The Game Design Forum

Analyzing Game Scripts by the Numbers

The form of a narrative always has a significant effect on the way that narrative is told. Whether the narrative in question is an epic poem, a one-act drama or a videogame, there are practical concerns which will shape the narrative in meaningful ways. This section compares the structure of the dialogue in FF7 to the structure of the dialogue in The Great Gatsby. Neither FF7 nor F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel should be taken as perfectly representative of the forms they employ to tell their stories, but the comparison between them still reveals quite a few meaningful things about the nature of storytelling in general, and dialogue in particular. I chose The Great Gatsby as a point of comparison for two primary reasons. First, the two texts are quite close in terms of length. The script of Final Fantasy 7 and the full text of The Great Gatsby both run about 45,000 words. Secondly, the novel deals with very similar themes to those in FF7. Jay Gatsby tries to be someone he’s not in order to recreate a past that may not really have happened the way he remembers it. This statement could be said about Cloud almost word for word, but is also fairly applicable to Barret, Yuffie, Vincent, Sephiroth and several other characters. The way that the dialogue in each breaks down, however, is different, and that’s where things get interesting.

The most basic structural concerns are important here: the FF7 script I counted from included only dialogue, totaling 43,903 words.[38] The version of The Great Gatsby that I used (the University of Adelaide’s online eBook version) includes both dialogue and Nick Carraway’s narration. For this analysis I was only interested in the dialogue from Gatsby, which totaled just under 13,000 words.[39] This does make the comparison unequal on a basis of total words, but it doesn’t hurt the rate statistics which make up the bulk of this analysis. There are two other basic structural differences that should be noted from the outset. The first is that Gatsby has chapter divisions which were a feature put into the book by Fitzgerald himself. Chapters are, obviously, a common feature of novels, although different authors use them to divide their books differently. Fitzgerald usually begins a new chapter when there is a significant change in time in his narrative. The most common cause for a chapter break is the transition from a night party to the morning or day after. Final Fantasy 7, on the other hand, has quests. In many games—even some by Squaresoft—the quests are defined explicitly.

Final Fantasy 7 gives no such explicit subdivision, but the general formula for a JRPG quest is now, and has historically been that a quest consists of a (1) new town, (2) new dungeon, (3) boss fight. Final Fantasy 7 sticks to this formula fairly consistently.

There are a few places where the Final Fantasy designers play with the traditional JRPG formula. There’s no boss fight in the escape from Junon after the Weapon attack. Instead, Scarlett and Tifa have a slap fight on the end of a cannon at the exact moment where one might expect a boss fight. The quest to find Cloud (immediately after escaping Junon) doesn’t have a boss fight, nor does it have a dungeon, although it could easily be combined with the train headed toward North Corel and its several boss-like fights to represent one whole quest. I don’t make that combination because the objectives are so different, but the gameplay elements line up perfectly. The quest to go with Bugenhagen to find out what happened with Aeris and Holy doesn’t have a town or dungeon, but it does have a kind of scavenger hunt to find the ancient key device, and it does have a boss. This is short, but it still provides a bit of the exploration a dungeon would have provided. All of these exceptions are not omissions, but rather are examples of the designers deliberately playing with the formula to keep the game from becoming repetitive. This is like the technique of deliberately deviating from a rhyme scheme or metrical foot in a poem in order to convey extra meaning or alter the mood. The tension between form and freedom is what makes the poem or JRPG interesting.

With the larger structural differences now set aside, I want to look at how the dialogue is meted out across both narratives to see what smaller structural differences emerge. On a simple words-per-chapter/ quest basis, there are some pretty clear differences.



What they have in common is a clear peak. The emotional climax of The Great Gatsby is where one would expect it—towards the end in chapter seven—and the largest amount of dialogue occurs right along with it. The emotional climax of FF7 is definitely not at the Temple of the Ancients, however, so the abundance of dialogue there is something of a puzzle. There are two factors that probably cause the dialogue to peak there. The Temple of the Ancients fits well into a trope known as the “Disc One Final Dungeon,” or, as I prefer to call it, the first climax of the game. (This type of dungeon doesn’t always appear on disc one of a multi-disc game. In fact, the widespread use of multiple discs was a fairly short-lived phenomenon.) Squaresoft RPGs featured this trope quite often: the Floating Continent, Exdeath’s Castle, Magus’s Castle, etc. In many cases, the enemies in such a dungeon are suddenly more powerful, and dispense more EXP, ability points, money and items. The bosses in these dungeons tend to have much more HP (although they’re not necessarily much harder) and their own unique battle music, making for longer and more memorable fights. Accordingly, it makes sense that along with the first climax of all the statistical design elements, the dialogue might increase in quantity as well. But why doesn’t the peak in quantity come at the emotional peak of the game? This probably has to do with the structure of a videogame story. In the Temple of the Ancients, the writers reveal the long-term backstory of the game—Sephiroth’s plan, Aeris’s lineage, the planet’s history, and so on. Fitzgerald might be telling a complex story in Gatsby—full of artistic nuance and complex psychology—but it’s nevertheless a very simple plot about an affair between a bootlegger and his married ex-girlfriend. Nobody in Gatsby ever has to stop and explain a bunch of invented metaphysical concepts. That, and much of the backstory in Gatsby (which is actually considerable) is explained in narration, not dialogue. Different story structures naturally lead to different statistical distributions in dialogue.

