Irrational’s Ken Levine Discusses the Limitations of Dialogue in Games

November 28, 2011 Written by Alex Osborn

If you’ve seen any footage of the upcoming first person action game BioShock Infinite, then you are likely well aware of the prominence of dialogue within the game. That is why it comes as a bit of a surprise to hear project lead Ken Levine discount the effectiveness of dialogue within games.

Speaking to IGN, Levine went so far to say that dialogue is the “least effective” tool when attempting to get across a particular message.

It’s always very tempting to have people talk, you know? We’ll do a level review and either me or somebody else will have like an idea, ‘this person will say this!’, and generally that’s the least effective way to get across information in a video game.

You know the audio line to the player is about a 14.4 connection but the visual line is a cable modem in terms of how well you can communicate and how much data you can send to them at once.

Audio dialogue is a very thin line because you only hear it in order. You hear this line then that line, whereas visuals can all come at once. You can take in so much visually at once, so we really try to tell as much of the story as we can in the visual space. We don’t always succeed but that’s the goal.

Levine went on to point out the importance and power of silence in conveying meaning, as this has become an essential tool in illustrating the relationship between Elizabeth and Songbird.

The nice thing about silence is it forces you to make very clear decisions about that character.

It forces you to make that character have very clear motivations because you can’t caught up in a ton of subtlety. Now hopefully when [people see] Songbird and Elizabeth they understand there is some subtlety in that relationship, there’s some complexity to that relationship.

It doesn’t necessarily require words. The goal is to get across that relationship without them sitting down and having coffee and discussing it.

Look for BioShock Infinite when it hits retailers sometime next year.

“It’s always very tempting to have people talk, you know? We’ll do a level review and either me or somebody else will have like an idea, ‘this person will say this!’, and generally that’s the least effective way to get across information in a video game,” Levine told IGN.

“You know the audio line to the player is about a 14.4 connection but the visual line is a cable modem in terms of how well you can communicate and how much data you can send to them at once.

“Audio dialogue is a very thin line because you only hear it in order. You hear this line then that line, whereas visuals can all come at once. You can take in so much visually at once, so we really try to tell as much of the story as we can in the visual space. We don’t always succeed but that’s the goal.”

In this line of reasoning, Levine added that the game will be “better off in some ways” if Irrational can arrange to have primary antagonist Songbird never speak.

“The nice thing about silence is it forces you to make very clear decisions about that character,” he added.

“It forces you to make that character have very clear motivations because you can’t caught up in a ton of subtlety. Now hopefully when [people see] Songbird and Elizabeth they understand there is some subtlety in that relationship, there’s some complexity to that relationship.

“It doesn’t necessarily require words. The goal is to get across that relationship without them sitting down and having coffee and discussing it.”