to say):

    (freedom) type text…keywords…treedialogue…goalbased (non-freedom)

    But also same scale could be described as:

    (non-meaningful) type text…keywords…treedialogue…goalbased (meaningful)

    So, in the first scale, the most freedom is given when you can type any text you want. This suffers from the “non-meaningful”, as most of the stuff you say is not in the database, irrelevant or just doesn’t get you anywhere.

    Keywords are bit less freedom, but for some very fun when they try to “solve the puzzle” on what to say.

    Dialogue trees give less freedom on what to say, but they can provide more meaningful choices if done well (although from what I’ve seen in games, it unfortunately boils down to clicking all the options).

    Next, I see this “goal seeking” option providing less freedom on choosing what to say, but more in “choosing meaningful action”. After all, you can choose to “join nazis” or “join allies” but you cannot choose both.

    I really don’t know if what I’m saying here is simply speaking: “less choosing, but more meaningful options in dialogue”… or if I’m onto something else here.

    For example, if you add “actions that have happened” and “attitude/skills” factor, then you could see totally different things happen depending what you want.

    But like said, this is just me thinking on how games could be more about “making meaningful decisions”.

    Hmm, now as I say that out loud… I notice that this comes from board gaming world – they are all about meaningful decisions :]

  10. Isn’t this similar to the dialog system in Mass Effect 1 and 2?

    There you just select some theme and how you want to say it (angry, polite, etc)

  11. I agree with Jerrac. I play games because I want to do stuff, not just watch how things get done. Sometimes you need skill to choose the right lines and get to the desired result. Think of a game that goes like this:
    – talk to the blacksmith, choose option to convince him to give you some expensive armor for free. Your character puts various questions and talks to the blacksmith, while you yawn a little as you just have to watch some dialogue. Finally he’s convinced and you get a new armor.
    – go out of the town, select an option to level-up 4 levels so you can use that armor. While your character kills wolves and bears, you go get a coffee and check your mail on the phone.
    – when you get back, you’re now level 19 and you can use the armor, yaay!
    – go to the castle, choose option to convince guard to let you in
    – watch some dialogue (finish that coffee) then fail because you only have 4 charisma.
    – close the game and go play some Minesweeper, as it’s more involving.
    For me it seems it’s a little boring. I want to be involved in the game, not just be a spectator. I want to be in the middle of the events. If I fail, it’s my fault. If I win, it’s my merit, I did it, not an automated system that chooses dialog lines for me.

  12. Hmm… I don’t know that I agree that choosing the dialog breaks the immersion. If just watch my character say stuff, then it’s a movie. Which isn’t as immersive as a game. The fun part is the chance that you will say something wrong and get to situation B when you wanted N. If you can just choose to go to situation N, then what’s the point of the dialog?

  13. Well, what you proposed has been done since the dawn of RPGs (skill checks in D&D, for instance), and more recently has been used in Fallout, and while it isn’t exactly any more immersive than, say, equipping your armor, it certainly flows loads better than Alpha Protocol, where all of your dialogue options just sound douchebaggy.

    So, yes, I agree.

  14. Interesting. I think the main question you have to consider is: what is your goal? Do you want immersion, ease of getting info, something completely different than anything that came before it?

    At first blush, your suggestion sounds like some older games where you learned “keywords” form converations. So, let I see a locked door and talk to the guard nearby. He might give me the keyword “lock”. I then use that keyword on a servant who tells me about the “key”. If I use the keyword “key” with the castellan, he might give me the key. Wizardry 8 used this system well. (You can see a review of dialog systems in an old article here: http://www.irontowerstudio.com/forum/index.php?topic=414.0)

    I think adding in some context (attitude/mood of the character, events that have passed, etc.) could make for a bit more depth. But, again, the main thing is to accomplish the goal you want for your design.

  15. I think that’s an excellent idea! Personally, I’ve never seen a dialogue system like this where you just point out what you want to do and then the conversation will flow

    Usually there are two styles of storytelling: Either the player just reads a few long paragraphs of dialogue, or choosing what to say (like in DA:O). Your idea here is unique and original (as far as my knowledge tells me :D)

    And oh, by the way, my guess on twitter was right :-“

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