We Should Talk., the upcoming game from Insatiable Cycle, is making me relive the death throes of my last two relationships. It’s also absolutely brilliant. The game focuses on a single night’s worth of conversation between a woman, her fellow bar patrons, and her girlfriend waiting at home. Its modular dialog system is unlike anything else I’ve seen, allowing for independent control of every major part of a sentence. The subtle difference in tone between repeatedly using someone’s full name and their pronouns is captured perfectly by the fact you, as the player, are forced to choose between them. These dialog options aren’t just dialog options though; every choice is an act of interpretation.
Choosing dialog in most games feel like just that: choosing dialogue. More often than not you can just run through every choice, experimenting with what kind of person you want to be — whether that’s the uncaring mercenary, the kindhearted scoundrel, the Good One, etc. Crucially, As such role-playing games, where dialogue options are most prevalent, often lack a certain degree of subtlety. At their worst they become awkward theatre of two mannequins saying their exact feelings at one another.
Sometimes that’s due to wildly divergent options. Something like Mass Effect’s binary Paragon and Renegade system makes the choices at your disposal feel like they emerge from to completely different characters — all for the sake of making player choice feel more “meaningful.” But if you interpreted Commander Shepard as considering both options in their mind at any given point in time, they would come off as a manipulative and destructive monster, constantly thinking about kicking puppies while occasionally saying the nice thing to get what they want. The options, when weighed, do not feel like they make a full character who has real decisions about the kind of person they want to be. We should talk. (hereafter just referred to as We Should Talk) is different.
I’ll get the basics out of the way now. We Should Talk is about a relationship struggling in ways no one wants to admit. Your character goes to her favorite bar without telling her girlfriend. We know this because the first text you receive in-game is about her making your favorite food for dinner. This tells us a few key things: one, these two women live together, and two, one of them at least appears invested in doing kind things for the other. Three, there isn’t enough communication between them to prevent one from cooking dinner for nobody. That one or two texts from an NPC can provide this much information about their dynamic is a testament to some phenomenal , subtle writing. As the conversation with your girlfriend continues via text, more options for tone and content present themselves. Each of which was deeply familiar to me personally.
I’d like to zoom in on just one moment in particular from an early conversation between your character and her girlfriend Sam (who shares a shocking number of traits with my real world ex, which makes this game even weirder for me). One partner is clearly more invested in the relationship than the other. It’s obvious when Sam says “you and my brother are all the family i have really.”
Your response can start with “wow, you’re,” “damn sam, you’re,” or “you’re really.” Then, using the phrase-by-phrase dialogue system, you can either add “that committed to me?” “coming on strong there,” or “important to me too.” The potential combos range in tone and content from genuinely caring to just pretending. You can even be actively demeaning and dismissive. Picking any one of these will affect Sam in different ways, but the modular nature of the conversations makes all of them feel like real options true to your character.
This tells us even more about their relationship. That the thought “damn sam, you’re coming on strong there” goes through her head at all as a potential response to this text suggests she is deeply anxious about how serious things are getting. At the same time, “you’re really important to me too” suggests your character genuinely does care for her girlfriend, at least enough to think about a response that won’t make her feel bad. The more directly dismissive options like “you’re really coming on strong there” show an underlying frustration with the relationship as a whole — bad enough to make an otherwise kind character snap at her girlfriend.
This is just an opening example of what We Should Talk does with its writing, and what can be done with modular dialogue in games altogether. At least for me, it set a new standard in how games can allow for player expression and interpretation.
I do have one reservation, though. As good as the dialogue is, some later conversations let you act like a real monster. The degree to which you can psychologically manipulate and abuse your girlfriend is very distressing. I tensed up every time I saw one of the game’s more manipulative options, because like so much of the game, they felt real to me. Given this game might as well be about me and my ex, I did not feel comfortable pursuing any of those options or even seeing them on-screen. So I don’t know where those threads end. This is in no way an indictment of Insatiable Cycle. It’s just a bit of a content warning and some pleading on my part to be really conscientious of the potential effects of putting interactive emotional abuse that vivid into the hands of your players.
We Should Talk Is still something really special. Oh, wait! Lemme try again. We Should Talk is really important to me. Hm, no… I think We Should Talk is doing something new and exciting. Shit. Uh. We Should Talk is coming to Steam, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch on July 16, 2020. No, that isn’t it, either… I dunno.