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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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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.