Narrative: Part 5 – What’s he talking about


We’ve come a long way, and we’re almost there! Telling a story can be pretty easy, but really grasping the ins and outs of what goes into proper narrative is a little bit more challenging. But that’s why you have this guide! Before spit-polishing our final story, we need to tackle only one more hurdle!

Last issue

The last section was quite big, where we delved into the most important aspect of story-telling – characters. But while we have all our parts laid out in front of us, what we really need is some glue to stick it all together – and that’s where dialogue comes in.

Sticks and stones

Dialogue deals with WHAT and HOW things are said in the story.


So, the inevitable question: What is dialogue? Conventional definition is that it’s a “conversation between two or more persons” – which is fairly accurate; but in terms of this guide, it’s the focus on all discourse (i.e. all the words spoken). Furthermore, we’ll also be looking at HOW things are said, because that’s just as important as WHAT gets said.

Say it right

The following is going to be GAME-specific, as, lo and behold, games are our focus here. Just note that in film, books and theatre, the dialogue functions differ, as the different mediums have different ways of carrying messages across.


Narration is when a character (typically the protagonist) spills out an explanation to situate the player in current events. It serves as an introduction, interlude or reflection on aspects of the game not covered during gameplay or relevant cut scenes. Not to be confused with breaking the 4th wall, narration isn’t necessarily talking specifically to YOU, but rather takes the form of personal record.

“I just walked into the room… I never expected it to happen…no one did…and it was on that day I knew what I had to do…”


This is probably the most common type of dialogue, and also the most important. As per definition, this happens between two or more people as they communicate with each other. The reason this is most common and important, is due to the fact that this is where you learn about everything; who your characters are, what they’re doing, how they feel about each other, what kind of relationships they have, etc. In games, this is the real beef of story, as it gives you as the player an impression of how your characters are tied to each other, the world, and the events they’re a part of.

xkcd - your mom

“I can’t believe you!”

“Me!? What did I do?”

“That’s my mother, Trevor!”


Unlike conversations, explanations aren’t a two-way thing. This is usually one character telling another (and the player) how something works, or how something happened, or what they’re going to do. It’s very much a one-sided thing, with possible (minor) input in the form of questioning. Also very common (mostly with the antagonist explaining his grand scheme).

“This was what I always wanted! But I knew, I KNEW that to have my dream come true I had to get you to see it in action…now you know, now nothing stands in my way, I will finally be able to be a free man once more, and all I had to do was…hahaha…with your MOTHER!”

Breaking the 4th-wall-ation

On the rare occasion, some games will do the unthinkable and acknowledge their own reality – that is, that it is a game. If a character makes reference to a ‘player’ or a realization that he’s in a game, it’s called breaking the fourth wall. This is where games talk to YOU, and is used for comedic affect. It was very common in the Quest and Leisure Suit Larry series of old.

“Whoever is playing this right now is a pretty sick person.”

Say it clear

Half of the message, however, is the delivery.

Pitch, Speed, Volume and Tone*

If there’s a fire in your building, chances are you’re not going to be alerting everyone by whispering; nor will you be going “Hey guys…..something’s on fire……we should get out…….”. The way characters say things, should match the message they’re trying to get across. Excitement is fast and elevated; Anger is loud and harsh; romance is soft and lyrical.


Emphasis need not be a vocal quality, and is quite prevalent in text-based games (usually depicted using CAPITAL LETTERS). Emphasis is there to make sure that players get the right message, and know what’s important in conversation/explanation. Let’s look at these two sentences:

A. “Trevor is SUCH a pig.”

B. “Trevor is such a PIG.”

It’s a simple example, but it should be effective in making you wary of what you choose to emphasise. Simply put, Trevor did something that makes him a pig – the emphasis in sentence A is emphasising the EXTENT to which Trevor did it, while sentence B is emphasising WHAT he did.


It’s general rule of thumb that most important information comes first. By-the-ways and FYIs follow. Also, remember that things need to be relevant to what’s going on (unless you’re pulling a Metal Gear Solid by going crazy and off many tangents). You’ll probably notice that once major events occur in games, most NPCs’ dialogues change accordingly.

*Note: this is, obviously, reserved for games which actually have voice acting.

Dialogue - Phone

Why does this all matter?

Dialogue is the glue that holds ever aspect of narrative together. Without dialogue, you have only visual cues to make sense of things, and while not impossible (and often rewarding if you can pull it off), your characters are often defined by how and what they say (or DON’T SAY – remember, you get the strong silent types too!)

Dev.Mag heroes interact!

As you can imagine with our level 3 side-scrolling action shooter, words aren’t the show-stoppers here; but they will serve as a good balance between action and gameplay.

Level 3 characteristics for Dialogue

  • Sparse but relevant conversations
  • Continued explanation
  • Linear dialogue

Our introduction would have Chappat speaking to himself, or possible narration about the world, followed by his attack, and explanation from Lysdekcia. The characters of Chappat, Nandraw and Jay never really directly interact during gameplay, so that would be reserved for in between stages, where possible extra explanation or mission information is needed.

For the most part, dialogue would be there, but it wouldn’t be present to outshine the shooter gameplay.

Check your level!

  • Level 1
    Words? Words are for wimps! Title screen and killing is all I want here!
  • Level 2
    Okay, fine, we can have some talking, but only from someone telling me what to do, or why I’m killing all these creatures. And probably a thank you at the end.
  • Level 4
    I like to think of this as Hideo Kojima’s level; you’ll find that dialogue and interaction plays a huge deal here, and that, effectively, is the driving force behind the action. From beginning to end, the story unfolds before your eyes, with characters that have relationships with each other, coming from very different places, which they express with their words.
  • Level 5
    As always, level 5 is an expansion of level 4, and this time, once again, it has mostly to do with personal player choice. YOU choose what your character says (albeit in limited option) and dependant on that, your character, the world and the relationships all change along together, creating something multi-dimensional.

Things to be wary of

  • Got the message yet? NARRATIVE LEVEL IS VITAL!
  • Yes, dialogue can be clichéd too, but don’t worry, we’re going to sort that out next time!

IN THE NEXT ISSUE: Final touches – We finally end off the guide with some final tips and touches that will make your story stand out; from twists to wit, it’s time to round things off!

About Quinton Bronkhorst

Quinton is a designer and random rambler that really likes referring to himself in the third person. That should make you wonder: is it Quinton writing this, or perhaps some objective third party? You will never know. In unrelated news: Quinton is awesome and attractive and everyone wants to marry him. Facts. [Articles]