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Video Games Writing: Where We Are and What We Need
by Craig Stern on 12/05/09 11:06:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Over the past year or so, there has been a small but growing swell of complaints about the quality of writing in video games. Commenting on the 2008 Writer's Guild Awards for best videogame writing, Paul Hyman posed, "Awards for the best video game writing? Isn't that an oxymoron?" Adam Volk insists that "most interactive titles are written by the kind of hacks you'd find penning Full House fan-fic and scripting color commentary for American Gladiators." The lamentations go on. I even find myself criticizing games writing on occasion.

The impreciseness of the "video games writing is bad" complaint makes it difficult to suggest a solution, however. What is it, exactly, that we think is lacking: is it prose quality, good characterization, character development, good dialog, interesting themes, depth and seriousness of subject matter, or some amalgamation of the above? Nathaniel Edwards complains of a glut of games that are "juvenile, violent, and stupid," by contrast to games that harbor "important narratives." Volk, in turn, focuses on the dearth of snappy dialog, immersive narrative, and non-linear storytelling.

All of these are legitimate criticisms. Many games suffer from dull characters and limp dialog, don't take full advantage of their interactivity in telling a story, and fail to explore interesting, sophisticated themes in anywhere near the depth that they deserve.

But just because many--even most--games have bad writing, does this mean that "video games writing" as a whole is bad? As some have pointed out, the majority of writing in any medium is bound to be underwhelming. Fiction is an obvious example. From the "penny dreadfuls" to dime novels and pulp magazines, fiction has long been dominated by bad writing. The state of fiction today is improved somewhat by virtue of the fact that consumers of fiction are a smaller, more self-selecting group than in past eras, but that still doesn't keep the borderline-illiterate Dan Browns and Stephanie Meyers of the industry from leaping effortlessly onto the rungs of the bestseller lists.

Films are also dominated by terrible writing. Games critics wonder when the games industry will produce its own Citizen Kane, apparently forgetting that for every actual Citizen Kane, there is Twilight, Transformers, Eagle Eye, Starship Troopers, Batman and Robin, Hope Floats, Inspector Gadget, The Phantom Menace, License to Wed, Super Mario Bros., Jingle All the Way, and...oh good God, do I even need to go on? I would like to refer the reader to Sturgeon's Law. It doesn't matter what the medium is: "90% of everything is crud." It seems unfair, on some level, to single out games writing for a special lashing.

There is no denying that video games writing has improved over time. Just look at where we started. Dialog in the Metal Gear series--to name one example--has gone from "I FEEL ASLEEP!!" to "War transforms us, Snake. Into beasts." We've gone from dialog that reads like an internet forum post to something almost literary. The sophisticated satire of No One Lives Forever or the brilliant characters of Planescape: Torment would have been utterly unthinkable 15 or 20 years ago. This quality of writing simply wasn't lavished on games back then. It may be happening unevenly, in fits and starts, but games writing has undoubtedly started to mature.

Why, then, are we just now finally starting to complain about the writing in games? Is it because we're only now awakenening to the untapped possibilities of the medium? It may simply be a matter of rising expectations. We've had a few stand-out games show us what can be done. It's depressing to have a week of fresh salmon, then return to eating gruel for dinner, no matter how accustomed to gruel we were before. Now that we have a basis for comparison, bad games writing simply doesn't satisfy. We've come to expect better.

Not for all games. Some games sport no writing but the text on their GUI buttons, and they're better for it. Bejeweled, for instance, does not need a plot or "snappy dialog." I don't want character arcs in Bejeweled (or characters at all, for that matter.) And God knows, I certainly don't play Match 3 games to receive a sophisticated social commentary.

But for narrative-driven games, the "sloppy afterthought" approach to writing no longer cuts the mustard. Puzzle Quest is an RPG. It is the book to Bejeweled's pamphlet. But it's a terrible book. The game features one-note characters that never develop, gratingly bad dialog, and a plot so thin that you can accidentally wipe it off your game disc with a sneeze. Puzzle Quest is a clear example of a game where good writing would have made a huge difference, and yet its writing only serves to remind of the much better writing we've had in other games.