Knowing how many words there are in a chapter or quest does not give us a total understanding of how FF7 and The Great Gatsby differ in narrative structure. We have to delve into finer statistical points to figure that out. One thing I examined was the number of words per line in each text, and I found that those numbers revealed some meaningful trends.



Note that I use a special definition of the word line. A “line” of dialogue has a specific historical meaning (coming from verse dramas) and a current technical meaning (for union pay-scales), but for my purposes I define a line as being the amount of words said before something or someone interrupts the speaker. For Gatsby, I did not count narrations like “he said” as interruptions, nor did I count adjectival descriptions of the speech. Only a narrated action—or an interruption by another speaking character—counted as an interruption. For FF7, the criteria are dependent on the visual and interactive interruptions, like battles, cinema scenes, or movement controlled by the character. In any case, the stats show opposite trends in the length of lines in the two texts. Although the overall amount of dialogue goes down across the course of FF7, the lines tend to get a little bit longer. (The absurd peak in Ft. Condor comes from the unnamed NPC explaining the minigame’s rules, assuming the player has never been there before.) There is a lot of variation in line length between quests, although there’s an overall trend of longer lines as the game goes on. It’s not a terribly strong trend as the trendline shows, but it’s there. Gatsby is quite different; the lines go down in length clearly, and you can see on the trendline how pronounced a trend it really is.

What should we make of the change in line lengths? Why do the speakers in FF7 become slightly more loquacious over the course of the game while those in The Great Gatsby become clearly terser toward the end of the book? I think that the answers for each have reasons that relate directly to the form of the narrative. Long speeches or story segments can alienate a certain part of the gaming audience, as we have seen time and time again. Final Fantasy 7 is able to support longer speeches at the end of the game because players who have reached that point are invested in the characters, in beating the game, or both. Meanwhile, the marked drop in line length in Gatsby comes from a structural facet of the novel. Although there are three acts of violence in the novel, two of which are described directly by the narrator (and happen to the same unfortunate person), the book does not spend many words on them. When Tom breaks Myrtle’s nose, for instance, the entire act is related to us in 14 words, whereas a sentence describing a dog watching a party in the paragraph before this event is described in 22 words. Most of the “action” of Fitzgerald’s novel isn’t narrated violence, but rather exists in the interpersonal conflict, specifically in the dialogue. It makes a lot of sense that the dialogue would become shorter and more quippish when two people are facing off against one another verbally, which is exactly what happens in the climactic chapters. This short, combative dialogue does for Gatsby what the actual battles do for FF7. Thus, it explains the drop in line length towards the end of Gatsby and the smaller overall amount of text in the last quests of FF7.

Another way to look at the structure of the dialogue in FF7 and The Great Gatsby is to look at who does the most speaking, and how those characters speak. The top five speakers in both narratives do a lot of the speaking, as we might expect.



The top five speakers in Gatsby speak 66% of the words, while those in Final Fantasy 7 speak 49% of the words. Gatsby has an obvious advantage in that those five characters are the main characters of a story with a relatively small cast. There are many ancillary characters at Gatsby’s parties, but few of them are ever developed in any meaningful way. The top five speakers in Final Fantasy 7 speak about half the dialogue in the game, but their contribution is somewhat diluted by the large roster of named NPCs who speak about 29% of the total dialogue. If we count the dialogue of every party member in FF7 and not just the top 5 speakers, we get a figure of 59% of the total dialogue, which is closer to the amount of dialogue spoken by the main characters of Gatsby, although still seven percentage points away.

There are plenty of smaller differences between the two narratives in the top speakers’ data. Cloud and Gatsby, the protagonists of either tale, speak a comparable amount of the dialogue—17% and 19%, respectively. After that, the comparison reveals something interesting: Tom Buchanan speaks almost as much as Gatsby, and far more than any FF7 antagonist does. Without looking at the cold, hard numbers, I never would have realized just how much time Fitzgerald spends on comparing the self-made Gatsby with his old-money antithesis. Between them, they speak almost a third of the novel’s dialogue. Sephiroth, by contrast, speaks a little more than 4% of the dialogue of FF7 (making him the 6th top speaker in the game). This, too, is somewhat structural; Sephiroth is present in a very small number of scenes. Much like Kefka in FF6, he is immured in his final dungeon for the latter portions of the game. Also, he never speaks another word after manipulating Cloud into delivering the Black Materia. I think this presentation of the antagonist is judicious, however. Sephiroth is a super-villain, and would become less menacing (and more cartoonish) if he appeared too often and spoke too much. Tom Buchanan is despicable, but he’s just a man, and his humanness permits him more time in the spotlight than Sephiroth can afford.

