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The problems with video game writing and what we can do to help


Video games: the newest, hippest, fastest growing entertainment medium in the world. More profitable than movies, by some estimates. They're mainstream now, don't you know. Your grandparents are probably playing them. We've moved on from the semi-mythical days when playing video games on your Commodore 64 would get you beaten up at school.

And yet while games continue to change and evolve in the breadth of gameplay experiences they offer (not always in positive ways, it needs to be said) the quality of video game storytelling has stagnated or even receded in the past decade and a half. Counter-examples to this trend can be found on every platform for every year, but they continue to be bright, shining pinnacles rising above a sea of mediocrity.

As someone who loves both games and well crated, original stories this situation has always bothered me. Over the years I've discovered that the problems in video game writing can usually be broken down into a handful of distinct flaws, many of them stemming from one original sin. In this post I'll go through them and then offer some constructive advice on how we as consumers can help to rectify the situation.

Note: for the purposes of this post I am mostly talking about western made games published professionally for retail, either in stores or downloadable, ie what most would consider the current "mainstream" of gaming in the America and Europe. Japanese developed and indie games have their own writing flaws, but they tend to be quite different.

"There are no new stories" is a phrase that often gets trotted out when it comes to writing. The intent of the statement is that certain genres tend to follow the same basic template- for example, romance will always involve people falling in love - so the writer must try to handle it in an interesting way. It does not mean that every story that could ever be told already has been and so we might as well stop trying to be original.

Nobody appears to have informed video game writers of this, because by God are they taking the concept at face value.

Picture the following scenario: you play as a lone agent operating in a dangerous situation. You're acting not on your own initiative, but according to the instructions of someone else isolated from the action. Maybe you return to a central location between missions, or perhaps your contact is a distant voice over a radio. You fight through hordes of bad guys and finally take out the villain. What happens next?

If you're at all familiar with video game narratives- if you've played even a handful of prominent games over the last five years- you should have been able to instantly guess the plot twist: the entire mission was a ruse designed to play into the hands of your mission control, who betrays you in order to further their own sinister agenda. You must then hunt them down to get revenge/rescue your love interest/stop the world from exploding. This has gotten so bad that when I played Dishonored last year I correctly guessed that the Royalist conspiracy was going to double cross me before I even bought the game. I spent two-thirds of Mark of The Ninja waiting for my ninja master to play his hand and reveal himself to be an asshole. It's like game writers have gotten it into their heads that this is just how you write a story, that if they crack open the Bible there'll be a bit halfway through Revelations where God turns out to be Satan in disguise and Jesus has to go on a one-man crusade to kick him out of heaven.

I think Bioshock is to blame for all of this. It used this formula so well that everyone rushed to copy it without realizing how much effort Irrational put into pulling it off. Did you know they went through several different accents for Atlas before making him Irish? They got test audiences to play through the opening of the game specifically looking for a voice players would trust, just to make sure the twist would completely blindside them. There are hints scattered throughout the game that he isn't who he appears to be, but they're subtle and very easy to miss if you aren't paying attention.

Now Irrational are making Bioshock Infinit,e and according to interviews with Ken Levine they decided not to go with the "voice over the radio" format partially because they knew players would spend the entire game waiting to be double crossed or to have it revealed that their unseen ally is actually a three headed sentient venus fly-trap. The twist has become so ubiquitous that it's impossible to pull off successfully. Gamers are going to expect it even if it's not in the game.

This is far from the only way videogame story-telling endlessly recycles familiar tropes, of course. There's the old Damsel in Distress scenario that's been going on since the early days of the medium, widely recognized as outdated and sexist but still a staple of the industry. Amnesiac heroes have decreased in frequency but still linger on as a cheap source of mystery. The rise of the gun as gaming's sacred totem has brought with it hordes of faceless soldiers hell-bent on destroying everything in their path for no obvious reason (Killzone, Gears of War, Resistance, Call of Duty, Battlefield: Bad Company, Battlefield: Bad Company 2, Battlefield 3, Medal of Honour, Medal of Honour: Warfighter, every Mass Effect game, damn near any game made this generation that involves holding a firearm). "There are zombies" is of course a concept that became over-used almost as soon as it appeared on the scene, now only considered acceptable when it's paired with innovative gameplay concepts or a story that's widely championed as among the best in the industry.

