In which the author explores what kinds of ‘poor craftsmanship’ can be gotten away with when developing dialogue boxes.

Recently when I was making a dialogue box system for The Book of Invasions, I decided I would open the PlayStation-era Final Fantasy games to see how they were done there. Specifically, I wanted to know:

  • Is it okay if a dialogue box obscures a character?
  • Does it need to be near the character who is speaking?
  • How big can I make them?

In the end, I discovered that the answer to each question (and some unasked questions) was: nothing matters very much.

Obscuring characters

This is something I felt the developers of Final Fantasy VII tried to avoid early on in the game. In early scenes, dialogue boxes not only stay well clear of the speaker, – they clear every character as well.

This principle doesn’t outlive the first few chapters, though. More often than not, later scenes had the dialogue boxes obscuring everyone and everything.

Try and guess how many characters are in this scene.

My assumption is that as time went on, the developers realised it didn’t matter, or decided it was too time-consuming. To be honest, as a player, I only noticed it when I looked for it, – and even then, it didn’t bother me.

One principle does persist throughout the game: dialogue boxes are usually kept away from the centre of the screen, tending to be close to the top or bottom (except when it puts them very far away from the characters on screen).

Not being near the speaker

This is par. Sometimes there is absolutely no relevance to a speaker’s position, even when finding a sensible placement would have been easy.

It is done in one exception (but not even always): when a dialogue box is really small and can be placed in the middle of the screen without disrupting the composition too much.

The context of this dialogue escapes me.

Size doesn’t matter

I never found myself criticising a dialogue box for being too large on the screen. That’s despite the low resolution of Final Fantasy VII, which makes some of the boxes very large.

Interestingly, not only did I not mind how big dialogue boxes are, but it took me a long time before I noticed that very often the dialogue boxes are inexplicably larger than they need to be.

Why is this dialogue box so big?

It’s not something I noticed straight away, but when I did, I asked a friend to watch me play through some of the game and to pay attention to the dialogue boxes. Even when looking for something odd, he didn’t notice half of them were bigger than they needed to be until I pointed it out to him.

I have a few theories on why this happens, (none of which are important), but the lesson to learn is that even though this dialogue box should be half the size, it doesn’t matter.

That is, until you notice it. Once I noticed, I thought it was ugly and confusing and my friend felt the same. Interestingly, there is no trace of this carry-on in Final Fantasy VIII or IX, so it must have eventually annoyed someone at Square-Enix as well.

Is it really poor craftsmanship then?

If it is not so poor that the player gives out about it, I’d argue it’s not poor craftsmanship. At the very worst, it might be considered cutting corners. But that’s fine; after 11 years in the industry, Square-Enix learned which corners they can get away with cutting.