Shin Megami Tensei, a series that popularised ‘monster taming’ in video games, makes good use of dialogue trees to expand on their protagonists and create a flowing story that the player has some control over. It’s highly imersive in the hands of a skiller writer who knows their audience, and the development from Persona 3 to 4, and Devil Survivor to Devil Survivor 2, shows that they are still improving.
Even without dialogue trees there are ways of navigating a story-driven experience without dialogue. Simple “yes” and “no” answers can be enough if the side characters and events are interesting enough. Pokemon and Shin Megami Tensei are both successful franchises that have never relied on player character dialogue to win fans.
A silent protagonist’s charm is in their nature as “blank slates” for the player to project themselves onto, so that events don’t happen to the character, but to the player.
And there are times when silence is best, anyway. When your best friend sacrifices your other friend to summon the god of solitude he calls “Noah”, it’s probably for the best that your character can’t tell him he’s an idiot.
Whatever words you’re given, they won’t be as theraputic as the words you choose yourself when you’re remorsely beating him into dust later.
I will never forgive him
Devil Survivor has pretty tame options when the protagonist isn’t being an airhead.
When I first played the series, the dialogue trees were the selling point for me. I loved the story and I enjoyed the characters, so I was delighted to explore the lockdown how I wanted.
Of course, it’s just an illusion of freedom, which is a concept all good story games are based off. The choice I had for my player character were given to me by the developers. I had no real say on what I could do beyond a few choices of dialogue, which could be frustrating when the responses were between ditzy, smart and uninterested.
But it was fun, and it was implemented well in the first and second games.
There are important decisions, and Atlus implemented consequences well. In the first game, time management was most important, as it would decide who you could save and which routes you would unlock. The dialogue choices were only vital when the game told you so, and the options were usually very clear.
The second game changed this, by having a “Fate” system which borrowed from Persona’s “Social Links” and was a numerical value for your friendship with another character.
It worked into the multiple route system and dialogue trees, giving more importance to the way you speak to NPCs.
So it’s funny how silly the second protagonist turned out.
Examples of Devil Survivor 2’s “Silly” protagonist. It’s hard to pick just one.
To my knowledge Paradox Games is the only developer to do this.
Unlike most games were you play as a ruler, the focus of Crusader Kings 2 isn’t really about ruling your people at all. It’s about your dynasty, and perfectly illustrated in the system of successive player characters.
A system of traits gives personality to your character, who may have been custom made, player influenced, or entirely up to the AI. Some traits influence the way the NPCs react to your character – dishonourable, for example – while others directly effect the player’s choices.
The inheritance system is one that would have been a great addition to The Sims: Medieval, which disappointed a lot of players by removing aging from the game.
It also adds a level of depth to the strategy, as an heir with ‘weak’, ‘slow’ or ‘inbred’ can cripple your dynasty for generations to come.
Things get really scary when you have “lunatic” dragons.
It’s a red flag for some. Some players want their characters to represent themselves, and genderlock prevents that.
Others claim it is lazy.
The first point is purely opinion, but for the second I want to discuss Dragon Nest and Vindictus, and how they handle genderlock.
Both games are free-to-play MMOs published in North America and Australia by Nexon
Dragon Nest has had a skewed gender ratio ever since they began adding to the original four classes. Visually, customisation is limited, even for those who pay.
But the genderlock is handled well by the story. Each class is a single character, whom the player can meet in certain quest lines. They have back stories, personalities and destinies that are alluded to in-game.
Dragon Nest Cleric Side Quest (centre-click to enlarge)
Vindictus is different. The gender ratio is closer to 1:1 and even free players are able to use a range of body sliders, even height, along with the usual skin, hair and eye colour.
Visually, it’s probably the best free game around, better than many full-release single player games. The customisation is incredible. But unlike Dragon Nest, there is nothing to support it. The characters are bland and have no effect on the experience of the story.
There is no reason why Vindictus can’t include male and female avatars of each class.
Here’s a video to showcase the huge range of avatar customisation in Vindictus: