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Thread: Ideal number of speaking characters in a scene?

  1. #1
    practical experience, FTW kneedeepinthedoomed's Avatar
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    Ideal number of speaking characters in a scene?

    Hi guys,

    is there a general wisdom regarding how many speakers the audience can easily follow in a dialogue scene?

    I'm writing cinematics for a videogame and have noticed that the mechanics are very similar to certain plays or movies. I have some scenes with a lot of dialogue and I worry I may be overtaxing the audience. I want it to be easy to follow.

    Is there a rule of thumb maybe? I start worrying when I have more than 3-5 characters speaking per scene, what's the general opinion here? Should I rather write two different scenes instead of cramming more characters into the same one? If so, where should I draw the line?

  2. #2
    Mostly harmless SuperModerator dpaterso's Avatar
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    Just personal opinion, not guru knowledge, 3-5 seems a reasonable number of characters to handle, and for viewers/players to easily follow.

    That's not to say I'd have any objections if a scene needed more characters, e.g. a Council of Elrond type scene with up to a dozen characters taking their turn to have their say, though that's maybe just a little harder to juggle.

    But thinking back to the limited number of games I've played... and I do mean limited... it's usually been just 1 or 2 characters talking.

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  3. #3
    Have pen, will travel Cindyt's Avatar
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    I have an ensemble of about eleven or twelve who join in at the dining room table. No problem. Because the POV is clear--when the POV changes I start a new section in the scene--the characters have ID nuances, and I carry conversation realistically. I've read the scenes 8 times and they make sense. Just don't slip POV mid scene.
    Last edited by Cindyt; 06-17-2017 at 07:12 PM.
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  4. #4
    practical experience, FTW kneedeepinthedoomed's Avatar
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    Thank you for the replies. I thought hard about the POV thing and I believe this is, in fact, what I was having trouble with.

    I think I had one short POV flip that interrupted some dialogue between other characters. Removing that and leaving the minor character in the background while the others talk seems to have fixed the scene. There are still about 4 POVs in the scene, but they follow sequentially from one another, which seems to work well enough.

    Thank you. So the trick is to change POV slowly and steadily, instead of jarring the attention to somebody who should be listening, not talking.

    You live, you learn. I'll have to check my other scenes for that problem.

  5. #5
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    Quote Originally Posted by kneedeepinthedoomed View Post
    Hi guys,

    is there a general wisdom regarding how many speakers the audience can easily follow in a dialogue scene?

    I'm writing cinematics for a videogame and have noticed that the mechanics are very similar to certain plays or movies. I have some scenes with a lot of dialogue and I worry I may be overtaxing the audience. I want it to be easy to follow.

    Is there a rule of thumb maybe? I start worrying when I have more than 3-5 characters speaking per scene, what's the general opinion here? Should I rather write two different scenes instead of cramming more characters into the same one? If so, where should I draw the line?
    The challenge in writing scenes with a lot of characters is in having X number of characters well-defined in the audience's/reader's mind at any given time. Often, even in scenes where a lot of characters are present -- in movies like The Dirty Dozen or 12 Angry Men, where you have a large ensemble with many characters in many scenes, you'll see that, despite that, any given scene will almost always focus on two or three characters, with perhaps a few lines from a character or two. As the scenes change, the focus will shift from character to character (although, of course, you'll have a central protagonist, or often a protagonist/antagonist relationship at the heart of all of these various scenes with other characters in orbit around them.

  6. #6
    practical experience, FTW kneedeepinthedoomed's Avatar
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    Thank you nmstevens for the reply.

    That clears things up further; the scene that was giving me such trouble has eight characters. Five of those, including the protag and the main impact character, have been speaking in several scenes before and are, I think, well enough defined. Two characters are newly introduced as speaking roles. One is a statist with 2 lines.

    The problem was like you described. The scene starts off with a failed rape attempt on Protag by a (new) bad guy and the statist. They are driven off by Impact Character and her two sidekicks, plus one new minor char with 3 lines. Then this group has dialogue with protag. So there is a shift in attention from the conflict scene to the dialogues.

    So the scene has two different parts, and the focus is on two slightly different groups, sequentially. Apparently I didn't focus cleanly enough, but after some pruning, the scene does work.

  7. #7
    Now with more stubble VeryBigBeard's Avatar
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    The actual answer, in game-dev terms, is gonna end up being an engine question. In other words, how many characters can you visually render and have it believably look like they're talking before your system can't take it?

