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The Dialogue Wheel Effect

The Dialogue Wheel Effect  (photo)

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Role-playing games are built around talking. And talking in video games is, in most cases, seriously boring.

The most appealing part of game interactivity is action — being able to control how your avatar moves, fights, behaves. Sitting through long-winded expository discussions between characters can be a monumental drag, either because you have next to no influence over the course of the conversation, or because, if given the option to pick from a predetermined set of questions and answers, the minor control you’re given doesn’t make up for the inertia-inducing dullness of the chats.

Participating in talky sequences is certainly better than just sitting through totally scripted cutscenes. But they still break up the action’s momentum in a noticeable way, and give you such a flimsy sense of actual contribution to the direction of the storyline that they mostly just frustrate by highlighting the limitations of game construction.

And then there’s “Mass Effect” and its recently released sequel “Mass Effect 2,” produced by expert RPG outfit BioWare. Just as in BioWare’s two superb “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic” titles, “Mass Effect” and its sequel offer planet-spanning intergalactic RPG action that’s split between decent combat and immense blabbering. “KOTOR”‘s dialogue was conveyed through a mechanic that required you to choose from a list of questions, answers and other responses. The best part of these innumerable sequences — which were the primary means of furthering the story, as well as developing characters — was that your choices had some bearing on your character (whether he or she was a hero or villain), and consequently on the outcome of the story itself.

02112010_MassEffect-3.jpgBeing able to have a direct influence on the course of the game — being a baddie led to a considerably different overall experience than being a good guy — was enlivening, and one of the keys to that series’ success. But the conversations themselves were, even at their finest, tedious affairs in which you had to wait for whomever you were talking with to finish a speech before even getting to see your choices (much less select one). It left you feeling stuck in a rather static dynamic that lacked any sort of free-flowing conversational back-and-forth.

2007’s “Mass Effect” and its even better follow-up go a long way toward correcting the conversation problem by introducing a “dialogue wheel,” a graphic featuring different Q&A choices spaced out along even intervals. It makes the various branching options available much clearer and more intuitive: Do you want to continue down a certain line of questioning, or redirect attention another way? Not only can you see the many directions in which a chat can go, but, not being a list, there’s no “top” choice. Choosing the “bad” response is just as practical (and thus as reasonable) as choosing the “good” one. The three paths you can take — “Paragon,” “Renegade,” or some sort of neutral in-between — share an equal value.

Better yet, the dialogue wheel doesn’t wait to appear until people have stopped talking — what feels like a minor upgrade at first, but that adds up to a far greater sense of engagement in the dialogue at hand. There’s less waiting, and so heightened attention. By affording you early peeks at, and the early ability to select, follow-up responses, conversations in “Mass Effect” flow in a manner foreign to almost every other RPG I’ve ever played. There are no silent stretches between remarks while you decides on your next comment. Since you’ve selected what you’re going to say next while people are still talking, chats proceed with a fluidity that heightens the sense of immersion.

02122010_MassEffect2-1.jpg“Mass Effect 2” barely upgrades this dialogue system — the only new addition is that, at certain moments, you’re now granted the ability to interrupt a conversation by selecting a “Paragon” or “Renegade” option that normally causes your character, Jedi-ish Lieutenant Commander Shepard, to take a drastic course of physical action (like, hilariously, punching your conversation partner in the face). Given how sporadically it shows up, this feature doesn’t do that much to enhance your experience. But then, BioWare was wise not to tinker too much with a mechanic that works — and does so, ultimately, by upending your expectations.

In both “Mass Effect” games, dialogue wheel choices are presented in short snippets that only approximate what the character will actually say. Your choices only imply tone, not the exact words that will be spoken. And because some choices lead to surprising comments from your character, this situation creates unpredictability and, fundamentally, a lack of control over dialogue. In other words, you’re given greater power over conversations even as you’re denied total control — a nifty balancing act that creates drama and suspense, and that many exposition-heavy genre competitors would be shrewd to duplicate.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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