Let's have some new stories, okay? Let's have some games that don't telegraph their entire plot on the front cover.

Have you heard of the Plinkett Star Wars test? It was coined in the first of Red Letter Media's famous Star Wars prequel takedowns and goes like this:

“Describe this character to me without mentioning their appearence, their job or what their role in the plot is.”

I want you to apply this to Marcus Fenix. Take as long as you need.

Now Soap McTavish. Adam Jensen. Kratos? Hell, even Solid Snake.

If you could come up with any adjectives other than "gruff" or "serious" than you must be seeing something I'm not.

I'm not going to claim that there aren't good video game characters, because of course that's not true, but there are also rafts of terrible ones; monosyllabic grunting meat-heads and smarmy assholes and cooing sexpots who might as well make Austin Powers-style vagina puns every other second. Gaming's cup runneth over with tortured dark heroes seeking redemption and wise-cracking Han Solo knock-offs.

All of these problems come about because video game characters are largely written according to a method favoured by hacks in every medium: taking one of a handful of stock character archetypes and dressing them up with superficially distinct characteristics. I'm going to be going back to this point repeatedly, but it needs to be driven home: we're not getting characters written for video games, we're getting knock offs of the sorts of characters that went out of style in movies decades ago. This needs to stop.

Sometimes developers decide that their characters shouldn't be empty cyphers, that they should have personalities. Horrible, horrible personalities.

I don't know why so many games force us to play as assholes. They snarl and scowl through all of their lines, they have no setting between "off" and "angry". They don't have friends, they have people they won't punch or murder on sight. Most of the time, anyway.

The violent sociopath that is Kratos in the second and third God of War games may be the worst example of this, but there are plenty of others. Sam Fisher, Jak in the post-Jak and Daxter games, Cole from InFamous, Nico Belic, what's his face from GTAIII, Wei Shen from Sleeping Dogs.....

Most of these characters are supposed to be conflicted or multi-faceted. I get that. You can write characters who are unlikable on many levels but still ultimately someone we can relate to and empathize with. Case in point- James Marston of Red Dead Redemption. We spend a lot of time at the start of the game not really sure what to think of the guy. He has a history of violence and a short temper, but he's also polite and corteous to ordinary people. We see him go out of his way to help people in danger but we also see him try to shoot someone for annoying him. He's got different sides to him and not all of them are good, but there's an underlying sense of something decent trying to come through. When he acts like an asshat it's tragic because we know he's trying to be someone better, and under the tough veneer he is better.

Most asshole characters don't have that extra layer. There's usually nothing underneath the tough guy facade but a writer's attempt to make them "badass".

Visual and non-verbal storytelling is something I have a great deal of respect for but many kinds of stories are dialogue driven by necessity. This is a problem.

The deck is in many ways stacked against game writers compared to their counterparts working in other fields of entertainment. Developers don't have the luxury of pacing in many genres (particularly in today's action heavy environment), forcing story advancement and character development to be crammed into short cut scenes. Attempting a more organic story-telling style can yield transcendent results, but is difficult to pull off while also serving the needs of the gameplay.

All of that might help to explain the generally shoddy state of video game dialogue, but it doesn't excuse it. And just so we're clear, I'm not talking about the infamous clangers from the Playstation era. I'll take a hundred Jill sandwiches any day over writing that's just boring. Far too often game dialogue feels like a pale imitation of whatever movie the writer happened to be watching at the time (probably Aliens), is far too obviously expository or attempts to be cool and edgy and comes across like something a 13 year old on Xbox Live would yell at his opponent.

Let's take a look at some examples. First we have a taunt delivered by the Succubus boss in DmC, a game I quite like in many respects:

“I'm going to rip off your head, piss down your neck and shit on your worthless corpse! “

Yes, Ninja Theory, we're very impressed at how many naughty words you know. Have a cookie and go watch cartoons.

