The last issue of The Escapist has a pretty good article by Will Hindmarch about enriching the immersive play experience through the use of NPC dialog. The games he draws on for his examples are Thief: The Dark Project (one of my all time favorite games) and my own last game, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory.
What I like is that he is not talking about the quality of the writing. He is talking about the quality of the immersive simulation - and the writing is only one part of it. He points out that in Thief there are dozens of sub-plots carried on through letters, notes, overheard conversations, and other channels, some of which are one-of-a-kind snippets, some of which thread through multiple levels, and some of which become central to the main story. It's brilliantly handled and under-recognized in Thief.
Will is right when he points out that you wonder "What's going to happen in the castle after you're gone?" And that this is the real achievement here. This attention to detail - the creation of this world of encyclopedic depth - this is what elevates the game from something you play to something you experience. It's what makes you care. It's also potentially the only meaningful roadblock to the other Will's assertion that games are about systems, not about content. It might be a small roadblock, and eventually we'll be able to detour around it with systems that can procedurally - err... generatively - provide this content, but until then, the argument that we require content to achieve this level of immersion still holds.
The other great thing about the article is personal to me. The example he uses of the conversation and subsequent interrogation of an NPC in Chaos Theory, and his analysis of what it means kind of blew me away. I've uploaded the entire text of the conversation and interrogation here if you're interested.
I've been in a couple of dozen writing workshops over the course of my education, and in those workshops had dozens of readers read dozens of pieces of my writing. In probably more than a thousand instances of really smart, creative writers looking at my writing and trying to figure out what I meant, ZERO of them ever managed to hit the nail on the head the way Will does here. He says:
This creates a context for the action you take next. If you kill him unnecessarily (butchering him), you're un-American. Plus, Sam Fisher's greatest weapon is fear - is it smart to throw that weapon away, or let the guerilla live to spread fear? Kill him and you bring a poetic symmetry to his story. Leave him unconscious and you change his life, maybe for the better.
Except none of that's true. Nothing happens to that guerilla after this level. Outside the game environment, you're just picking a shoulder button to pull. But if you grabbed the guerilla instead of shooting him because you wanted to hear more of his story, the words affected you. Whether you chose to knock him out or kill him, your choice was informed by his words. If they changed the way you played, the conundrum was real.
And that is pretty much exactly what I wanted the player to experience. So either I suddenly got a hell of a lot better at writing, or Will is smarter than a Nehru jacket.
Another interesting point is that of the hundreds of conversations and interrogations in the game - Will chose to examine this one. This one is from the first level of the game, and is one of my 3-4 favorites in the entire game. If I were to be asked by a journalist which one he should write about in his article, I would likely choose this one, even though it's not my favorite, because it is in the first level and likely has the highest exposure.
I've said hundreds of times 'If just one person gets it, then I did my job.' Sure it would be nice if everyone who encounters it gets it, and it would be nicer if 'everyone' was a very large set of a few million people, but for me at least the one is the part that gets me out of bed in the morning, the millions more are just gravy.
So thanks to Will Hindmarch for being the one who got it, and thanks to The Escapist for continuing to publish great articles.