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What 'Mass Effect: Andromeda' and 'Horizon' Could Learn from 'Night in the Woods'

They may be big-budget, prestige projects, but they have a lot to learn about naturalistic dialog.

In any other year, I don't know that I would have leaped to compare a game like Night in the Woods to a game like Horizon Zero Dawn or Mass Effect: Andromeda. Any other year—or hell, any other month. But the recent high-profile game releases coming shoulder-to-shoulder have put a lot of things in much starker relief than usual. The visible seams of an otherwise good game might be more easily overlooked if there was a little more room for that game to breathe.

And as a critic it's hard not to be in a constant state of comparison. That's not a bad thing, though, because it's helped me put my finger on something that had been nagging me, first about Horizon Zero Dawn and then more recently in what I've seen in demos and coverage of Mass Effect: Andromeda's early game. In both games something felt a little off to me; not in the animations or any visual components, but in what the characters were saying. Or more specifically, in how they were saying it. They express every thought, every sentiment, every idea clearly and cleanly, and when they don't—when they stammer or trail off or change courses mid-stream—it's only ever for dramatic effect.

I cannot remember the last time I spoke perfectly. It's not a thing most of us are built to do. We don't take second and third passes over our words before we speak them in the same way we can when we write them. Eloquence sometimes feels more like an accident than intention. And if I was being asked to record my last words in some kind of apocalypse bunker? I bet I'd do even worse than usual.

Night in the Woods, meanwhile, has received a lot of praise for its realistic dialogue. And whether or not its dialog is objectively realistic, the way that characters speak feels familiar and genuine to many players. I know that I could hear those words on the street, in a store, at a coffee shop, if not here then somewhere very close by. But that praise about realistic writing too often sounds like it was just some switch that someone decided to flick along the way. "Should we make these people speak normal or not normal? Normal? Okay. *fwip*"

Making characters sound real is not easy, because it often means allowing them to sound bad. But bad tends to run counter to a writer's instincts. In my gut when I'm writing I want everything I write to be a darling. I strive for it. Whatever the style I'm actually writing in, I want to distill it down to nectar. And that rarely makes for good dialogue, unless that's accounted for in character.

And that's only very rarely going to be in character. It's likely not the character of random scientist #16, or generic hunting guy #3, nor should it be almost every single protagonist.

It takes a lot of confidence and a lot of commitment to write characters who express themselves poorly more often than they express themselves well. You know, like most of us? Night in the Woods does the opposite of what most games do with their dialogue. Instead of assuming this base level of everyday eloquence and using the rare mistakes to convey some added characterization here and there, characters are allowed to speak clumsily and earnestly. It's the brief windows of clarity in expression that then become anomalous—that carry extra weight and meaning on those rare occasions when they appear.

Night in the Woods' writing demonstrates something that so many other games miss. It's the idea that the perfect line is not always the right line, that speaking badly is not synonymous with speaking ineffectively. And that sometimes it's the rare things we actually manage to say well that speak volumes.