Which isn't to say profanity can't be used well. Ellie from The Last of Us can't seem to go two sentences without dropping an F-bomb if the trailers and gameplay videos are any indication, but in this case it feels as though it arises naturally from the character. I should listen to someone's dialogue and feel as though I'm listening to them, not the writer's Id. Dialogue should feel natural, it should feel spontaneous. It should obscure the strings linking the characters to their human creators rather than calling attention to them.

Keep in mind that this has nothing to do with dialogue being realistic. Here's another example from one of my favourite games of all time, Bioshock 2. The villain, Sophia Lamb, spends a great deal of time trolling the main character, Delta, over his radio, leading to this particularly nice taunt:

"Rapture is a body, Delta. I am the voice. Big Sister is the hand. When Rapture speaks of you it says only this: sleep, now. Your time is done."

This is not "realistic" dialogue. It's not something a real person would ever say unless they had a speech writer feeding them lines every second of every day. But it is something Sophia Lamb would say, and it gives you a glimpse into how she views the world. This line wasn't just written to sound cool, even though I think it is. It gives you a window into the character and the world she inhabits, even though it's only a throw-away line with no real story consequence. Take any of Andrew Ryan's lines out of context and anyone who played the original Bioshock would be able to tell you where they came from instantly, because no one else could have said them.

This isn't a low bar to reach. It's not an easy thing to achieve. It takes skilled, seasoned writers working with strong creative direction. But it's the goal games must aspire to if they want to tell excellent stories. "Good enough" isn't good enough.

A subset of the previous problem. There should be a special place in hell for modern FPS games that constantly assault the player with reams of esoteric military slang. I do not need to be told every five seconds that Bravo Actual is Oscar Mike to the LZ, which is hot (the LZ is always hot). At best it's annoying and distracting, at worst I don't understand a word anyone is saying.

And no, "realism" isn't an excuse. These games are testosterone-fueled fever dreams of patriotic carnage, not sober combat simulators. Lose the soldier speak.

The mostly one-sided creative relationship between games and movies is a topic that's written about often, but I don't think enough is said about how damaging this is to many games’ writing. It leads to a creative stagnation where game stories feel like shallow pastiches of popular movies, but it also leads to a situation where developers try to tell stories in games as though they're movies even though the two mediums are not compatible on fundamental levels. You can make games "cinematic" and you can have excellent, well-directed cut scenes and even gameplay sequences that use the well-established language of cinema, but if you sit down to write a game's story and try to structure it like a film you're almost guaranteed to fail.

Look at the Call of Duty games, or any of their myriad clones. Their stories are in essence geo-political thrillers with some war movie elements thrown on top. It's a pretty simple narrative, but it's constantly sabotaged by the gameplay structure, which requires multiple characters operating in different locations featuring a wide variety of action set pieces. This plays havoc with the narrative- events occurring in different locations seem to have barely any connection to each other even though they're ostensibly interlinked, character motivations are vague or non-existant, things just seem to happen for no reason. The Eiffel Tower explodes because the developers wanted a scene where the Eiffel Tower explodes, not because it has any real place in the story. Often while playing these games I'll stop and realize I have no idea who I'm fighting or why I’m fighting them. The absolute worst offender in this regard is Battlefield 3, which actually has entire chunks of the narrative occur off-screen between missions. It's like DICE came up with each level first and then tried to make up some excuse to justify it after the fact.

Of course the other problem with military FPS stories is that most of them feel as if they were written by putting a Roomba on a keyboard and hitting the on button, but that's a topic for another day.

Open world games represent a particular problem. By their very nature these games are expected to present the player with much more to do than other genres and so you end up with tons of padding as the player is forced to wade through side-plots that don't go anywhere or advance the story in any way. Several different plot arcs often run simultaneously, randomly falling into the background and then re-appearing for seemingly no reason. The by-now standard approach of having the player take missions from designated quest-givers means that we're forced to cycle through one-note side characters who often vanish from the story as abruptly as they appeared.

