Wherefore art thou Dialog Trees?

Survival horror has its roots in the Adventure genre, and even today we can see versions most standard adventure game systems in modern survival horror games. But there is one mechanic–a staple of classic adventure games–that doesn’t seem to be used for horror games: dialog trees. If you’ve ever played any time of adventure game, you’ve most likely experienced a dialog tree; a non-player character will address the protagonist and you’ll be prompted to chose from a list of canned responses. Depending on your response, the non-player character’s reaction can change, and often deft navigation of the conversation is required to progress. This sort of system has persisted in adventure games for years. Even modern adventure games like Indigo Prophecy, Shenmue, and Phoenix Wright make use of dialog trees to allow for interactive conversation. So ubiquitous is this system that it ranks up with item puzzles on the list of core adventure game mechanics.

And yet, I can’t think of a single horror game that uses dialog trees. Well, that’s not really true; there are a few minor games like Kyoufu Shinbun Heiseiban and Kamaitachi No Yoru that do employ dialog trees, but these are mostly text adventure (or almost-text-adventure) games. Many horror games require the player to make choices (such as The Suffering‘s morality system), but these choices are usually binary (yes or no questions) and, unlike classic dialog trees, do not contain multiple levels of branching choices.

So what happened? Survival horror games, for all intents and purposes, are adventure games. Item interaction has been simplified and combat typically plays a much larger role, but almost all classic adventure mechanics can be found in modern horror games. Were dialog systems left behind because they somehow work against the developer’s attempts to build tension? Or perhaps they were discarded because there just are not that many people to talk to?

I don’t really know the answer, but I suspect that it has to do with the idea that horror try to be more “cinematic” than other types of games in order to better unsettle the player. Horror games are the only modern genre that I know of that consistently use cinematography and shot composition techniques to communicate certain feelings to the player (there are examples in other genres, of course, but they are typically the exception to the rule), and most horror games omit on-screen HUDs in order to better immerse the player. It seems safe to assume that the omission of dialog trees has something to do with the horror content in scary games; it may be the case that dialog trees give the player too much decision-making power in a genre that aims to make you feel helpless and out of control. Or it might be that decision trees are pointless unless the player’s decisions appear to actually affect the situation or story, and horror games require such a high level of detailed content that branching isn’t practical.

The thing about dialog trees is that they usually go hand-in-hand with non-player characters. Furthermore, these characters usually give you multiple opportunities to talk to them, so if you fail to make the correct decisions in the dialog tree you have a way to start over again from the beginning. Horror games rarely have this type of NPC; those that do appear only have a few things to say, and are not used for conversation. So perhaps the issue is that providing NPCs that can be spoken to multiple times somehow degrades the overall horror impact of the game. If the player is really to believe that their character is trapped in some dire situation, does it really make sense for people to be standing around nonchalantly, waiting to be spoken to? Giving the player NPCs to talk to, especially when they are in the thick of a high-tension scene, could be very damaging to the oppressing feeling of isolation that most horror games strive to create.

Or, it might be that dialog trees have no place in horror games because they break up the pacing. One classic problem with dialog trees is that they cause the action to stop cold while the player makes a decision, which actively works against the smooth, movie-like feel that many horror games strive for. Pacing wasn’t much of an issue back in the 2D adventure game days because the entire game was played at the player’s pace, but for a horror game good pacing has become key to building tension. Resident Evil controls its pacing by forcing the player through a funnel of locked rooms that contain keys to other locked rooms. Silent Hill, being a more linear experience, controls pacing by creating actual architecture that dictates the player’s speed (consider the impossibly-long underground stairway into the prison section of Silent Hill 2). Other games use timers, cut scenes, and a variety of mechanics to make sure that the player moves through the game at a predictable pace so that the timing of horror elements can be dictated. Without that control, the game could lose much of its impact because the developers would be unable to sequence story events in such a way that tension is increased at a steady rate.

Whatever the reason, it seems like horror developers have consistently chosen to discard dialog trees from their game designs. These sorts of decisions are what separate horror games from the pack; the designers of these titles are actively considering which game mechanics will allow them to better communicate emotion to the player and which will be detrimental to that goal. All decisions of a good horror game design must be in service to the horror experience; without this focus the player will never become emotionally engaged and the game will fail to rise above simple mechanics and environments. By omitting dialog trees from their game designs, I think that horror game developers are striving to remove impediments to emotional engagement.

10 thoughts on “Wherefore art thou Dialog Trees?

  1. Yeah, they are adventure games. I figured that out a long time ago. They may have more action and fighting in them, but they are adventure games. And some survival horror games even focus on puzzles more than combat, take Martian Gothic for example. So, why there are no dialog trees I have no idea. Good point you brought across Chris.

