Someone asked me the other day about my repeated comments about how forgiving I am about dialogue, which prompted me to start thinking about the difference between dialogue and story, precisely.
It’s obvious what dialogue is. Dialogue represents all of the things that come out of character’s mouths over the course of a game. Though it doesn’t strictly fit into the definition, I also tend to use it to refer to most anything that is written and designed to advance the plot or deepen your understanding of the character. Someone’s diary entry in Silent Hill isn’t dialogue in the strictest sense of the word, but I tend to lump it all together.
All of these things are part of the story, to be sure, but the story of a game is a broader category. I tend to define story as "the order and significance of events designed to culminate in a satisfying conclusion". Unfortunately, using this definition, the term “story” is so broad as to be almost useless. Even DOOM has a story: “Monsters get harder and harder and harder, then they get the hardest, then you’re done.”, but the set-up of being a marine stranded on a station with a gate to hell didn’t tie in at any point during the game. Can it really be called a story if the only important value change that takes place over the entire game is “You’re screwed” changes to “Maybe you’re not screwed after all”, changes back to “No, you actually are totally screwed”?
“You’re stranded on Mars with a bunch of demons” obviously isn’t a story, because it’s completely static. Nothing changes, so you have no story. “You’re stranded on Mars with a bunch of demons, but you finally kill enough demons and get out” is a story, albeit a lame one. So, if nothing else, we’ve nailed down that the essence of a story is that something must change. Even if the point of a story is that nothing changes, the player’s expectation changes, which might be enough. They begin the story expecting that things will change, and end the story knowing that things will not.
However, more to the point of dialogue versus story, I think it’s obvious that good dialogue cannot save a bad story. A combination of good dialogue, good gameplay, graphics, music, whatever else, can save a game, but no amount of good dialogue can make the story parts enjoyable if they’re badly done.
Can good story save bad dialogue? I happen to think so. I already stated my opinion on the lackluster dialogue and hamfisted delivery in Xenogears, but no one can say I didn’t enjoy the story.
A better example would be The World Ends With You. As I said in my review, the dialogue was passable, but not exceptional. There was no crackling subtext, and characters are guilty more than once of telling instead of showing. And yet, at one point in the game, Beat, a punk teenager, tells the main character about his relationship with his parents. He pretty much just explains it, then explains how he feels, which is the sign of uninventive dialogue, and yet, when we read the story of a teenager who is relentlessly pressured to succeed by his parents, and gives up on himself as a self-defense mechanism, so his parents will give up on him too, that rings true with us.
The delivery method (dialogue) is nothing special, but the events behind the dialogue can speak to everyone, because everyone knows the shame of disappointing someone you care about, and the crazy things we do to protect ourselves from having to feel that way.
I think that stumbles onto another key element of (good) story. I’ve already said this (and Robert McKee said it before me even better, and I’m pretty sure Aristotle said it before him), but a story needs to touch something we can relate to. The history of the formation of the earth up until the appearance of mankind is only a story in as much as we impose human emotions and intentions on objects and living things that came before us. Without a human element, it’s a story about as much as a an ice cube melting on your kitchen table. Yeah, there’s a significant change, but who gives a damn?
Now, the epic struggle of a single denizen of the table that stands out amongst the rest, and his brave, but ultimately futile struggle against the forces of entropy… that’s a story.