I remember in Sleeping Dogs being forced to drive a rapper around Hong Kong for a shady record label owner; at this point my character was supposed to be a lieutenant holding the second highest rank possible in his triad organization. Why the fuck am I doing odd jobs for a sleazy entertainment tycoon when I'm supposed to be the commander of my own criminal army? It's because the story (you are a powerful crime boss) conflicted with the gameplay (drive around Hong Kong kicking people in the face). United Front wanted to have Wei Shen rise up the ranks of the Sun On Yee, but they couldn't think of any way to do that without radically altering the nature of the game. In this situation they should have realized the story they wanted to tell was fundamentally incompatible with the game they were trying to make. Contrast this with the GTA games, which have the player gain prestige and influence with various criminal organizations but generally stop short of having them become official members or attain high ranking positions. Thus in GTA 3 you gain the admiration of the Mafia by being an awesome mercenary enforcer but you don't become the Godfather, because at that point the game either ends or turns into SimCity with drive-by shootings.

I've mentioned several times before that elements of video game storytelling can often feel like shallow rip-offs of movies. We deride Hollywood for churning out inferior videogame adaptations, but the truth is that games are just as bad about taking the fruits of film-makers’ labor and turning them into lukewarm oatmeal. No, I'm not talking about licensed games. I mean the fact that vast swathes of video games feature stories, characters, visuals and even music that are simply reheated elements from a handful of influential movies, endlessly recycled over and over again. I once read a blog post that argued convincingly that James Cameron's Aliens has done more to shape the look and feel of video games than any other single cultural influence in the world. Really stop to think about it and you'll realize it's a fair point. The concept of the space marine, the way characters in shooters with any sort of sci-fi bent to them look and talk and behave, all comes more or less straight from Aliens. Black Hawk Down, meanwhile, did the same thing for the military shooter genre that's become so dominant recently.

Often games borrow so heavily from movies that they can start to resemble unofficial remakes. The Road comes out and reshapes how we think about the post-apocalypse, so we get I am Alive and The Last of Us. Event Horizon? Dead Space. After The Fast and The Furious came out there was a massive glut of "urban" racing games focusing on car modification and "underground" elements, until everyone got so sick of it that reviews started to note the style as a detriment. Don't even get me started on what the post-Matrix years were like. You were there. You saw bullet time creep into every single goddamn action game in existence, you saw the badly-rendered swirling black trenchcoats.

None of this is necessarily a bad thing. I'm not saying any of these games have bad stories per se or are completely lacking in originality. I have often dreamed of an FPS based heavily on No Country For Old Men (EA: call me). But it leads to massive amounts of repetition as games repeatedly draw from the same sources of inspiration and directly or indirectly leads to many of the problems I discussed above, as developers try to replicate something they're not skilled enough to handle, or try to force a plot lifted from a movie into a fundamentally incompatible medium. Games also keep borrowing from movies long after the rest of the cultural landscape has changed, so we continue to get gritty 90s anti-heroes even though that trope is now widely considered to be juvenile and shallow. Elements of 80s action heroes keep showing up even though that type of character looks silly and cheesy to most people today outside of a few beloved classics. Did the world need yet another Mad Max style post-apocalypse setting with biker gangs and scavenger chic clothes and mutants? No, but id still made Rage anyway.

The end result is that games often feel like they lack their own cultural identity. How many games really feel like unique entities and not just pale imitations of films? If we're talking about visuals there's quite a few, Bioshock being the most readily available example. But what about in terms of story? Hardly any.

America has largely unseated Japan as the dominant force in game development as far as western audiences are concerned and is also by far the country most fond of mythologizing its own history. This leads to a related problem.

