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Q&A: Double Fine's Anna Kipnis digs into the mechanics of good dialog

Game industry veteran Anna Kipnis serves as a senior gameplay programmer at Double Fine Productions, where she's worked on everything from Psychonauts to Brutal Legend to The Cave.
Like pretty much everyone at Double Fine, she tackles a wide variety of tasks at the studio -- including leading her own game development project as part of Double Fine's most recent Amnesia Fortnight internal game jam -- and has experience with the design and implementation of the dialog systems that give voice to some of Double Fine's most iconic characters.
In her work as a programmer she's been in charge of implementing dynamic dialog systems as gameplay mechanics, but she's also had the opportunity to work closely with writers, artists, animators, casting directors, and pretty much everyone involved with the process of bringing a line of dialog out of someone's imagination and getting it into a finished game.
This August she's bringing her experience to bear by delivering an hour-long talk at GDC Europe 2014, "Dialog Systems in Double Fine Games", a much-expanded version of a lesson she's already given to an audience of developers at NYU. Given Kipnis' work as a Molyjam organizer, a GDC speaker and a Double Fine programmer, we caught up with her on Skype to learn more about why she felt driven to pitch a GDC Europe talk about the art and import of designing robust dialog systems.

So what inspired you to pitch this talk about dialog systems?
Kipnis: I was at Fantastic Arcade last year in the car with a couple of indie developers, and they kind of asked me about how much work was involved to do voiced dialog in games because I was doing so much dialog work at Double Fine, especially voiced stuff.
I tried to describe it to them and some problems they may end up running into and I ended up talking about it for like an hour straight in the car. And I realized 'Man, I should just give an actual talk about this,' because it doesn't make for a great social conversation.
I submitted the idea to the GDC Independent Games Summit this year in San Francisco, but I think they thought it was too hardcore for the IGS, because independent games tend not to have a lot of voice work.
And that's true, but that's also kind of why I wanted to give the talk. By the time it was turned down for IGS the deadline for main GDC SF submissions had passed, so I didn't get a chance to submit it there. But, shortly after, NYU and Babycastles asked me if I could give a talk for them at the Game Innovation Lab, and I pitched this specific talk to them. I already have the shorter version of the talk put together, and you can actually watch it online right now on YouTube -- it's about 25 minutes long. The talk at GDC Europe is going to be a more expanded version.
How are you planning to expand it?
So the problem with a 25-minute talk on this topic is that I had to breeze by like, everything. People were frantically trying to write stuff down and I just had to keep moving because I had to cover all the bases in just 25 minutes. Everything from the audio tools to what bridges the audio department to animation and everything in between, like how lines get into the game, how localization gets involved, how you work with teams that are offsite or even in other countries, why everything has to be organized and how you can do it, that kind of thing.
It's really broad, and it's also focused as a programming talk because dialog systems are really a difficult feature to stuff into a game at the last minute -- you really need to think about it as a gameplay mechanic from the very start. I cover why you might want to do dynamic dialog or dialog trees, where you start if you've never done anything like that, the advantages of doing text-­only vs. voiced, what problems you'll face if you do decide to go with voice dialog -- avoiding everyone talking over each other, those kinds of things -- and so on.
Everything you're talking about revolves on the dialog lines themselves, rather than who speaks it or who writes it. How did you come to approach something like the spoken word in such an object-oriented manner?
Well I've worked with some really really great writers, like Tim Schafer and Erik Wolpaw, and every time the actual writing process starts someplace different. If you're working with Tim, for example, everything starts with a sort of overarching design -- what kind of world do you want to play in, what kind of person do you want to play, that kind of thing -- and from there he starts to visualize who a character will be and how they interact with the world. So that process really shapes the dialog, and then I need a system to put it into the game.

The Milkman Boyd Cooper, from Psychonauts.