    That's obviously going to be dependent on what type of game you're writing for. Top-down 2-D and I could see quite a number of characters in a scene at once, since you can easily see them all and dialogue is usually in text boxes with the character's name. Ends up reading more like a visual novel. First-person shooter (with cutscenes in first, which isn't always the case) and you'll have to hew closer to film conventions so the player can keep track of who's talking about what. Is the camera locked during this time? How 'bout player movement? Do you need voice audio? Lip animations? How are you handling body animations? Is the scene built in-engine or in a separate environment?

    If you don't have that stuff figured out yet, simply write what the game and story needs for this scene. Involve the player and advance the narrative. Cut any characters who don't meet that threshold.

    But be aware of--and write for--future scoping in production. So don't spread that critical plot revelation out over five different speaking characters. Have one provide the core info. Use the rest as colour or context--great to have if you can, easy to leave on the cutting room floor if you can't. This also keeps character design and character art costs down.

  8. #8
    practical experience, FTW kneedeepinthedoomed's Avatar
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    Hi,

    Unreal 4 Engine, 1st/3rd person. In-engine cinematics. In a modern engine, on modern hardware, polycount is definitely not a problem anymore. Batch count (materials) is what matters more. I have some engine coder friends.

    I know these things ;-) Even the Quake engine can render 10,000 character models on the screen. I know, because I worked with an engine coder who tried it. Polycount doesn't matter, as long as it stays "reasonable" (it does).

    The cinematics in Rise of the Tomb Raider are a pretty good example of what can be done with current technology, IIRC. Not that I'm trying to top AAA games, I'm vaguely aware of my limits ;-)

    You're of course right about the other considerations, good points.
    Last edited by kneedeepinthedoomed; 06-24-2017 at 02:34 AM.

  9. #9
    Now with more stubble VeryBigBeard's Avatar
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    Not as worried about poly counts directly. More with how well the engine can handle lip animations and movement. Unreal 4 is very powerful but any in-engine sequence is going to be dependent, memory-wise, on what other processes you may have running, how the code and animations are built, and the constraints of whichever platform you're building for (i.e., do players need a super-top-end gaming rig to play this, and how does that affect your market?).

    Put eight speakers in frame at a given moment and try to animate all at once and you have the potential for problems. I think they're manageable problems, particularly if you have resources to dedicate to making a robust enough conversation system. It's just one of those things that gets cut for scope even in AAA games, as much because it hogs implementation time.

    See also Mass Effect; Andromeda.

    I've always felt it's a good idea to write scope-able story as it makes it easier to cut later. Then, when you do inevitably have to start killing features, you're not left with glaring holes in the story.

  10. #10
    practical experience, FTW kneedeepinthedoomed's Avatar
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    True enough about the scopeable story. Since you read the script, I've been doing lots of cutting and editing, so the script is starting to be all bones and muscle. All the dialogue is written out now, and pared down a lot. I hope I won't have to ditch too much when I do the cinematics. A facial animation system is a must of course for this type of thing. A systematic approach needs to be selected.

    Your concern about too many animated chars on screen is justified of course, but I'm really not doing that anywhere. The groups talk in sequence and when "directing" you have a lot of choice about where you put the camera, so you're only gonna have 1 or 2 chars on screen talking at the same time, just like in many movies. You can do cut and countercut for dialogue, or over the shoulder, two shot etc. I'll never have eight chars speaking with lip animation on the screen at the same time. Never.

    Valid concern though, certainly, even with today's hardware and engines.

  11. #11
    Now with more stubble VeryBigBeard's Avatar
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    Yeah, there are a lot of tricks to get around this kind of thing, of course.

    Like how whenever BioWare does any kind of full-squad shot, nobody happens to be moving all that much. They were on the front end of shot-countershot in games, too, which really helped hide a lot of the animation in ME1, especially. They got ambitious for ME:A and overcommitted without enough time.

    If you haven't seen it yet, that Extra Frames episode may be useful. It talks about a lot of this stuff. If you want facial animations, you'll probably need to develop some sort of dialogue engine to procedurally match facial animations to the sound and text. That's a BIG job. And bear in mind that the animations and timings will be set by the acting, not the pace of the story, necessarily, so script changes are inevitable once you get into actual production. Made that mistake myself, once. Not the kind of mistake you make twice. Voice acting, in general, is a big challenge for indie games, though there are, again, ways to deal with it.

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