As Edwards notes, games journalists only seem willing to take a game to task for bad writing when the game makes an effort. Metal Gear Solid 3, for example, featured interesting characters with complex relationships that developed over time. When it came time for reviews, MGS3 was lambasted for its overwrought, intricate plot and overreliance on cut scenes. The writing in Puzzle Quest, by contrast, was largely given a pass. In one review, Puzzle Quest was actually praised for having writing "better than you might expect." Than who might expect, and for what? I believe the reviewer here left off a few words, and that this clause was supposed to read: "better than you might expect a retarded gibbon to produce by swilling in its own fecal matter, then repeatedly smacking its body against a large sheaf of paper."

This dynamic is the opposite of what we need if we really want better writing in games. If we're serious about further improving games writing, we need to provide incentives for game designers to keep pushing into more sophisticated narrative territory. We need a more sophisticated mode of games criticism, one that focuses less on gameplay and more on writing, particularly meaning and technique. What is this game's author trying to say to us? What is he using to get his meaning across, and is it working? These questions are bread and butter for literary and film critics, and yet games critics are, almost without exception, still blind to these considerations.

Necessary Games, I think, is a step in the right direction. Granted, it's a little pretentious, and they pick entirely the wrong games to analyze, but the simple fact that they're taking video games seriously as a medium for expression is heartening. I'm also starting to notice some isolated instances of this kind of serious analysis elsewhere. Destructoid recently ran an analysis of Gears of War 2 as being fundamentally about the fragility of modern masculinity. Quintin Smith of Rock Paper Shotgun has produced consistently wonderful reviews of Ice Pick Lodge games (Pathologic, The Void) that focus on the games' respective meanings, and the ways each game attempts to impart them.

We need more of this sort of thing. Games writing isn't necessarily worse than writing elsewhere, and it has gotten better over time. But we can still do better. It's up to us to prepare the way for more sophisticated narratives. Until we start treating game writing seriously, it will not be serious. Not to us. Like pearls before swine, games' metaphors, themes, and hidden meanings will go unnoticed. Good meaty dialog will be ignored (or worse, become a target for whining by gamers who hate reading) while sloppy writing like Puzzle Quest's will receive undeserved praise for meeting low expectations. If we want fresh salmon, it's up to us to build the fish markets. Until then, we will eat the pabulum that we deserve.

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Adam Bishop
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I think there are two main problems that occur with game writing. One is that dialogue in games is often awful. The characters in video games usually say things that no real human being would ever say. Even worse, they don't even say those unbelievable things in interesting ways. I'm fine with unrealistic dialogue as long as it's witty or clever or observant or has character. Games are getting a bit better at this, and Bioware in particular has writers who seem to be quite good at it (the random banter between characters in your party in Dragon Age is fantastic, for example).

The other problem is that game writing is almost always completely devoid of meaning. This problem is one that, outside of the Metal Gear Solid games, no one even seems to be *trying* to fix. Are there lots of lousy novels? Yes. But there are also novels which are fundamentally *about* things, and which have interesting thoughts about their topics. For example, Kurt Vonnegut novels are funny, yes, but they're also full of interesting, sympathetic observations about the ways in which humans interact. The subject matter that some games tackle could be used as a great set-up to tackle interesting topics. What if Far Cry 2 wasn't just a shooter, but a commentary on the role of Western corporations in mineral exploitation in Africa? What if Fallout 3 wasn't just a post-apocalyptic RPG, but an investigation of how human societies are formed and function? Because if those two games were novels, those are exactly the kinds of things they would deal with. And that, ultimately, is what game writing is missing.

Thomas Lo
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The main problem is when companies develop games, usually nobody is hired to manage the dialogue, really develop a story, or be a "script-doctor." Rightly or wrongly, not every game is designed to have a strong narrative in mind (read, every Nintendo game, including zelda) and for those games that include a compelling narrative as a selling point (the only case I could think of where good writing would be an actual selling point), companies will tend to focus more on CGI and how pretty cutscenes are rather than the actual writing.

Rightly or wrongly, gamers and developers are seen to care more about the visual to sustain believability and move the story along as well as drive sales. There are notable exceptions (bioware games have very well-written narratives) but in general video games have become a largely visual-driven experience.

I think there is a missed opportunity here for good writing as the market expands to include more females. Women tend to enjoy RPG's more and stronger story-telling than guys who prefer twitch-gaming and problem-solving.

As it is, the gaming world seems largely consigned to Anime-level writing: that is catered to an audience that is relatively juvenile and prone to caricatures in characterization.

Louis Varilias
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"Second, unlike any other storytelling medium, interactive entertainment almost always subordinates narrative to interactivity -- and in most cases this is the right decision. The net effect, however, is that the inherent strengths of narrative are undermined, and story becomes more backdrop than centerpiece."

