Levine: Dialogue is the “least effective” communication tool in games

Monday, 28th November 2011 08:30 GMT By Brenna Hillier

Although BioShock: Infinite abandons the silent protagonist schtick, Irrational Games boss Ken Levine is still a champion of quiet.

“It’s always very tempting to have people talk, you know? We’ll do a level review and either me or somebody else will have like an idea, ‘this person will say this!’, and generally that’s the least effective way to get across information in a video game,” Levine told IGN.

“You know the audio line to the player is about a 14.4 connection but the visual line is a cable modem in terms of how well you can communicate and how much data you can send to them at once.

“Audio dialogue is a very thin line because you only hear it in order. You hear this line then that line, whereas visuals can all come at once. You can take in so much visually at once, so we really try to tell as much of the story as we can in the visual space. We don’t always succeed but that’s the goal.”

In this line of reasoning, Levine added that the game will be “better off in some ways” if Irrational can arrange to have primary antagonist Songbird never speak.

“The nice thing about silence is it forces you to make very clear decisions about that character,” he added.

“It forces you to make that character have very clear motivations because you can’t caught up in a ton of subtlety. Now hopefully when [people see] Songbird and Elizabeth they understand there is some subtlety in that relationship, there’s some complexity to that relationship.

“It doesn’t necessarily require words. The goal is to get across that relationship without them sitting down and having coffee and discussing it.”

BioShock: Infinite is expected on major platforms in 2012.




  1. Telepathic.Geometry

    I agree absolutely. Telling someone “Fuck you” could be interpreted in so many ways, but will never be able to transfer the same emotional and semantic impact of fucking them up the arse and then wiping your dick on the curtains.

    In all seriousness though, I think that this as true in games as it is in movies. A good actor can or a good action director can deliver so much detail about the characters without words… More of this please.

    #1 3 years ago
  2. revsouly

    Maybe in games, not so much in movies. How can you say “you can’t handle the truth” without actually saying it?

    I can see the point a little, but I say that dialogue is weak in games or movies because the writing is weak.

    #2 3 years ago
  3. DSB

    Ken Levine speaks the gospel, yet again.

    @2 He’s not saying that dialogue is bad. He’s saying it’s bad for feeding you information.

    Take Inception as an example. The first conversation between Michael Caine and Leonardo DiCaprio is basically mostly about how Michael Caine is his father (which he makes sure to mention twice, just so everybody’s onboard) and that DiCaprio has lost his kids due to a terrible incident.

    That almost ruined the movie for me. It’s the kind of thing you’d find in a 4th graders comic book.

    It’s the worst kind of hackjob, because people would never waste a conversation on feeding eachother information that they’re both already well aware of, and so it makes them look either incredibly uninteresting for wasting eachother’s time on it, or just completely unbelievable, because it exposes the writers need to tell you something, instead of justifying the characters need to talk to eachother.

    #3 3 years ago
  4. deathgaze

    I don’t know if I agree. The problem isn’t with “dialogue”, the problem lies in the way that game designers use dialogue. Movies use dialogue to communicate information just fine.

    Dialogue in video games, however, is slightly different. For one, there’s no way to guarantee that the player will be looking at the speaker when the line is spoken. This goes hand-in-hand with the second problem: Game designers don’t do a good job of using body language in dialogue. So, Levine is right in saying that it’s a VISUAL problem, but he’s placing the blame on the auditory aspect of it, not the visual aspect. If you don’t give the player something interesting to look at then they won’t look at it. As humans, we’re used to communicating moreso with body language than with dialogue. No one in the game industry except for Valve seems to understand that, as they always seem to have a character perform some wooden animation while they’re spouting dialogue. It breaks immersion and usually reflects some other development priority.

    The third problem is the one that everyone knows about: Writing in games sucks. Even the voice acting isn’t up to par. No wonder no one pays attention to the crappy writing and voice acting. ‘Nuff said there.

    Unfortunately, most game designers haven’t gotten past these very basic aspects of the uncanny valley and writing/performance for interactive media. Until they learn that dialogue is more than “the lines”, they’ll be stuck with this type of mindset – the idea that having a conversation with the player is not an effective method of communication.

    #4 3 years ago
  5. Len

    ‘They’re waiting for you, Gordon, in the test chamber…’

    Worked for me!

    #5 3 years ago
  6. Ireland Michael

    So Levine is basically damning all of Hideo Kojima’s work as lazy, amateurish storytelling?

    Works for me.

    #6 3 years ago

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