I don't think it's unfair to say that America never really got over World War 2, still championing it as the country's Finest Hour more than half a century later. (Britain has a similar problem when it comes to the First World War, incidentally.) This may explain why every single military FPS- and I mean virtually all of them- will include at least some element of WWII-story heroism, even in games set in modern War On Terror conflicts where it's not remotely applicable or suitable. Developers just can't seem to get over the plucky band of misfits completing their virtuous freedom quest against all odds, the heroic sacrifice and last stand, the Evil Villain whose death will instantly end the conflict, the "he's just a boy!" lament as the young rookie is cut down in his prime. Thanks, Saving Private Ryan. Thanks for a million Normandy landing missions.

Of course, real life is also an important and annoying source of inspiration, which is why every single military FPS has bit where you shoot people using night vision (just like on the news!). If games fair poorly when trying to imitate movies, just think how badly they stack up against reality.

Killzone goes perhaps the furthest with this, blatantly turning its villains into Space Nazis with some Stalinist Russia elements thrown in (and a pinch of Blitz-era London, for some reason). Which is a shame because that series has a legitimately interesting setting and visual style of its own and doesn't need the history aping. Hopefully Shadow Fall, which riffs on Cold War themes in a slightly more subtle way, will abandon this trend.

Now before anyone gets the wrong impression from all of this, it's true that there are many games with good stories. But are they actually good, or just good compared to the low bar set by other games?

The truth is that a lot of games praised for their writing would be utterly forgettable if they showed up in any other medium. The most recent example is probably Heavy Rain, a completely bog-standard potboiler detective story that looked good only because there are very few competently made bog-standard potboiler detective games. See also: LA Noire. Even games justifiably held up as masterpieces like Bioshock and Half Life 2 have plots that are nothing particularly special, instead achieving memorability via their characters and settings. Most games that stand out from the pack barely approach the level of storytelling competence expected of an average made for TV movie.

We need to stop accepting stories that are good "for a video game" and start expecting stories that can stand up to comparison with any other medium.

Complaining about video game writing is nothing new. I've just spent more than 3000 words explaining grievances that have largely been voiced by others elsewhere. Everyone knows the writing in games is terrible, audiences know, critics know, developers certainly know. Or do they?

Without naming names, it's not uncommon to hear developers wax rhapsodic about the narrative in their game only for the finished product to fall far short of their praise. In some cases this may be due to development problems taking a toll on the storytelling, but this happens even with developers whose games rake in millions of dollars and who have access to massive teams of programmers, artists and writers. And if developers really are aware of all of these problems, why do they keep happening?

This situation isn't going to change until we as consumers start demanding it. The next time you pay good money for a game and see one of these problems crop up, contact the developer. Don't be belligerent. Just send them a short, polite, to the point E-mail with the following message:

You're not trying hard enough. I think you can do better.

The second and most important step is to support games with good writing. I realize that in the age of piracy as a righteous moral cause it's become heretical to suggest that anyone should ever pay money for anything, but developers need to know that people are willing to pay for strong narratives in games or they're not going to bother.

There are encouraging signs that the situation may be changing for the better. The Walking Dead dared to reach higher than perhaps any of its peers and was rewarded with commercial and critical success, embarking on the sort of underdog story you'd dismiss for being too unrealistic if you saw it in a movie. Journalists who have played the opening hours of Bioshock Infinite have said enough about it to indicate that it could go in some very interesting directions. And Naughty Dog's The Last of Us looks to be attempting to tell a genuinely mature story.

I think a lot of the hostility in the gaming community comes about when gamers see their hobby and its place in the world shifting and feel as though there's nothing they can do personally to change anything. But I firmly believe this is something we can change. If consumers want better writing, developers will have to step up to the plate and deliver it.
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About PenguinFactoryone of us since 3:15 PM on 08.18.2011

Long-time game player, first-time game blogger. I'm a news junkie and quite fond of armchair analysis. Hit me up to sate your craving for uninformed opinions about the Future of The Industry.

I play all games, on any platform that's available, but I'm always looking for games that offer unique experiences. I am one of Those People who payed money for Bus Driver, a game about driving buses. This should tell you everything you need to know about my tastes.

I'm interested in the development of strong narrative in games and seeing them expand their scope and inclusiveness. Expect politically charged opinions. Polemics are a distinct possibility. Take appropriate safety measures