That is the problem. But narrative doesn't have to be subordinated to interactivity. The problem is people treat game writing as *just* a story for a game, just a "feature". I have seen few games really take advantage of the nature of games to provide an effective narrative. There's Half-Life 1/2 and SNES era RPGs, MGS or pre-Windwaker Zelda games. But that's as far as my list goes.

Now it's nice and all to discuss the issues with game narrative today, but how do you propose to change it? I would suggest a focus on first person storytelling, a technique that is often childish in books but amazingly complex and interesting in games. It's not a coincidence that Link and Gordon Freedman don't talk. Other characters in games I listed do talk more, but the player is essentially part of that character, living the story. Most games try to tell a typical third-person story, but the story ends up choppy and some mess between a cohesive character and whatever the players feels.

Luis Guimaraes
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I think Survivor Horror games have been some of the best games in case of writting (an setting as storytelling feature) I've ever seen. I don't play too many of them, but the ones I know about (specially older ones) did pretty well, regardless the lack of depth into social and human questions. It's odd because in the movies scene, Horror use to be above 90% of crap in the writting case (and the movie at all). No more games and movies comparisons.

I say that because I'm working on what is probably gonna be a Survivor Horror, it became one after I projected the core gameplay feature and it didn't seemed that was gonna work in a fast-paced game. Right now the story and the writting are my strongest focus before I can proceed.

[User Banned]
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Jordan Magnuson
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Late to the party again, but just wanted to say that I continue to appreciate your writing Craig, even if I disagree on points. I agree that game creators/authors need to put more thought into what they are trying to say, and how they are actually saying it. Sometimes that would definitely involve better writing, in the traditional story/dialogue/script sense, but I don't think it's limited to that. I think games speak in a myriad of complicated ways, and there are other considerations besides script.

You say: "We need a more sophisticated mode of games criticism, one that focuses less on gameplay and more on writing, particularly meaning and technique. What is this game's author trying to say to us? What is he using to get his meaning across, and is it working?" I agree with the second sentence here, but not the first, because I don't think games should create a dichotomy between gameplay and what the author is trying to say.

Finally, I just want to ask you what kind of games you think I SHOULD be analyzing at Simply pointing out the negative isn't the most helpful way of prodding ;)

Jordan Magnuson

Craig Stern
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Hi Jordan, sorry for responding so late--I just now noticed your comment. You probably won't like my answer to your question, but here it is: I think you should be analyzing games where the authors intend to use the game as a vehicle to convey meaning.

Authorial intent simply has to come in somewhere, I think. Otherwise, really, who cares whether game creators put more thought into what they say, and how they say it? Maybe their games will end up less coherent, but when you're already in the business of manufacturing meanings for games that were never intended to bear them, why should that matter? Perhaps you find it less satisfying to invent meaning for games than to discover meaning that the authors have neatly tucked away for you. In which case, maybe there's some common ground for agreement here.

William Scalf
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I realize this is an ooooooooooooooooold thread, but I thought I'd add my 2 cents since this is kind of a hot topic for me, especially when it comes to gameplay versus narrative.

As a gamer and as a (burgeoning!) developer, the idea that a game's writing and the gameplay are separate features that should be included, well, kind of disturbing. Interactivity is a unique feature that separates our medium from all the other media and not to leverage it is to work against that medium, like trying to figure out how to paint a boat with watercolors.

Instead, I feel like our first priority should be to create a platform for players to create new and interesting (and, ideally, very personal - and therefore memorable) experiences. Good writing is part of that, but a scripted scene that the player reads or watches through has nowhere near the power of an experience the player has first-hand, especially emergent, unscripted experiences, which are a natural consequence of quality gameplay in immersive worlds.

Craig Stern
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I don't disagree with you! I quote from the article: "Many games...don't take full advantage of their interactivity in telling a story..."

However, that said, gameplay can only carry so much water on its own as a vehicle for meaning. You need symbolism too.

Jack Beardshall
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I've only just discovered these pieces you've written and I think they're wonderfully written thoughtful pieces. I was going to comment that you didn't address the idea of the holistic experience conveying a story in a more subtle way than doling out lumps of exposition (interactive as it may be at times). Such as journey through the landscape of the game telling a story and conveying meaning without need for overly wordy dialogue. I would expand on that but I'm not sure I put my point across very well and that adding more would just muddy more something that probably doesn't read very clearly in the first place. Anyway thanks for the articles.