  2. If I had to guess, I would probably say it’s most closely related to the overall linear nature of survival horror games. I have yet to find a survival horror title where I really felt like I was in control of where I was going, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. All the other points are good, though, and I’m sure impacted the decision in some way. Thanks for the opportunity to think. It’s always appreciated. 🙂

  3. Well, in Dino Crisis and Resident Evil 3 the player was given the choice of different branches a few times during the game. It certainly were no dialogue trees but the outcome of the dialogue was different however.
    In Silent Hill 2 one of the endings depended on how often you interacted with Maria, this didn’t change the main dialogue but it still gave the player some sort of decision.
    A recent example is in the beginning of Rule of Rose – but here it’s only yes/no questions and your answers have no effect on the game.
    Lastly this leads me to Hellnight which in fact
    has dialogue trees and further gives the player other options to change the direction of the story. But like you mentioned dialogue trees largely depend on NPCs of which Hellnight has a lot. This doesn’t hurt the atmosphere however, as interacting with the game’s weird and quirky characters rather contributed to it and makes it stand out of the genre – too bad that Hellnight was and still is overlooked.

  4. The reason that conversation trees are rare–in any genre–is due to their overwhelming expense. The number of options in a tree can grow exponentially as new options are added.

    In your example diagram, we have 25 nodes. If we were to add just one more layer, there would be nearly 100 nodes in the tree.

    Implementing (and testing) that many nodes is a nightmare. This is especially true if each node requires assets in addition to text (animations, audio, etc). And, after all that work, the player is only experiencing a tiny portion of the content!

    Creating *meaningful*, branching dialogue is possible, but its an exhausting, acrobatic spectacle that only the most limber of prestidigitators have managed.

    Still, one dreams! When you get down to it, the horror genre is really about how people interact with each other in difficult situations. Survival horror lacks this aspect of human interaction, and its sorely missed.

  5. Honestly, I think it’s because dialog trees aren’t very fun. I’ve never seen a game where they were implemented well. It always seems not like actual conversation but like you’re being forced to navigate through a series of nested menus, hitting each item, to make sure that you don’t miss anything important. I think they’re not in survival horror because survival horror makers knew they weren’t expected to do dialog trees and so decided not to add something in that wasn’t fun ro exciting.

  6. You know, I’ve just been thinking about this. My favorite game of all time is Indiana Jones & The Fate of Atlantis and that uses dialog trees extensively. Recently I bought The Longest Journey because it’s constantly toted as one of the best adventure games of all time. There wasn’t a single dialog tree and this really disappointed me.

    But I totally agree, I am still waiting for a horror game with more of an adventure side than an action side. One where what you say and what you do changes the path of the game and what happens. Games like these can be played over and over again and sadly we don’t see this in the survival horror genre.

  7. Your extensive evalualtions of survival horror amaze me. I was just thinking about this playing Outbreak File #2. Definately A SH game, but with SO MANY… Item/Story trees? Major changes in the storyline as well as different places to possibly explore for better goodies. NPC’s, instead of chating, are in need of something (what good is talking when zombies are everywhere?) and offer rewards. Interactions with NPC’s and the environment can yield changes to the gameplay without changing story. Weapons and health items are fun too, right? A full-length title with those kinds of mechanics would definately score high in my book.

  8. What the? Did you come up with the idea for this entry from our talk at the Lock Up or am I just imagining things? (Always a possibility.)

  9. The first Kamaitachi no Yoru sold more than a million copies, the first time it was release on the Super Famicom. So I wouldn’t call it a minor game. Its fame also extented to non gamers. And it also got rereleased on PSX, GBA, cellphones… Just because very few people have played it outide jpan doesn’t mean it’s a minor game. It’s part of developper Chunsoft’s Sound Novel series which started with Otogirisou (horror), then Kamaitachi 1, Machi (which is not a horror game), Kamaitachi 2 and 3. And there is going to be a new one on PS3 with high def graphics called Imabiki. All combined the series sold more 2.8 million copies.
    It was even made into a TV drama adaptation.
    BTW, it’s not really dialogue trees that are in this series. There are some converstations where you can choose what to say but not all the decision points are dialogue. There are several scenarios, a main one, and others (humour, occult sci-fi) and they are all written by real writers.
    The main scenario in each title was written by a mystery novel author and you have to solve a mystery with killings. It’s more like reading a book except with sound, pictures and movies, and at certain points you can make choices which change the story and there are a lot of endings. In the PlayStation version of Kamaitachi 1 there are more than 40 endings.
    In every scenario the basic characters are the same except what happens changes, either the killer is a different person, or the scenario is a parody, or it’s completely different like a spy story (in the 1st) or a haunting ghost story.

    So this series basically is an interactive book with different branches.

    It’s not tedious dialogue. Of course there are dialogues, but it’s like a novel. So I am sure this type of game could sell in the US too, people who like reading but are not interested in games would like them, like in Japan there were non gamers who played Kamaitachi no Yoru.

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