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We Should Expect Better: Writing

We live in the age of the story. Mankind, since the dawn of human civilisation, has been host to an ever evolving and changing form of make believe, the narrative. Over hundreds of thousands of years we have refined and perfected our story telling ability to what is now considered an art form. We evolve and change and adapt our art, as it is now considered to fit into different forms; written medium, mass printed medium, dramatic medium, visual medium, audiovisual medium, visual printed medium and most recently interactive medium.

However, the emergence of interactive narrative has resulted in a peculiar reversing of refining process and created a situation where the actual quality of game writing is cheapening overall.

There are always exceptions to the rule, examples where the prevalence of quality writing vastly outweighs the dreck. For example there is the decade spanning period of the golden age of adventure games, where the writing and narrative were paramount to the success of game even more than the quality of gameplay/puzzles themselves. There are the exquisite science fiction thriller narratives of the System Shock and Deus Ex franchises, the dark thematic resonance of Bioshock and Pathologic, The nostalgic Uncharted stories, Half Life 2 and related content, the underrated Pariah, the comedy of Tim Schafer and Oddworld Inhabitants, the sublime horror of Silent Hill 1-4, the quality stories put forth by developer Origin systems with games such as Bioforge, or even the primarily visual games of team ICO.

However, for the most part, game writing is often flat and uninspired with poorly plotted stories and preponderance on action and gameplay over subsequent narrative and pacing and using rote concepts or just variances on classic stories (a new game, Dark Void is very much a rocketeer fuelled play on the Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers story). Games nowadays use narrative as loose framework to build varying levels and call them coherent. In some cases, such as the incredibly fun to play Oblivion and Fallout 3, the writing is simply terrible. Even now, a growing group of games such as Call of Duty and Gears of War are typically evolving its own form of narrative play which I like to call situational writing. It involves a random set of levels created by the developers which is the forced upon the writers to arrange them in a manner that can be called coherent, and then write a story to give it general context.

Despite the growth of the situational writing model, we see a constant leaning towards the influence of mainstream blockbuster films, as the primary writing model for most games, which generates stories that tend to be as uninspired and flat as the source material often tends to be.

People tend to excuse this behaviour for poor writing as merely the product of focusing on gameplay. They say that if the gameplay is sufficiently excellent enough, the story could be simply terrible (see painkiller, Mario, and generally most games released by ID software). And while this is true of the fact that the game will be enjoyable to play, there is still no excuse for not even trying.

People look at the situation we face and call the developers and writers lazy or uninspired or even unfocused. However, I prefer a better label without the preponderance to coddling or enabling the developer to escape blame. I call them stupid.

It may sound childish and irrational, but the simple fact that all games that have bad writing tend to be a result of simple idiocy rather than laziness. Most people who generally write for games seem to have absolutely no practical knowledge of or even the conceptual will to understand the basic fundamentals of pace, plotting and dialogue and as a result decide to imitate the success of other stories (God of War to Clash of the titans, every fantasy game to Lord of the Rings or Conan etc, Haloís marines as to Aliensí Marines, Area 51ís Marines to Alienís Marines, Doomís marines to Alienís Marines, Quakeís marines to Aliensí Marines, Crysisí specops to Aliensí Marines, Chromeís Marines to Aliensí Marines, Killzoneís soldiers to Aliensí marines, Gears of Warís Cogs toÖ Aliensí marines, Space Marines toÖ oh you get the damn picture). As a result we simply get a simple variant on the same story over and over with no discourse over any form of unique plotting.

The second form of mass stupidity in the game industry is the developers themselves. They are wrapped up in the delusional belief that they are the most important part of the game. They force their ideas first and then use the writers to clean it up and make it presentable. This may also be a source for desperate overuse of Aliensí marine idea but it stands to fact that writing is desperately necessary. If a game is written in true conjunction with development and there is exchange of ideas between writing staff and the development team, then significant increase in the quality of the plot is inevitable. It may still be rote and unoriginal but at least there is significant context to the events in the game. The writer would write the plot, the developers would take this and tell the writers what does and doesnít work with the described levels, the writers tweak the description to fit better to a game mold, Developers make the game, changing the levels to adhere to coherency of design, writers tweak the story to fit the redesigned levels. It may not be particularly any good, but you still get a plot that is coherent to the order of levels you play.

The third and most fundamental idiocy are the publishers themselves. Executives and producers are what are best described as high paid morons. People with cookie cutter business degrees (executives) or even just over promoted secretaries (producers, donít argue with me as I know this based on family experience) who, for the great majority of these people, have no practical knowledge of the medium they work with, attempt to make high profile artistic and entertaining products. They are so focused on maximising profits and share value they have no concern for creativity and attempt to force as much high concept into their products as possible. To force what sells above all else tends to result in three problems. Games are rushed and have incomplete stories. Games are forced to be high concept and thus be exactly like the next best selling game or intellectual property (ie copying Aliensí marines). And Third and finally, Games are forced to shove out as many sequels as possible which stretches the ability of the already mentally handicapped writing staff even more. Despite a few exceptions to the rule, this corporate atmosphere tends to kill creativity or even the chance for good writing in any gameís industry, creating a barren creative wasteland.

To write a decent, if not original story is not difficult, it just takes time. You have to understand that there are essentially three parts to a story; a beginning, a middle and an end. The beginning sets up the conflict and emotional connections for the players. The middle heightens the conflict, danger and panic and ends on a critical moment. The end uses the critical moment to drive the player towards the source of the situation and deal with it directly. The plot should have a logical flow of one event to the other utilising the basic and unastounding concept of cause and effect. Donít randomly introduce characters objects or events that conveniently appear to solve the situation or save the day when their existence and place in the plot makes no sense. Also, itís ok if the story doesnít have a happy ending. Dialogue should sound exactly as how regular people should talk and emote and utilise uncommon phrases and patterns of speech to heighten the mood. Most of the time, people tend to speak candidly about something but often have a double meaning. The second meaning often is inconsequential or innocent rather than devious, secretive or malicious, but itís still a double meaning nonetheless. Attempting to make a character edgy, dark, badass, or deliberately cool immediately results in something that just sounds stupid. Example, Nathan Drake works so well as a character because he is a likable, relatable human being, albeit in an extraordinary situation and profession. Heís cool because he is weathered and accustomed to his profession and not some icy dark anti hero like Lara Croft or forced superfly guy from the most recent Prince of Persia (the most offensively whitewashed QTE game ever made).

But for all my complaining and attempting to reason away my and hopefully many othersí dissatisfaction with terrible game narratives, I know that this will never make a difference. People unquestioningly buy whatís popular and poorly written, the morons keep making money and the cycle of submediocrity inevitably starts again. I can beat and scream and even attempt to defy them by modding and becoming a writer myself. Nobody pays for their ineptitude and nobody ever learns. People may argue with this statement but this is just how I feel about games nowadays.
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About Bugsportone of us since 12:52 PM on 11.08.2007