The first game I ever worked on was an RTS space sim called Nexus - The Jupiter Incident. It was developed by a Hungarian company called Mithis, who wrote a script, then had it translated into English by a native Hungarian speaker. This was where I came in. It was my job to take the raw script (which looked like it had been put through Babelfish), and create a workable English script that would then be recorded by voice actors in the studio.
I knew that I had some restrictions, in that the cut-scenes had already been created, so whatever I wrote had to match the timing of the original Hungarian. In addition, the script was over 100,000 words long, I often had to guess the context (I had the latest build of the game but I wasn't good enough to get past the first level), and I had less than two weeks to finish it.
In retrospect, though I gave it my best shot, I don't think I did a very good job. A lot of the time, I just fixed up incorrect grammar and weird turns of phrase ('As we say on Earth, captain - weeds don't spoil! Ha ha ha!') then moved onto the next sentence. Now, with the benefit of experience and a greater confidence in my writing abilities, I would assert my own voice more, and work to make each character distinct. I stood my ground on one or two issues, completely changing the dialogue of the 'Raptors', for example (genetically-enhanced dinosaur creatures wired into their ships), from clichéd highfalutin 'I shall crush you like an insect, meagre Earthling!' stuff to a clipped pidgin dialect, reasoning that, since they had been bred from birth to fly ships, and knew little else, their language would be abrupt and brutish, suited for quick communication during a battle.
I do like the bit of dialogue at the start of this clip, however, just because I can remember the fun we had recording it in the studio:
In the end, because I was the only person who knew the English script, I got employed as a consultant director for the voice recordings. I got to help with the casting, then help direct the voice actors as they recorded their parts, sitting there with a laptop in front of me, tweaking bits of dialogue when an actor's delivery revealed that my original version was a bit crap. It taught me a lot about voice acting and directing (as you might expect), and made me even more appreciative of games with really good writing and performances. I remember one guy listening to a rejected take and remarking: 'He sounds like he's selling biscuits.' For me, that sums up a lot of what's wrong with bad video game dialogue - all too often, companies hire 'voiceover artists' rather than actors, and you end up with something that sounds like the instructional safety video on a aeroplane.
I'll probably put up a post in a few days with some examples of what I consider to be superb and awful dialogue in video games. I've got some strong opinions on the subject, but at the same time I appreciate how difficult it can be to make something rich and filmic when you're on a tight budget and working in a medium that precious few actors and writers understand, let alone feel passionate about. I think I'm also starting to realise that, in my heart of hearts, I want to be head scriptwriter on a video game. I want to be involved right from the beginning of the design process, and get to colloborate with a skilled team on some fantastical new world. I wonder if my fiction writing has suffered because, deep down, I've been trying to recreate peak experiences from video games, and prose just doesn't have the juice (nor interactivity) to do that. Do you remember how it felt when you first escaped Midgar? Do you remember the rush?
Yeah. Books can't do that.