Finally, I think it is useful to examine how long each main character’s lines are in both FF7 and Gatsby. This is less an exercise in structure than in style. If we were to look at the line lengths in Hemingway or Austen novels, we might see that the characters in those books offer a tremendous contrast with what we see from the characters in Gatsby. That said, the comparison still tells us something about the difference between RPG characters and novel characters.



Tom and Gatsby are fairly comparable in terms of length. Daisy and Jordan are reasonably close to each other, too, although they are significantly less verbose than their male counterparts. Nick is quite laconic, although that’s an important part of his personality that he himself remarks upon more than once. The characters in FF7 don’t really have as much parity, even if divided into groups. Like Nick in Gatsby, Cloud speaks the shortest average lines of the main characters. In this case, it’s probably not a function of his characterization as much as it is a function of the many times where he has obligatory, short lines like “Huh?” or “Yeah.” or “Sephiroth!?” Those lines have an important function of standing in for the player’s decisions, or setting the mood of a scene when the graphics might not be fully up to the task. If we look at the other characters in FF7, some of it doesn’t seem to make sense. Is Cait Sith really that verbose? Well, yes he is.But he also only speaks a little over 2% of the game’s lines, so his few long-ish speeches will skew the average. Cid speaks about twice as many lines as Cait Sith, and his totals are much closer to the rest of the party. He only has two “speeches” as such, but he also doesn’t have many short quips. Cid only speaks ten oneword lines (Cloud speaks more than 80, Barret more than 20), and only seven two-word lines. Thus, his two longer speeches in the rocket and later in the airship can bloat his average pretty significantly. But for the most part, everyone from Barret through Cloud is pretty close together in terms of how long their average lines are.

For amateur JRPG designers, who seem to be more and more numerous these days, I want to put in a little bit about how characterization affects dialogue statistics. Although I do not hope to persuade anyone about the artistic effectiveness of this tactic, I find that many of the characterizing moments in FF7 are quite subtle. For instance, when Tifa meets Rufus for the first time, she remarks that he “likes to make speeches, just like his father.” Tifa’s quick derision gives us an alternative to Barret’s loud-mouthed hatred of Shinra. Tifa’s observation is an interesting one, however, because the data tell a different story. President Shinra is verbose; his average line length is just a little above seventeen words—more words than any main character speaks per line. (And that’s with Barret constantly interrupting him every time he tries to talk!) Rufus begins with a speech, but that speech is essentially about his Machiavellian plan for his inherited empire. Rufus actually speaks about 13 words per line, which is much closer to the average of 12 words spoken by main characters than it is to his father’s longer average length. The real speech-making villain is, naturally, Sephiroth, who clocks in at about 20 words per line. Interestingly, before his villainous transformation in Nibelheim, Sephiroth only speaks about 16 words per line. After his breakdown, his lines get a lot longer, so there’s a correlation between omnicidal mania and line length for him.

Correlations, as statisticians tell us, do not necessarily imply causation; there is another possible explanation for the lengthier speeches of President Shinra and Sephiroth. The need for exposition drives longer speeches, if Bugenhagen is any example. Aeris is a living embodiment of history, but because she is mostly unaware of that history, Bugenhagen has to give the party most of the background information about the Cetra and the Lifestream. His dialogue (really, monologues) reflect this; Bugenhagen speaks an average of 23 words at a time, higher than any other named character. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, to find that after Bugenhagen and Sephiroth, Hojo is number three on the list of longest average lines.

Bugenhagen explains the way the planet works, and Hojo explains the way that Jenova works. Sephiroth, meanwhile, is completely hung up on himself and his own plan, but then he would be, wouldn’t he?

Overall what we see is that the distribution of dialogue tends to follow the structural concerns of the narrative. I should say that the preceding statement is one that really ought to be backed up by statistical research on a much larger number of videogames and novels, but such a task is outside the scope of this project. For the two narratives in question, it does seem that argument is the medium of conflict in The Great Gatsby, and so the dialogue grows shorter as the conflict grows more intense. Final Fantasy 7 shows no especially strong trend, with only a slight uptick in the length of lines as the game goes on. The discrepancy in speakers—the main characters of Gatsby speak a larger proportion of the lines than their videogame counterparts—is certainly a product of FF7 having so many more named (and important) characters, as JRPGs often do. Certainly, an author or game designer could choose to produce an avant-garde narrative that defies structural conventions, but I suspect that this is not terribly common.

To see the analysis of the more than 26,000 words of NPC dialogue in the game, check out the eBook version of this text.

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