I recently played through the rather excellent don’t take it personally babe, it just ain’t your story (available here) which despite generally being about as far from what I’m making as an indie game can get provided a perfect example of a type of game design that I’ve been thinking about for a while. Namely dialogue choices where you have to actually pay attention and turn on your brain if you want to get what the game is giving you. In DITPB each of the offered choices are subtle and nuanced (Do I interrupt this arguing couple? Should I throw an escape line to a third wheel?) and most depend heavily on the story roles and context, particularly your knowledge of the personalities of each of the characters. At one point in the story you have to tell a student off and because of the student’s manipulative personality and the teachers position of authority I felt that it was vital I came down as hard as I possibly could, leaving no wiggle room. The choices had real weight and meaning to me because to make them well required you to make use of your mental image of the character’s world.
The trend in commercial story driven games has been to take dialogue choices in the opposite direction. Choices are big and obvious, they are usually over black and white topics that award morality points and most egregiously recently they are being handily sign posted so you don’t even have to think or engage with the dialogue at all. I’m thinking most obviously of Mass Effect, which currently strides across the story driven game genre like a colossus of critical acclaim. Which in some ways is very deserved; the universe building is excellent, the characters are mostly engaging and the presentation is top-notch. What the Mass Effect dialogue isn’t though, is much of a game. There is still gaming to be had in Mass Effect as a whole; some exploring and decent shooting parts but the dialogue game has withered to allow a TV and film influenced alternative to bloom in its place.
I’m not sure it’s possible for the mainstream to go back; production values get in the way, and I expect, as with the continuing success of the Hollywood blockbuster, there is a huge segment of the audience that actually prefers the choices being simpler and not requiring you to pay any attention. What it does mean is that there is a yawning market gap that games like DTIPB and developers like Christine Love can rush in to fill.