First of all, what I’m about to say is not intended to excuse bad writing/performances in games. This is an area that, in general, continues to need improvement and in which big strides have been made in recent years (I submit the Uncharched franchise and LA Noire as exhibits). [NOTE: It's worth remembering that the audience for most AAA games probably has a lot more in common with the target audience of Transformers or Conan the Barbarian, than The King's Speech or Tree of Life. So the definition of "good dialogue" is also somewhat arguable.]
Earlier today, however, a couple of friends basically asked “why does the dialogue in video games so often suck? Don’t they have good writers? Don’t the review the scripts/recordings before they go into the game?” Having several friends who are professional video game writers, and I daresay, very good at it, I felt compelled to answer their question. Here is what I said: think about it this way: haven’t you seen plenty of movies that have bad dialogue? Not being a movie person, I’m speculating here, but I suspect that this is often a product of the fact that the dialogue looks good “on paper” or seems good when it’s being recorded, but really doesn’t work when you cut the whole film together. At that point, it’s often prohibitive (for either logistical or financial reasons) to go back and reshoot those scenes.
In games, there are similar production realities. For any high-quality, narrative-focused, game today you can assume that a good writer has written a script that has been reviewed and revised based on feedback from several parties. The days of a designer just banging something out at their workstation at the last minute are largely behind us (correct me if you disagree, Cliff). After that script is written and approved it has to be cast, recorded, cut, implemented, and synched to animation before you really know what the finished product looks/sounds like. During that process, again, there are even worse bits that have been cut, re-written, and re-recorded. Now, realize that a game like Skyrim (which sparked the original question) probably has about 100x more dialogue content in it than your standard film; AND you don’t always have control over the order in which it’s going to be experienced, sometimes even down the line-by-line level. So, who is going to review all of that? On a film, there isn’t a single frame that makes it onto the screen that hasn’t been viewed and approved by the Director. That allows for a remarkable level of consistency of tone and authorship in the finished project. If that happened on Skyrim, I’d be very pleasantly surprised, considering the sheer quantity of content and the huge number of other tasks that a Lead Designer, or Producer is responsible for; not to mention the inherently more collaborative nature of game development when compared to filmmaking.
Oh, by the way, did I mention that when most of the dialogue was recorded it was probably done by individual voice performers working in isolated sound boxes, asynchronously from their counterparts in the same scene? Of course, there are exceptions, for games such as Call of Duty, Uncharted, etc., where the actors are able to rehearse and perform alongside each other in the same location. But this is generally a luxury reserved for the highest-budget projects and even then, generally only those that have relatively short, linear campaigns (see above examples). Admittedly, I’m highlighting issues with performances, not simply with dialogue writing, but look at how much of a film script gets tweaked and re-written during shooting when the director and actors are all in the same place and able to iterate multiple times on individual lines/scenes collaboratively and then think about trying to do that for 100x as many lines of dialogue.
Hopefully you’re starting to see the challenges that game performances face. I guess what I’m saying is that I’ve seen plenty of movie people acknowledge that a great script does not a great film make, and vice versa. In the case of games, this is at least equally true. So, just blaming the writers for bad dialogue in a specific video game is, in my opinion, a bit of unfair scapegoating without really understanding the production realities that project faced. While it MAY be fair and accurate, there are a number of other factors could, at a minimum, have contributed./rant