Mission chatter, or pilot chatter is essential to the feel of a good mission. It gives a mission a sense of reality that even some official missions lacked, and immerses the player more completely in the action. Pilot chatter can be used to fill in space between dogfights, give the player subtle hints about the universe the mission/campaign designer has decided on, recall information from earlier in a campaign so that it's fresh in the player's mind for later reference, and plenty more. It's a hugely important plot and mood element for any mission, and yet is one of the most neglected. So, without further ado, here are some basic guidelines for producing decent pilot chatter in your mission.
Step 1 - Build the Mission
It's generally not a good idea to do your chatter during the formative stages of a mission's development. You often don't have a full grasp on where you want to see the mission go, and even rarer is to know how you want it to get there. Pilot chatter has to be relevant to the events of the mission and campaign, otherwise it sounds disjointed and artificial. Also, before the mission is completed, it's unlikely you'll be able to determine the best time to put the chatter in. Placing it over the top of a dogfight would be silly, and chances are it wouldn't get read anyway. So, before you start your pilot chatter, it's a good idea to have at least a reasonably complete mission, so that you can be sure the timing is good, and the content relevant.
As with any rule, there are exceptions. If your mission begins several minutes before the action so you could fill this space with pilot chatter, of course this can be done before the mission is complete. This will undoubtedly be essential to set the scene of the mission, and quite possibly relevant to later events. Besides—if you mission is set two or three minutes before the start of any action, you're going to need something to occupy your time during testing.
Step 2 - Define Your Content
This is a quick but essential step towards good pilot chatter. As mentioned above, pilot chatter can perform multiple roles in a mission, and is more than just a space-filler. Here you need to define what it is that you want mentioned. Is there an event from a previous mission the player should be recalling? Is there another operation going on at the same time as the player's mission that may become relevant later? If you're guarding a convoy, does the player need to know what's aboard the freighters? It's much easier to know what you want said at this point in the process, as it gives you definable goals towards which you can work, and makes deciding on what specifically to say much easier.
Step 3 - Script Your Messages
So, by now, you've built a mission, and you've decided what's going to be spoken about. Now all you have to do is create the specific messages. This is the most important part of the pilot chatter process, as the specific messages are the things that the player will be seeing, and without them, you obviously have no chatter. So clearly, you'll need to take a lot of care to ensure that this part is done right. Though that might sound daunting and time-consuming, it really is only as hard as you make it. First, play through the mission two or three times. Find out where the quiet parts are, how many wingmen you typically lose along the way, choose the events you want to comment on, etc. If you do this during testing, you can save yourself some time. Along with the content you defined earlier, this will form the framework for the messages. Now you're more than ready to begin your scripting.
- To make your messages sound more natural and unified without voice acting, try to insert a sense of character into your wingmen. Is Alpha 2 a cocky hotshot? A battered, jaded old veteran? A green, overenthusiastic ensign straight out of the academy?
- Say your messages out loud once you've written them down. The spoken word and the written word are not the same thing. If it sounds unnatural coming out of your mouth, it's probably not quite right, and needs changing. If English isn't your first language, you may consider asking a native English speaking friend or beta tester to perform these tests/changes for you.
- Watch out for spelling errors. Nothing looks more unprofessional than a poorly spelled message or briefing, except possibly a poorly spelled mission objective or ship name. Check all of your spelling twice, with a word processors spell checker if available.
- If you're building a single mission rather than a campaign, pilot chatter can sometimes be harder to think up. Some possibilities are
- Pilots responding to Command's orders, or relaying them more specifically to the rest of the wing.
- Pilots discussing current events, or life aboard whatever ship they're stationed on
- Pilots communicating with vessels they've been assigned to escort, perhaps asking about cargo, or their destination.
- Pilots discussing the nature of the enemy, or their previous experiences with this enemy (This is great for introducing new enemies to the player as well)
- Pilots commenting on newly arrived ships in place or in addition to command. This can be mentioning their intentions, or their class, or even their affiliation to flesh out Command's famous â€œIncoming jump signature! Hostile configuration!
