Final Fantasy XV shares something in common with a lot of the other games I’ve played and/or reviewed this year. Like Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and Mafia III, it wants you to slow down, take in the sights, and enjoy the banter, i.e., the background dialogue. And you know what? I like that because it demonstrates a dedication to improving storytelling in video games, even if it means that there are a few questions and issues that need to be addressed.
The consensus with Final Fantasy XV seems to be that the story is lacking but the interaction between the four heroes is superb. I’ve listened to arguments about how the game is at its best when the four characters are silent. Although that sounds like an insult, it’s more about observing how comfortable the characters are around each other when they’re not speaking to each other. However, the dialogue doesn’t hurt. I’d even say it's delightfully cringeworthy, and isn’t too focused on trying to represent millennials (outside of selfies) so much as it is about representing youth. After all, what clique doesn’t have members hellbent on outdoing each other’s grody puns?
Uncharted 4 and Mafia III are similar in that a lot of focus is placed on the small talk between NPCs and/or the protagonist and NPCs. In Mafia III, the idea is that at some point, you begin to pay attention to the radio host or the people discussing pertinent issues. Uncharted 4 spends a lot of time, for better or worse, acquainting you with your long-lost brother. And in many regards, these moments of banter or small talk are what make these games so special.
I’m excited to see games place a lot of effort into the background dialogue, but I’m also aware of where storytelling is often placed on the hierarchy of game development: low, and usually written around the game mechanics. Some players might also share this view on storytelling, focusing more on finding the fastest route to completing the game or just skipping cutscenes to get to the gun fights. I enjoyed Sam and Drake’s reuinon, but there were moments where I wished they’d hurry up so I could swing to the next rope while dodging enemy gunfire. Or the opposite problem: In Final Fantasy XV and Mafia III, I’d find myself invested in a conversation only to find it cut short by an ambush (although that's a good way to keep players on their toes).
If games - open world or otherwise - wish to create more intimate background dialogue and want their players to notice, then there’s a couple of questions to address. Should developers work tirelessly to predict every possible input a player could present? I don’t think so. It would require too much work. For instance, a lot of background dialogue repeats, which, while annoying, seems like a staple of gaming that I’m not sure how we’re going to solve. We probably don’t need to solve it, either, because players might miss out on some of it due to the interruptions.
That’s not to say that there can’t be some design choices to incentivize players to stop and listen instead of just running from mission to mission. In the Arkham series, Batman learns more about the asylum by finding clues, which is great because it appeals to the players’ natural curiosity. I don’t have to wait for the Riddler to hurry up and finish his sentences before I move on to the next key mission because I’m actively seeking out the mystery.
But what about the player? Developers cannot predict their every move, and no amount of incentives will encourage the most restless player from ignoring dialogue and pushing forward. Is it then up to the player to use his or her own judgement to pause for a moment, their objective just out of sight, while Gladio or Ignis allude to Prompto’s past as a formerly shy student? I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle. It’s up to players how far into the game they wish to explore, in game or even via Wikis. Developers can work all they want to ensure player and character compatibility, but in the end, such compatibility happens organically. It’s a lot like friendship, if you think about it.