Look, I'll level with you; I'm far from what passes as an accomplished writer. The closest I got to any writing accolades was a gold star for my essay on Frances Hodsgson-Burnett's The Secret Garden, which I wrote when I was nine. I'm no Charles Dickens, no Lovecraft; hell... I'm not even Dean Koontz.
But I am a critic. And that, friends, is the perfect and only excuse I have for the following tirade against game writing. With storytelling in video games having come so far, be sure to check that the next game you play follows these very simple philosophies, lest you decide that you and it “be better strangers”... to quote Shakespeare.
Number One: Cutscenes are Not Gameplay
“You see, but you do not observe” - Arthur Conan Doyle, A Scandal in Bohemia
Much the same way that cinema preaches “Show, don't tell”, should our games not preach “Feel, don't show”?
An often-criticised cinema technique is the text-crawl; lines of text that open the film, explaining vital backstory that the screenwriter could have portrayed himself if he'd have done his job properly.
Cutscenes feel like a similar cop-out. You don't read a film like a book, so why should we experience games like films? Max Payne 3 might have had things exploding every five minutes, but having to put the pad down as often as pulling the triggers crashed that momentum far too frequently.
We're a long way from solving this one, but there have been some noble attempts. Half Life had storyline events occur in game-time, with the player able to move and interact whilst characters chewed their ears off; whereas Bioshock worked its non-interactive cut-scenes into the storyline by explaining, quite ingeniously, that everything the player did in cutscenes was the result of persuasive hypnosis; a clever solution, but not one we can keep returning to.
I get it. Writing for games is hard. But the more risks we take to meld writing and gameplay together, the greater strides we make and, more importantly, the more ideas we inspire.
Number Two: “Swearing” is Not a Character Trait
“If you see Kay, tell him he may. See you in tea, tell him from me” - James Joyce, Ulysees
Look, I love a good swear, me. Sometimes, bellowing the “F” word is the only thing that cuts it. That said, the notion that video games are adolescent wank fantasies doesn't disappear with a “Strong Language” warning – if anything, it only reinforces that opinion.
Much like children, many games seem to gleefully exploit their discovery of rude words by shouting them at every opportunity, completely diminishing their impact. Whilst The Darkness 2 was some supremely enjoyable nonsense, swears bounced off the wall more often than bullets, and by the end of the game, the word 'fuck' lost all impact, becoming offensive not via its context, but its tiresome overuse.
Yet this is far from the worst offender. Kane and Lynch, Hitman Absolution, Saint's Row 3... all deluded enough to think that effective swearing means shouting 'fuck' again and again.
Excessive swearing is pitiful enough that it should only ever exist as a form of cheap humour. For some effective examples check out either the entirety of House of the Dead: Overkill, or this audio taken from the charming Metal Arms: Glitch in the System...
In other words, swearing is at once crude, and effective. So use it appropriately, shithead.
Number Three: Not Every Story Needs a Twist Ending
“Miracles are events that happen just when they are needed” - David Gemmell
Possibly one of the lamest attempts to inject excitement into otherwise pedestrian game scripts, twist endings – of which betrayal is a recurring theme – are more often than not recycled from the end of every Scooby Doo episode ever broadcast. Most instances in which a character turns out to be evil occur in games that fail entirely to liken us to their cast, resulting in an indifferent shrug. Mirror's Edge, for example, makes a villain out of the one and only person it could possibly be, and I'm damned if I can even remember her name without a Wikipedia search.
Even earnest attempts at plot twists fall way, way short of expectations. Take Bionic Commando, a game in which your robot arm is actually your wife. Yep.
Some of the most effective plot twists are the ones that change the way we look at the game. Let's take an aforementioned example in Bioshock, as well as Spec Ops: The Line; the latter of which poignantly questions the morals of a third-person shooter, despite being one itself. Both games feature plot twists that not only make startling character revelations, but also make the player question everything they've done to that point.
They're excellent examples of a game's twist not only affecting the character, but the player. Neither settle for straight-up 'reveals' - they're aiming instead for epiphanies.
Until we discover new and intelligent ways to challenge player perception, any other plot twists are better left reserved for characters we're much more likely to care about. Speaking of which...
Number Four: Just Because our Protagonist Cares, Doesn't Mean we Do.
“Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn” - Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind
Dom Santiago really likes his wife; in fact, it should have been the marketing tagline for Gears of War 2. Yet by the time we discover her fate (spoiler - it's not good) it's impossible to feel what he feels as, right up until that point, the closest we've had to a believable interaction with her is a cutscene, in which she brings us breakfast in bed.
Now, I love breakfast in bed, but not enough to become emotionally attached to the character equivalent of a legally-bound Weetabix servant. Especially if I'm going to shoot more aliens in the face within two minutes of her death.
There's a difference between writing passionately and writing insistently. Gears of War 2 insists that Dom's wife is worth fighting for and does little outside of the superficial to convince us of this. It's impossible to care for Maria as we know nothing about her.
There's a bizarre tendency within video games to romanticise loving relationships – which sounds like a bizarre complaint, I know. But relationships are rarely as perfect as that. They're tumultuous. They require compromise and sacrifice. Smother our leading couple in kisses, poetry and love letters and they resemble little more than caricatures. It's part of what makes both The Darkness games effective; we're asked to share some of the most mundane or depressing moments in Jackie and Jenny's life, and reminded that sometimes, couples must share their bleaker moments.
It needn't always be romantic. One of the most excellent examples of a character actually worth a damn is none other than The Walking Dead's Clementine. We grow to love her via the time we spend with her, and our final moments with her are heartbreaking; not because the game tasks us with protecting her, nor because the game is even about her – but simply because, silently, it allowed us to care for her.
Number Five: An Heroic Arsehole is Still an Arsehole
“In my mind, you are buried in cement right up to your neck. No... Right up to your nose... That's much quieter” - Edward Albee, Breakfast at Tifanny's
My favourite protagonist of 2013 was Luigi from Luigi's Mansion 2. No word of a lie, I think he's utterly adorable. He's actually far braver than portrayed, daring to confront all of his fears, albeit reluctantly. He's capable in player hands, yet stumbles over every possible interaction with slapstick perfection. Best of all, he conveys so much emotion without uttering anything resembling a full sentence.
All of which makes him a far more likeable protagonist than the last Prince of Persia, Alan Wake, Resident Evil 6's Chris Redfield, Adam Jensen, Kratos, Frank West, Raiden, the old Lara Croft, Sam Gideon and practically every main character from every JRPG of the past generation.
In player hands, these characters are meant to be, or at least to feel, unstoppable. But their incessant quips and bad-ass attitudes do little to make them endearing.
Let's pick on Adam Jensen for a bit, as despite my adoration for the Deus Ex franchise he's a colossal shit-biscuit. Considering he's constantly bitching about his cybernetic implants he's pretty intent on using them for anti-social purposes. Be it stabbing people from behind or punching through walls just because he can, he's a spoilt child with a weirdly polygonal beard. Worst of all, being forced to play as him fractures the immersion of a first-person, choice-driven RPG, and takes the fun out of those instances where the player decides it's their turn to be the arsehole. Stop hogging all the douchebaggery, Jensen!
To have to play as these supercilious tossers for the duration of the game is testing in and of itself, but for developers to think that these are the characters we aspire to be once again drags us kicking and screaming into that adolescent wank-fantasy we should probably avoid now and then.
Number Six: Don't be David Cage.
Or, to quote George R. R. Martin; “...as useless as nipples on a breastplate”.
Hollywood actors do not elevate a separate media. More polygons do not equal more emotion. It takes more than a storyline in common for two characters to fall in love. Sex scenes in video games do not work and, come to think of it, the ones you conceive are frequently awkward and gruesome.
I respect that Cage has his admirers, but to claim that he wants to progress the medium strikes me as insincere when each step he takes towards this seems to actually drag games further and further towards cinema.
Cage's problem is that his amateurish screenplays would be laughed out of Hollywood, and whilst gaming storytelling finds its feet, the lowered standards of their storylines are the perfect outlet for his strained works.
There is an outlet for your work, David. It's called “Straight to DVD” and it did wonders for Marley and Me: The Puppy Dog Years.
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About Brazen Headone of us since 7:24 AM on 01.26.2014
I'm Brazen Head and my love for games borders on the fetishistic. As I type, my Dreamcast, Gamecube, PS2, 360, Wii, WiiU and gaming PC trail wires happily to the back of my TV screen.
Most of all, though, I'm a creative guy. I write, I compose music and I make video projects as well - many of which might make an appearance on this very site. Scratch that - they WILL make an appearance.
You can check out my pilot episode for a little video game video project I have going, too. It's right here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zjMaVB9VJvE