- If, on the other hand, you're working on a campaign mission, remember to refer back to previous missions in that campaign. Not only does this enhance the sense of continuity missing from many fan campaigns, but it can also provide an easily accessible basis for a lot of pilot chatter in your mission, making the process of thinking it up that much simpler. If the missions directly previous to yours are being done by somebody else, remember to stay in close contact, and see if they'll give you a beta or even some sort of mission outline or script. If these missions aren't done yet, or are being done by another staff member whom you can't contact, you'll have to try and improvise, and hope they follow the outline given to them. Alternately, remember you can always come back and edit details in or out of your chatter script.
- Use send-message-list SEXPs. They're easy to understand if you follow the rules down the bottom, keep down your SEXP number, and they're very convenient for long lists of messages, such as pilot conversations. Keep in mind though, that SML SEXPs fire as true from the start of the first message, not the end of the last, so if you want to base an event on the completion of one of these SEXPs, you'll need to know precisely how long the conversation lasts (easy to do by adding up the relevant time entries, which are in milliseconds, not seconds (1 sec = 1000 ms)).
- Consider your chatter carefully. Your pilots should not toss off casual jokes when attacking a massive Shivan ship and holding the fate of humanity in their hands. Such jokes are also less funny when in orbit of a completely destroyed colony, or after the failure of your mission objectives that may have resulted in thousands of deaths. Pilot chatter is essential, however, in missions like convoy escorts, or quiet capship guards. Use common sense in defining your messages, and there shouldn't be any problems.
You should have no trouble in making interesting, chatter-filled missions from this point on. Keep in mind though, it's only a guide. Other ways may turn out to be more efficient for your style of FREDding. There are also missions where common rules and guidelines have to be suspended for realism or continuity or whatever. However, for most missions, the basic ideas presented here will adapt well, and hopefully there'll never be an excuse to FRED a quiet mission again.
How can I make the head anis on my messages match up with the head anis on the messages FS2 sends?
The heads (and voices, and the messages themselves for that matter) that your wingmen send are defined by their persona. You can set the persona of various ships in the ship edit box. Then, all you need to do is to make sure you send your messages with the head ani used by that ships persona.
Wingman 1 is Head-TP1 (TP-4 when using the FSPort)
Wingman 2 is Head-TP5 (TP-3 in FSPort)
Wingman 3 is Head-TP6 (TP-2 in FSPort)
Wingman 4 is Head-TP7 (TP-2 in FSPort)
Wingman 5 is Head-TP8 (TP-4 in FSPort)
Wingman 6 is Head-VP1
Wingman 7 is Head-VP2
Whenever my wingmen die, Command sends the messages I wanted them to send, making my conversations make no sense. What can I do?
This is undoubtedly the biggest and most common problem with sending any kind of message in FS2, and it's even more common with pilot chatter, since other pilots die so easily. There are ways around it, but it does require extra SEXPing. One of the more common ways is to make the pilots whom you want to send the messages survive is to use the ship-invulnerable SEXP to make them invincible below a certain hull percentage. Keep in mind though, the longer they remain invulnerable, the more unbalanced the mission will get. It's a good idea to change them back after they've sent their messages.
If you find this unbalances things too much, you can try backup messages. This involves much more SEXPing, but it does work. Say you want Alpha 2 to send a message thirty seconds after the mission has started. Create your message SEXP referencing Alpha 2 and tell it to fire when time elapsed has reached thirty. Then, create another SEXP that references Alpha 3, and only fire if time elapsed has reached 30 seconds and Alpha 2 is dead and Alpha 3 is not dead. Alpha 4 will send the message after thirty seconds when both Alphas 2 and 3 are dead, and Alpha 4 is not. It's important to ensure the new wingman is alive, and all previous wingmen are dead, or you'll get multiple copies of messages being sent.
This process can be repeated as many times as there are friendly fighters in the mission, or as many times as you feel is necessary. Keep in mind, if you're worried about maintaining head ani continuity, you'll need several messages, each with a different Ani (I will generally only put two in, reasoning that, in theory at least, there's a better than average chance that one of the first two will be alive, and after that, the message being sent is more important than head ani continuity being maintained.)
Other ways around this problem are to use intense pilot chatter early in the mission (when pilots are more likely to be alive) and fill the latter half with chatter between capships, newly arrived pilots, or Command. Also, keep in mind that messages that don't have to be sent can be given a priority of Normal or Low; this will mean that they will not be sent at all if the ship charged with sending them dies. This is not, however, a viable option for conversations, or story-important messages.