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

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

  • Is it okay if dialogue boxes obscure a character?
  • Do they need to be near the character who is speaking?
  • How big can I make them?

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

Obscuring the face

This is something I felt the developers of Final Fantasy VII tried to avoid early on in the game. Early scenes regularly make the dialogue boxes stay well clear of all the characters. Not just the speaker.

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

a large dialogue box obscures nearly every character in the scene

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, preferring to be close to the top or bottom (except when it puts them very far away from the characters on screen).

Being near the speaker

This is rarely done. Sometimes there is absolutely no relevance to a speaker’s position, even when doing so 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.

dialogue boxes are placed closer to the speaker if it is small enough

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 it not matter how big dialogue boxes are, but after looking carefully, I noticed that very often the dialogue boxes are inexplicably larger than they need to be.

a dialogue box is twice as big as it needs to be

Why is the box so big?

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

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

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, then it’s not ‘Poor Craftsmanship’. At the very worst, it might be considered cutting corners. Evidently, after 11 years in the industry, Square-Enix learned which corners they can get away with cutting.