For example, my talk is going to start with one of the first things I did when I joined Double Fine, which is work on the dialog of this guy named Boyd Cooper, a guard in the insane asylum from Psychonauts. He's extremely paranoid, he's ranting constantly and saying kind of crazy things, and if you actually write out all of those lines -- 15, 20, even a hundred -- and just make him go through them one after another, eventually they'll start to repeat and everything will fall apart because he'll start to feel like a game character.
So Tim came up with a way we could do that better, where we would take phrases and combine them in interesting ways to form his actual rants.
It sounds like you actually approach that very programmatically.
Yeah, exactly. But it was written and recorded with that system in mind. Also, it's really good to try and get scratch dialog whenever you're implementing dialog -- especially in a way that's this weird.
You want to try it out, even record it yourself if you have to, to see if it works. It also helps to record some interstitial sounds, like coughs or something, to stitch together separate lines and make them flow better. Otherwise it sounds really weird, because your ears can detect discrepancies in a way your eyes often don't; as soon as your ears detect an inconsistency in a character's dialog, the illusion just falls apart.
So it's not just a matter of writing some dialog that's going to be spoken in the game and sending an actor off to go read it. Actors need a lot of context for where and why a line will be playing; when Tim writes he actually includes stage directions, so that when an actor gets the script they get all the details about what's going on in the scene and how their words will be used.
Why should your fellow developers check out this talk?
Well, I hope it can be useful to them. The thing about Double Fine is that our games are known for their writing and their dialog. They have a lot of spoken dialog, the way the storytelling happens in those worlds is, in part, through dialog, and if you don't just want to have constant exposition through cutscenes in every game you have to build a dialog system. Whether that's a static, scripted system, or a dynamic system that can react to what the player is doing as they make progress in the game.
The main takeaway is that dialog can be really interactive, and if you're going to do that you need to approach it in a certain way that's maybe not intuitive for a lot of people. A lot of people don't look at dialog as a mechanic, and I think it really is if you're going to use it as a dynamic storytelling tool.
Because our studio is fairly small and we've been about this size for a long time, we've had experience competing with lots of AAA titles at this size. Each one of us had to do more than strictly what our job description required, and so as a gameplay programmer I've worked with a very diverse group of developers, probably more diverse than if I'd worked as part of a programming team at a bigger place like EA. I've learned a more holistic approach, where the people who are doing dialog know a lot more about the underlying systems that enable them to deliver that content, and I think that's useful knowledge to share.
I think companies, especially smaller companies like the kind I work for, can really get a lot out of this talk because I've worked closely with pretty much everyone involved in the entire process of implementing dialog systems in our games. It's kind of a holistic approach to doing something like this.
Do you think it's feasible for a much larger team to implement such a holistic system for implementing dialog?
I dunno, I haven't really seen any other talks like this at GDC. But of course I think most large-scale studios have figured most of this stuff out for themselves, to some degree. Maybe they'll hear a new perspective or a fresh approach they haven't tried before, and I hope they find it useful.
I've also worked closely with developers from a lot of different disciplines and I'll have a lot of fun examples of like, scratch dialog from Psychonauts, and I don't know if a programmer or a producer on a large team will have had an opportunity to work with the people who record those kinds of things. I hope they find it helpful.
Can you recommend any particular GDC talks that have influenced your work in the field?
That Last Of Us talk about how they coded a context-aware character dialog system is a big one, definitely. But the talks I like best at GDC tend to be the kinds of talks that make me feel like 'Yes, THIS is why I joined the game industry.' So for that I really like the Experimental Gameplay Workshop, and of course I go to any talk that Will Wright gives.
I also really enjoyed this talk by Brian Moriarty, "An Apology for Roger Ebert," where he explains why he thinks Roger Ebert made some good points when he argued that video games aren't art. I thought that was really interesting, because he really challenged all the developers in the room to at least think about it, and not immediately dismiss that criticism. Because by addressing Ebert's complaint, we push the medium forward in really important ways.
Do you think dialog is given its due in the industry, or is it underserved?
There are clearly companies that take it very seriously, and it becomes one of the central mechanics in the game. Like in Knights of the Old Republic, for example, the whole game and its story branches based on what choices you make in the dialog trees. And one of my favorite games, Dragon Age 2 -- I know that game gets a lot of hate, but I really love it -- when I played it, that was the first time I actually formed my party in an RPG based on who I thought would get along.
That was the first time I'd ever felt that way about a party in any of my games, and it was because of the character dialog. So I hope that my talk can inspire more developers to try and do similar things. I hope to inspire people to include dialog in their games, and to try and do interesting mechanical things with it.
[GDC Europe 2014 attendees can register for Anna's talk, (Dialog Systems in Double Fine Games, and check out the current session lineup via the conference's Session Scheduler.
Organized by UBM Tech Game Network, GDC Europe, now in its sixth year in Germany, will run Monday through Wednesday, August 11-13 at the Congress-Centrum Ost in Cologne, Germany, co-located with Europe's biggest video game trade and public show gamescom. early birds can still register by July 16 to save 200 euros on an All Access Pass.]

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