There are a severe shortage of good dialog system screenshots on the web that aren’t photoshopped mockeries by angry fans.
BioWare has been trying to add interesting player choices into their RPGs for a long time, and each game they release has a new refinement on their systems. They’ve increasingly streamlined alignment in the Mass Effect series, and the Dragon Age games have abandoned it entirely in favor of your companions developing personal opinions about your hero. Dragon Age II breaks from its predecessor by implementing a Mass Effect-style dialog wheel and full voice acting for the main character. This doesn’t fundamentally change the mechanics of how its dialog work — but even so, it has angered a lot of players.
Dragon Age II’s New Dialog System
Dragon Age II stars a main character named Hawke, fully voice acted, and it keeps track of your dialog choices on Hawke’s behalf in two ways. The most visible way is that your companions gain friendship or rivalry points depending on how they approve. Different party members react differently to the same situation, so you may have difficulty pleasing both the magic-hating Fenris and the radical mage Anders at the same time. Maximizing either scale gains you bonuses to that party member’s abilities, and developing rivalry with them won’t, in and of itself, make them leave. There are gameplay and plot ramifications of your party members’ feelings.
The second way Dragon Age II tracks your dialog choices is by an invisible metric that assesses your main character’s personality over time. There are three personality types: Diplomatic, Aggressive, and Humorous. The personality type currently considered dominant in the game colors various involuntary dialog reactions the main character makes, and determines the kinds of comments your character makes in combat. A humorous character may initiate a sensitive conversation in a cut-scene with a joke to lighten the mood, while a diplomatic character will avoid implying any hostile assumptions, and an aggressive character gets right to the point. The combat voice overs work similarly, with different clips available based on the personality the player established for Hawke. The second effect this personality type has is that it unlocks different responses in some conversations. Sometimes a diplomatic solution to a particularly difficult situation isn’t available to habitually aggressive characters. This is rare, barely communicated, and the fact that all personality types get these bonuses at different times helps to avoid any incentive to power-game.
Dialog options in Dragon Age II are provided using a dialog wheel, adapted from Mass Effect. As in Mass Effect, you select a thought, and the character says something along those lines, but never exactly what you chose. Unlike Mass Effect, the dialog options aren’t just implicitly ordered based on their position in the wheel, they’re also given an associated icon. The icons communicate to the player what the tone of the chosen thought is. For example, a laurel represents a diplomatic response, and a gemstone represents a charming reply. These icons are color-coded according to what personality type they align with. A few icons are special, like crossed swords to represent cutting the conversation off to kill the person you’re talking to or initiate combat, and diverging arrows to represent a substantive choice with more serious ramifications than just picking how the character delivers the line. Overall, the system is pretty intuitive.
…And Those That Hate It
Early reviews tend to like the direction BioWare has taken the dialog, but some players deplore it. I’ve seen many frustrated players complain that the dialog in the game is dumbed down, simplified, bad. Most concerning to me from a design perspective is that a huge proportion of players see the dialog options as “good/evil/funny”. They get that the middle option is meant to be humorous, but they don’t get that the top and bottom aren’t good and evil. Part of this stems from the fact that we like nice people more than aggressive people, and good people are traditionally shown as nice and trying to find a peaceful solution to everything. However, the “evil” choices aren’t evil, they’re mostly just angry, which is a time-honored response to slavery and blood magic. Then, in Dragon Age 2, when you get to substantive moral choices, they pull out the diplomatic/aggressive/humorous choices entirely and assign everything the same diverging arrows icon. Your choices about what to do, who to side with, who to kill and who to let live, these have no impact on your personality and don’t use the personality icons.
Despite all this, some players think that their dialog choices are boiled down to essentially choosing a character class, picking from a trinary good/evil/doofus choice, and executing on that strategy through the whole game. This is how games with bad alignment systems do it, like Knights of the Old Republic and InFAMOUS, but BioWare has been trying to avoid that since they made Mass Effect, and Dragon Age abandoned it entirely by lacking an alignment system. BioWare has gotten extremely sophisticated in trying to build compelling choices into their games, and Dragon Age II is loaded with situations where the humorous and aggressive choices are situationally better responses than the diplomatic option.
When alignment systems were relatively uncommon in electronic RPGs, they were great, because they showed the game was responsive to your choices. As player tastes matured, alignment systems became too simple, too obvious, for discerning role-players. With Dragon Age, BioWare abandoned alignment entirely, trying to give meaningful outcomes of your actions without relying on a global judgment. Dragon Age II continues that tradition, while trying to merge the best of Mass Effect’s dialog into it. Personally, I love it. But for some players, these almost cosmetic changes are enough to bring the delicate role-playing immersion tumbling down. It’s amazing to see how easy it is to make the game look like the dialog has been simplified, and crush any sense of freedom.
There’s a way to fix this, and make everyone happy without moving backward. As Dragon Age II shows, we haven’t found it yet. Of course, once the problem is solved, then they’ll complain about something else instead of dialog choices. But that’s a good thing — game designers would get bored if we were always solving the same problems!