Greetings, this is Captain Allen of the Federation star ship Andromeda here again to continue my mission to bring technical speaking to every star ship Captain in the galaxy.  Last week we discussed integrating technobabble in short dialog boxes and writing responses the player might say and designing mission objectives around the technobabble mentioned in an ongoing effort to make your player character Captains to feel more like they are the Captain of a starship and not just clicking a NEXT button.  This means that even if dialog is very simple in the Foundry (at launch) you can still write compelling missions that take the audience on a mission seemingly pulled from their favorite TV show.  This week, since half of my columns name is “Speaking”, I would like to take a break from listing off technobabble that I like and instead wrap up a lot of loose ends about how to write believable technobabble.

One of the most challenging aspects about writing for Foundry missions is that the author doesn’t have control over the main characters of the ‘show’, the author only has control over the personalities of the bad guys and the NPCs that tell the player what to do next.  This is an important note that I’ve attempted to explain several times, and in my own personal view I have failed this very important distinction.

  • The author should not inject personality of the players’ Bridge Officers into their dialog.
  • The author should not inject personality of the Captain into the responses the Captain must click and give out as orders.
  • The author can give them an objective that they must complete, presumably in the order they are received.

Why?  Why do I mention this?  Why should anyone care?  Because the player (not the mission writer) is in charge the bridge officers’ personalities.  As I played through the game as Captain Allen, I’ve come across a few rare things I had to say as dialog playing the standard missions that annoyed me or didn’t feel right.  I have a Vulcan bridge officer and he has been forced to say things with emotion and expression on his face.  I have personalities that my mind has developed for my bridge officers because otherwise they would have none.  I started playing Star Trek Online shortly after completing the main campaign in Dragon Age, and it was a very harsh shock to my imagination when my bridge officers didn’t chatter, didn’t speak, didn’t have even assignable personalities and speech patterns.  When I thought about it I didn’t really expect any of this ready at launch of an MMORPG but then it occurred to me that it was like a wide open canvas that I had control over and so I let my imagination run wild even if no other player could see the personalities I had developed for my bridge officers.  The only time the bridge officers say anything is when there is a mission objective involved, and if you watch the show you’ll notice that Starfleet officers are all serious business when it comes to following orders and operating a starship, they don’t inject much emotion into their reports about scanning results or spatial phenomena.

As a player I don’t have control over what the bridge officer says, I can’t have them do an emote or have text appear over their head.  In the game their dialog was almost always devoid of regional speech patterns, consistent vocabulary, or even predictable emotions (like hot-headed Klingon officers or religious Bajorans who might say things like "have faith, Captain, she'll hold together."  Yeah, my Bajoran Engineering Officer tells me that on a daily basis, even if I've never read that in the script of any mission I have ever played, and I think it should always be that way. The mission writers have no idea who will play the role of Chief Engineer on my ship, it just randomly guesses from one of the Engineers and has them say some fairly bland dialog, so in writing dialog for other players to experience you have to be careful what they will be forced to say.

Most of the time the dialog in Star Trek Online was masterfully written to conceal the limitations of the technology, the amount of time developers had to write it, and to not step on the players toes when we wanted to imagine (realized or not) our crew as having personalities of their own.  The developers may have made my Vulcan panic or show anger, but they were trying to tell a story without knowing that I might have a Vulcan bridge officer speak that dialog.  That challenge now falls on our shoulders as we don the mantle of Community Author.  We have to write dialog that sounds like Star Trek, but leaves open the possibility that the player’s Bridge Officer could be a Romulan, a Klingon, a Cardassian, a Bajoran, a human, a Ferengi, or any other species in the galaxy.  If our story really depends on knowing the race, we’ll have to improvise this with what I call a proxy, a Junior Officer.

So how does this proxy work?  Well, if I need to tell a story about a Bajoran starfleet officer forgiving a Cardassian for crimes committed a lifetime ago, then the character speaking the lines should be a randomly selected Bridge Officer from the player’s roster.  Instead, a ‘contact’ or non-attackable non-player character will appear and do the talking.  Theoretically, you can even have the contact explain their presence on the Captain’s ship by saying

[Ensign Delora] “Hello Captain, you may not recognize me because I’m new here.  I just transferred from the Andromeda, my name is Ensign Delora and I have been temporarily assigned a post working for your chief Engineer for the duration of this mission.”  {player responds “What can you tell me…“}

Or you can make this a temporary assignment, depending on how you want the plot to unfold.  Delora will still act like a bridge officer, except not really under the Captain’s direct control.

