Monday, September 19, 2011

"Ruins", by Jake Elliott

Branching dialogues and conversations are very set in their ways. When we do occasionally innovate with them, it's usually to change how to choose an option.

Should we stare at the NPC animations and guess whether they're nervous? Maybe there's a timer, and if we don't choose, the game chooses for us? Perhaps we type a keyword instead of choosing an option. Oooh a dialogue wheel!

Jake Elliott's "Ruins" reaches deep and re-contextualizes branching dialogues more fundamentally: what does a dialogue choice mean? When you choose it, does it mean you're saying the text, verbatim, out loud? Who are you even talking to? In this way, words can summon being. Talk about disappointment, and now the story is about disappointment. Keep mentioning hope, and now the story is about hope. In contrast, BioWare games often treat conversation as a means to explore an exhaustive pre-existing arc and world -- "Garrus, tell me more about Sjao'w'jnga'e!" -- but here, Elliott uses conversation to create the arc itself.

After all, how can Aeris exist if you never talked to her or used her in battle? How can the game narrative possibly hinge on Aeris when she was barely even in it?

Elliott's thoughtful (but never too sentimental) writing suggests giving such games the benefit of the doubt; a ruin could just as easily be the starting shell of a building, he insists, waiting to be filled... Sometimes I fear for people so much kinder than I am.

(Disclosure: I beta-tested this game before release.)