Coming from an adventure game background, where conversations usually happen as subtitles or speech balloons, with at most a bunch of answers to click at the bottom of the screen, I've recently started looking into MMORPGs and have been a bit surprised that everyone seems to be using windows with a character animation at the top and text and answer buttons at the bottom:

Typical RPG conversation screen

To me, this kind of breaks immersion. So I'm wondering what the design reasons for this are. I see that many games also offer some sort of speech balloon:

An RPG speech balloon

or little notification boxes at the side with a static character icon and text in it for ambience dialog:

A conversation box that is guaranteed to be onscreen

but rarely for mission assignments and conversation trees, like we'd have them in adventure games:

A typical adventure game dialog tree choice

Does anyone have a link to an interview or a recommendation for a book or the like that contains an explanation for using that different design for that one purpose? Has any research been done on this subject, are there actual game design reasons why this might be better than this last, less chrome-laden, more immersive design, or is it just historical, a "tradition"?

  • 2
    I wonder if you'd be better asking this over at Game Development. Interesting question though.
    – Matt Obee
    Nov 14, 2014 at 12:48
  • 1
    Flexible camera and positioning make it harder to ensure that bubbles are in a good place to read. Nov 14, 2014 at 12:51
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    I tried asking on game dev, but they closed it as too open-ended, which I don't quite understand.
    – uliwitness
    Nov 14, 2014 at 13:27
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    Guessing here. But most rpgs are clones off previously successful titles. Perhaps back in the days, it's much easier to dedicate text within windows. It's possible nowadays, but it's more work. Dialog has never been a key part of rpgs. Players are used to these windows, so why bother spending the dev effort in changing it? It's much better to focus on graphics and "actual" game play.
    – nightning
    Nov 14, 2014 at 17:23
  • 1
    This book is quite interesting and might help with your thought process as I think it's probably down to the cost of translation and localization - books.google.co.uk/books?id=6LEbAgAAQBAJ Nov 18, 2014 at 11:46

1 Answer 1


There are multiple different strands of history in the term "RPG". To grossly oversimplify, western RPGs descended from Dungeon Master, Japanese RPGs descended from dating games :) Then the streams crossed, and western RPGs adopted JRPG tropes.

Visual novels (such as dating games) are a huge genre of game in Japan and the Far East, and have been for decades. In a visual novel, one very common convention is to depict the characters in the scene taking up most of the screen, and then a text box at the bottom containing what the characters are saying or thinking, with an attached portrait of the character currently speaking. Example:

Sakura Wars screenshot

Japanese RPGs were establishing their conventions at about the same time that dating games were, and so JRPGs' interfaces were informed by visual novels. Often JRPGs would include character portraits to help you visualise who you were talking to, rather than having to go by the few pixels that formed the character's face. Example:

Final Fantasy 6

I believe this principle is what carried on to the full-motion animated character portraits you're seeing in modern RPGs.

(Example screenshots chosen to illustrate the design principle, rather than for historical accuracy; the trope much predates both these examples.)

  • So your take is it's purely for historical reasons? I mean, in your second example I could see the rationale for the bigger icon being that otherwise you'd not be able to recognize the face, whereas ex. 1 has higher resolution.
    – uliwitness
    Nov 19, 2014 at 7:41
  • The technique used in the first example is showing the player's character and his expression, while the main view is of the female NPC he's interacting with. It's also useful if there are several NPCs displayed in the main view - the portrait is an easier way to see at a glance who's speaking rather than just having the text for their name. But yes, it's broadly historical; these tropes were evolving when resolution and colour depth was much more like the second example, or even worse.
    – AlexC
    Nov 19, 2014 at 11:15
  • Dungeon Keeper? The one from 1997 (which is a strategy/god simulation game, not an RPG)?
    – unor
    Nov 22, 2014 at 2:16
  • @unor: Oops! No, I meant Dungeon Master. Edited! Of course, that wasn't the earliest RPG; I could have said Ultima or other earlier games.
    – AlexC
    Nov 22, 2014 at 7:17

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