[Ensign Delora] “Greetings Captain, Admiral Grigori Yanishev has assigned the {ship name} to track a Cardassian freighter that was stolen just outside Deep Space 9’s sensor range.  I was the officer who had arranged this transaction with a private Cardassian citizen and was waiting for them to arrive when DS9 received a distress call and then radio silence.  I was loaned the Columbia shuttle by (Deep Space 9 commanding officer) and authorized to accompany you in recovering the freighter, since you were the closest ship to DS9 at the time.  I request permission to come aboard.  {player responds “Permission granted.“}

Notice that this dialog is fairly neutral and bland and could work fine for the player character Captain’s Bridge Officer doing the talking, but that isn’t my goal for this mission.  This mission isn’t about finding the freighter, finding the freighter is the game mechanic that has to happen to move plot forward and give the player something to accomplish in the game.  This mission is all about Delora and her story.

Now since every ship has a diplomacy conference room, theoretically we could have a scene play out where Ensign Delora talks more about the contents of the freighter and who might have stolen it, and then recommend a place to start looking.  At any time we can add personality to the Ensign’s dialog because this is a character that is not really under control of the player character like their bridge officers are, so it doesn’t break the rules listed above.  We can have dialog that involves the player character’s Bridge Officers speaking to the Captain or to the Ensign, and that dialog should be written with a neutral tone and point of view, but as the Author and creator of Ensign Delora we can have her react in any way we want.

[Delora]: The freighter has passenger aboard, a Federation citizen, who was delivering a dangerous type of radiation. It is imperative that we recover the container carrying the radiation and the scientist who was to deliver it.  {player responds “What kind of  radiation?”}

[Delora]: I’m sorry Captain but I wasn’t informed of the details.  I can tell you that the container used would require Beta-Tachyon pulses which require precise calibration, the scattered particles would take the shape of the container, which I have been given the specifications for.  {player responds “So we can scan for it.“}

[Science Officer]: I can configure the deflector to scan for Beta-Tachyons.  To be able to determine the source we would need to move the ship over a fairly wide search pattern near the last contact with the ship.   At that point we can extrapolate possible destinations in Astrometrics. {player responds “How long until we are ready?“}

NOTE: This explanation gives a legitimate reason for why I would make the player Captain fly the ship around a space map looking for white circles.

The scene progresses with the player character Captain and their bridge officer team discussing ways to use the deflector to track the mission freighter.   All of this is a fancy way to build immersion, help develop suspension of disbelief, and help build rising tension and a sense of urgency and even panic in her dialog as the mission progresses.  All of it may be skipped relatively easily by clicking the ‘NEXT’ button in each dialog, but our hope is that the reader will slow down and begin to wonder about this character and her motivations, her intentions, and even glean the fact that she isn’t telling the whole truth.  Then the player might feel like they are trying to help a person solve a crisis in her life instead of clicking flashing consoles and moving to white circles to kill bad guys.

Sure, our dialog system is limited so the player character can’t just ask each question and see the response, or even branch dialog to have different events happen depending on how the player discovers what Delora is hiding, but we can build a scene and see what happens to the flow naturally just like you see it play out on the TV shows.  In the end, the player isn’t going to fault us for not letting their Captain play out the scene the way they wanted to see it play out, because in reality, we don’t have control of other people and their reactions so why should we expect to always control it in game?  Sometimes, a well crafted scene with a well thought out story will seem to play out in the only way that it makes sense to play out, and the players will thank us for the thought provoking, meaningful dialog as a welcome break from “go kill 5 things”.

I wish I could elaborate more on this mission, but I’m getting away from the topic at hand.  Immerse the player in believable technobabble and you will be able to convince your players that dialog and mundane tasks (like clicking and moving) are just as fun as combat.  And that’s not to say there won’t be combat, just not in the scenes I described.

I’ll repeat last weeks noncommittal sign off, as we have still not seen Tribble updated with Foundry, I am starting to think it won’t start until Season 3 hits Holodeck on December 9th.  So, until next time….

-Allen out