Stephen King hates adverbs.
“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.”
- Stephen King
His reasoning isn't complex. In his book, On Writing, he suggests that if you feel the need to add the word ‘firmly’ to the phrase “He closes the door firmly”, you haven’t done a responsible job setting up the scene. If your character is furious, emotionally destroyed, or fleeing a monster, the ‘firmly’ should be implied. You don’t need it. Context means the difference between shutting a door politely and slamming it. King is accuses adverbs of being shortcuts to what could be better writing.
Video games technically don't have adverbs, at least not in the traditional sense. Game dialog trees only give the bare text, often with some voice acting. If the sentence is inquisitive, maniac, or coy, the intended reception is up to the context of the situation, although word choice and delivery play their parts. It’s a different medium than books, of course, but games manage to still find a way to use shortcuts anyway and no one is better at than Bioware.
Dragon Age and Mass Effect are big on talking and spend nearly as much time on navigating conversations as you do dungeons and lost planets. They also employ a unique industry trick not seen in many other series. Accompanying nearly all game dialog are colorful symbols or font choices that are inserted to not-so-subtly parlay the kind of response being made. A dizzying spiral in the portrait of a head means your character is confused by some turn of events. Blue text means you’re being benevolent. A red fist means you’re being a no-nonsense asshole. Sometimes it's generic, superfluous arrows that simply push the conversation forward. All of them useless.
These aren't oblique icons. They loudly categorize your responses into clean, distinct categories. In fact, they do their job so thoroughly, that the words attached to them almost don’t even matter. You could replace the snippet of text with a flirty heart and the player would click or not click it based on that suggestion alone. It's frankly a lot of hand-holding. Just take a look at the screenshot from Dragon Age: Inquisition below.
Personally, I can make a pretty strong distinction between "I should have flirted harder" and "I'm not interested in you that way." Social cues are hardly even necessary to decipher it, much less a heart and a pop-up text-bar reminding you that this will kindle a romance.
This is an adverb. A video game adverb. The same narrative shortcut is utilized, as these icons aggressively take the wheel of narrative interpretation from the reader/player by highlighting the intended tone in figurative/literal neon lights. Although, I wouldn't go as far as Stephen to call them lazy. You see, in video games, these dialog options are often tied to irreparable game consequences and can mean the difference between a broken or blossoming relationship. A choice may bring about the swift execution of an NPC or earn the player some manner of karmic points. It seems appropriate to make sure the player understands the contract they’re signing with each choice.
But, is it worth it? Well, no. It’s not. Telltale Games purposes a pretty damn convincing counter-argument with their hyper-successful take on dialog and relationships. With games like The Walking Dead, the player understands the relationships of choice to system only after the option is selected (Ben will remember that!). You quickly learn that word-choice matters. The player has to make their own decision about the best way to stifle a brewing argument or console a grieving comrade. Being too harsh, pithy, or truthful can have consequences that you can’t predict without drawing on your own understanding of human interaction.
Fallout 2 is a staggering example of the kind of depth possible with a player-blind system, where one draws completely on their own experiences as opposed to gaming a system. They have to in Fallout, where dialog is so amusingly eccentric that it would be impossible to assign categorical icons to each of the nuanced responses. This doesn't even take into effect the low intelligence versions of dialog that appear when a particularly "dumb" character can barely form sentence and responds to most questions with cryptic grunts. Even if many of these decisions don't branch off to new storylines, this depth gives the player a ton of power, even if it is an illusion.
Games with robust dialog options are often just deceiving the player with choice, as most of the options lead to the same result regardless. The 2013 Kickstater success Shadowrun Returns is ripe with vibrant conversation options, but the course of the scene is set and your selections are mostly for flavor. I repeated the opening scene five times, selecting different sections each time. You will never not mourn a friend, trigger a flashback, and directly or indirectly tell your betrayer to fuck right off. From a game system perspective, this feels inherently cheap. But, frankly, from a player-perspective, fake self-determination still outweighs hand-held guidance. The former at least still pretends the player has a mind of his or her own, even if the game has already made its mind up. The end result is still the player making choices based on their own or what they perceive to be their character's mindset.
Even sports games, a genre not commonly known for conversation sequences, have played with dialog and managed to steer clear of adverbs. NBA 2K11 introduced a press conference segment, in which the player could elect post-game responses to encourage their team or deride them for their own individual fame. While the choices weren't exactly subtle, the were free of indicators visual. Sure, it was rather "hamfisted," as Owen Good called it back in 2011, but it still offered up uninhibited dialog for the player to navigate and see the consequences affect the game in real time.
All told, I do get it. I used adverbs in this very article. Sometimes the cleanest way is the clumsy way, but not if it dominates multiple sequel-spanning series. The choices you make in Dragon Age and Mass Effect games do have tangible effects - lost friendships and alien species eliminated - and it's nice to know clearly what every option may trigger. But, using this gimmick ubiquitously weakens the player's role as social interpreter. We have real-world conversations every day and social dynamics are inherently interesting on their own. Bringing these learned moments into good writing - and Bioware's writing is good - can raise fiction up above the system that it operates within. Lose the icons. We're up to the challenge. Trust us.