The Importance of Text

Posted: May 27, 2011 in Games
Tags: , , , , , , ,

This reason for writing this post is brought on by a blog post by Shamus Young, wherein he laments that video games rarely make use of text like they used to. You can watch the video too, but my main point is related to what he’s written and not the actual video.

In the past games have used text to describe the setting, to make up for a lack of graphical quality, and let the players imagination create the setting better than any graphics could. I never really played a lot of games like that. When I started playing games the main use of text was dialogue between characters.  Of course when games started using voice actors, it changed things dramatically.

Or maybe not, at least not for me anyway. I remember playing Final Fantasy 10, the first in the series to have voice actors. I turned on the subtitles read the dialogue and whenever I was done I pressed X to go to the next line of dialogue. Since I could read faster than they spoke anyone listening would hear really weird dialogue where nobody every finished their sentences. In fact the only thing that adding voice actors did to change the game was piss off my brother when I cut off the spoken dialogue early, because he was trying to follow the plot.

As a sort of side note, thankfully many games allow the option to skip entire scenes, but very few offer what Final Fantasy 10 had, the ability to read the subtitles, and in addition to that, after reading a bit of dialogue, I could cut off the voice actor and go to the next line of dialogue. There are very few games were I would actually care to listen to the voice actor rather than reading the text(God of War being the best example of voice acting that I really liked).

So the point of this post is to discuss what the purpose of text in games. Most important is the fact that when reading a text your imagination can create something more impressive than any graphics or voice acting can do. This is especially true of lackluster voice acting, where a  scene would be much more dramatic if I could just imagine the voices rather than hearing the horrible wooden delivery of dialogue.

As a sort of side note, when I was watching the movie Final Fantasy 7: Advent Children, the voice acting was really jarring. Especially Cait Sith, but also the other characters as well. They didn’t at all sound right and I couldn’t really put my finger on what was wrong, since there wasn’t really anything bad about the voice acting. The problem was that the game Final Fantasy 7 didn’t have any voice acting, so when reading the dialogue, in my head I gave the characters voices. The voices the character had in the movie are quite different than what I imagined and it just made the whole thing seem strange to me, although I did get used to the voices eventually(well no I never got used to the Cait Sith voice but the rest were okay), and enjoyed the movie.

Well I guess this post about text in video games really got sidetracked to talking about voice acting, so I’ll just finish with a final observation. It seems that many games, like the codex in Dragon Age: Origins, lets people collect bits of text to read and get some background information on the game world, and I quite enjoyed it. I suppose text isn’t completely gone out of games, its just less important and in a lot fewer games, but still there if you really want it.

Topics for discussion: anything related to text in video games, voice acting.

  1. Haychen says:

    Being the Elder Scrolls fan I am, I’m going to talk about Morrowind and Oblivion.

    One of the good things about Morrowind is that most of the dialogue was text-based, though I have to say, for me, this got rather headache inducing after a while. Considering that some NPCs were very wall-of-texty, you can probably see where I’m coming from.

    Oblivion’s dialogue, while it garnered a lot of critique, was something I liked in the system; subtitles(which could be triggered on or off, whether it was conversational subtitles or subtitles for things you would just hear people mumble). I have the same problem in FFX as you do; I read faster than the voice acting (and I’d like to say that I did like the voiceacting in FFX… in some respects. The ‘acting’ part needed work, but I think their voices fit their character. Needless to say, yes, the acting portion fell flat) and it can get rather boring to have to sit there and listen to the cutscenes.

    Its especially useful when you’re replaying a game, being able to skip cutscenes or skip dialogue due to being able to read ahead, or having already played it.
    Crisis Core is an amazing game, but one of its biggest downfalls was the fact that the cutscenes weren’t skippable… which led to much frustration when my battery was low and decided to die right in the middle of the end cutscene.

    • maxff says:

      How the hell do you run out of battery power, the PSP battery lasts like forever? But yes, unskippable cut scenes are bad game design.

      Pretty much agree with the rest of what you said as well.

  2. krellen says:

    My absolute favourite part of Mass Effect was the codex, which was mostly just text. It did so much to flesh out the setting and the people for me (though having read and enjoyed all of it may have contributed to my dislike of ME2.)

  3. SLeeping Dragon says:

    In the comments to the post you link to I mentioned Spiderweb’s games as an example of using text. The idea here is simple, since the graphics are in a very retro style,the sprites are pretty much static, sometimes the game uses some spell animation (by which I mean stuff like placing an explosion sprite over the target) during a cutscene but that is really it. The description however… oh, the text will tell you that the caves in Avernum are huge, that the ceiling disappears in the darkness way above your head; that the Spire of Ages is a mighty citadel of magic; that the portal is swirling and that you can sort of make shapes on the other side; what emotions do various NPCs express… This also allows the game to engage other senses. The player is often informed about the smell, temperature or moisture of a given location, and it is often significant (for example a smell of sulphur may mean hot springs that may have healing properties, or be a nesting place for giant lizards… or it may signify the presence of demons. Sudden chill often means there is necromancy at work nearby).

    And don’t even get me started on adding a simple phrase like “the most beautiful thing/person/location you’ve ever seen”. If the writing is decent (not even great, just decent) and the player is willing to work with it these few words get more result than any character modelling and graphics team could.

    • maxff says:

      First of all thank you for posting a comment, and secondly thank you for directing me to Spiderweb’s games. You make a really good point that I hadn’t even considered, I guess cause most games overwhelm me with graphics and sound, I hadn’t even thought of other senses. There’s really no good way to simulate the other senses except through text, and player imagination.

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