Who, me? My qualifications? Sixteen years in the games industry, the last 8 of which have been spent writing and designing for mobile games. June’s Journey, Lily’s Garden, DragonVale, to name a few multimillion-dollar story-driven hits. Pleased to meet you. Want to learn some stuff about ~*~wordsmithing~*~? Wunderbar! Read on.
1. Show, don’t tell
Yep – the adage popularized by every Creative Writing 101 class *extra* applies in video games, an intrinsically visual medium. Your character art, assets and environments, UI – all of that works in your favor to keep dialogues short and snappy.
If your protagonist, say, recently inherited a rundown estate (seems to be a lot of that going around), you don’t need your character to call out, “Yikes, this house is covered in dust and junk – what are we going to do with this place?” Your visuals are doing the heavy lifting, so skip straight to the call to action: “Yikes! What are we going to do with this place?”
2. Make people talk like… well, people
People use slang, contractions, fragments. They exclaim! They start, stop, stutter. If your game dialogue sounds like Victorian-era prose – unless you’re writing a game set in the Victorian era, I suppose – you’re doing it wrong.
Let’s take our house-renovating protagonist, whose cheating ex-fiance just showed up on her doorstep (a lot of that going around, too). Does she say, “Oh, my, it is my ex-fiance, Chad! How dour a day it is to see you again.”? Uh, nah. She says: “What… I… you… WHAT THE HELL, CHAD?!” She talks like someone you know, like a relatable person you’ll want to hang out with for the next 90+ days of retention.
3. Also, make people talk like individuals
Each and every character in your game should have a distinct voice – especially in the absence of voice actors. (Though even if you have voice actors, the going statistic says 90% of people play mobile games with the sound off, anyway.) Your protagonist should sound different from her spunky best friend should sound different from the hunky guy next door should sound different from the protagonist’s long-absent mom. (A lot of THAT going around too… hmm…)
So, let’s say our renovating formerly-engaged protagonist and her rag-tag group of pals each comment on how much they hate the rain. How could that sound in their own voices?
Protagonist: “Ugggggh, all this rain! I haaaate the rain.”
Hunk Next Door: “‘S’rainin’ cats and dogs, man. I’m allergic.”
Spunky Friend: “RAIN?! Not in these Pradas, a’THANK you.”
Wayward Mom: “Not my favorite, but you won’t hear me crying about it.”
Four different people saying the same thing in four different ways, informed by their ~*~personalities~*~ and distinctive voices – just like real life.
4. Dialects, diction, and disaster, oh my!
Exercise caution when working with dialects, lest you stray into racist patois. People are not caricatures. A character of any racial background might drop a “g” while verbing, or they might “needta” instead of “need to” – see point 2 on people talking like people. Personally, I’m a New Englandah – all of my “r” sounds are “ah” sounds, "g"s don't exist, and yes, I’m wicked good at pahkin’ the cah by the watah.
But consider how you employ accented vernacular, and the surrounding context. Do all of your white characters speak in complete sentences with fully articulated words, while all of your POC characters parade stereotypical accents? That’s… not a good look. Be aware, and make it a practice to have sensitivity readers double-check your scripts.
PS, this counts for fantasy races, too! Your fantasy races will be called out as stand-ins for racial groups if you’re not careful with your accents.
5. Spelling and typos – don’t be sloppy, kids
I know, I know – autocorrect and spellcheck mean we’ve all devolved into illiterate keyboard-mashers who can’t remember how to spell words like “liaison” and “bureau” without Gooling them. Tough world, this.
My experience leads me to a theory: we’re all writing our dialogue in spreadsheets or in-engine tools that don’t have spellcheck, so things get missed. It happens! But for the love of Gabe, proofread your work. Proofread it when you’re writing, proofread it when you're testing, ask QA to proofread it (if you’re so lucky as to have a QA department :sobs in hotfixes:), proofread it again when the content releases, and actually FIX everything you find. Quality and polish, man, quality and polish.
Also, pro tip: Google Sheets -> Tools -> Spelling -> Spell Check. You’re welcome. But still proofread for the things Spell Check doesn’t catch, like ducking autocarrot.
6. Exposition doesn’t have to come out of a character’s mouth
Related to “show, don’t tell”, yes, but more on the topic of when to use dialogue and when to let another system do the talking instead. Do you have a quest tracker with the ability to show plot summaries? Do you have an in-universe lore library? Great! Use those systems to give more context to the world and save your character’s breath. Don’t have those systems? Develop them! Expand your world and its avenues of lore delivery, and keep the walls of text out of your dialogue.
Do you have a team of talented animators and artists? Even better! Budget in a montage cutscene and save your players having to tap through a dozen dialogues they’re barely skimming. Added bonuses: cutscenes double as rewards (shiny thing for player), AND give you the opportunity to communicate *action-packed* events that would otherwise be a series of monotonous “and then…”s when delivered from a character’s mouth.
7. Tutorials also don’t have to come out of a character’s mouth
Ever notice how so many characters talk to themselves about the mundane tasks they’re doing, seemingly for the *very first time* as adult human beings? Like: “Checking the mail? Gosh, I should walk out to the mailbox at the end of the driveway and open it to see if there’s any mail.” It’s, um, one approach, sure.
Another popular approach is the fabled Tutorial Character, who tells the protagonist things like, “You can tap the menu to do the fourth-wall breaking thing that doesn’t make any in-universe sense at all and completely ruins the immersion!”
Pop-up tutorial text + pointing finger or arrow of guidance = best way to keep your protagonist and their friends from looking like absolute idiots in their own universe. Your characters aren’t idiots! As much as you can, save their dulcet dialogue for telling stories, not teaching mechanics.
8. Omit needless words
Rule 17! A Strunk & White classic tip from The Elements of Style, and one to be taken literally for mobile games. You’ve got tiny dialogue boxes, even tinier attention spans, short session lengths, and a vocal amount of players who claim to *hate* reading (the story games they’ve chosen to download and play… :quizzical face:).
So, use your limited space to pack a punch! Choose words that *drip* with meaning and personality. Chop up the run-ons and lose the excess “that”s, “very”s, and “quite”s. Communicate clearly. Remember, the road to hell is paved with adverbs – “we ran to the corner store” is shorter than “we quickly ran to the corner store” by 8 characters, *and* doesn’t suffer from being redundant. Your localization budget will thank you, too.
9. Get bold and colorful – to a point
Text formatting is a great way to bring a player’s attention to a particular concept or important plot detail. Take our DIY-house-building protagonist: Formatting like “Where can I get seventeen boxes of Cheez-Ums around here?” clues the player into there being some importance to finding seventeen boxes of Cheez-Ums – and wouldn’t you know it, that’s the only way to lure the rabid rat king out of the basement in a future scene! Thanks for the tip, bold text.
But wield your expressive text sparingly – too many different colors and/or bolding entire chunks of dialogue to the point where the bolding is no longer emphasizing anything in particular doesn’t do you or your players any favors.
10. Motivate your characters
Look – dialogue can only do so much if your plot is weak and your characters are lacking motivation. If your protagonist’s only motivation to renovate her late relative’s estate is “because that’s the meta-game wrapper, idk, whatever”, good luck trying to write compelling dialogue.
But if, say, your protagonist’s late relative was hoarding a dark family secret (so, so much of that going around), now you’re cooking with an induction stove. Yeah, that’s right, I’m updating the idiom to an induction stove – climate change.
Suddenly, renovating the credenza isn’t another chore on an endless list – it’s a piece of the plot puzzle. Beneath those rotting floorboards hides an integral secret spanning six generations of family history. Instead of banal task-oriented small talk, your protagonist can wonder and self-reflect, can examine the choices that led them to abandon their cozy job in the city (sound familiar?) to move somewhere in the middle of nowhere (okay, seriously, we need new inciting incidents in puzzle games, people) and unravel the secrets of a family she never truly knew through an improbable treasure hunt while grappling with the conflict of a looming deadline (the formula, the formula!).
This goes double for side characters – they need their own motivations beyond the scope of “I exist as a plot device for the main character”. Goals in their lives, pasts of their own, hobbies beyond being a sidekick, interests and quirks and personality traits, oh my – all give rise to motivations that make for better dialogue.
And that’s my time. You’ve been a great audience. Don’t forget to tip your essential workers.