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What I value about 'writing' and 'story' in games
by Lee Perry on 11/11/13 11:14:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

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

 
I always feel a disconnect when I hear discussions about 'game writing' and 'story' (and often random people use the terms interchangeably).

 

For the most part, there are very few games I have continued playing to 'find out what happens'.  With most games, once I am no longer feeling invested in a game's mechanics (or I've just 'got it' and it's feeling repetitive) I stop playing and move on to another game.  For an actual plot to grab me and give me the motivation to finish a game... it's rare stuff.  It's also my metric for a 'good story' in a game.

 

Last of us, Heavy Rain, Catherine, Breakdown, Shadow of the Colossus, Kings Quest 3... these are rare examples of games "worth playing to see what happens", and they used massively different techniques and styles to achieve that result.

 

Looking at reviews though, those games get praised for the stereotypically broad definition of 'writing'.  Is it petty to take solace in how many major reviews of films simplify to that degree?  Regardless, it's refreshing to be at GDC and see discussions about specific aspects of narrative, setting, background, etc.

 

________________________

 

Personally though, I have three strong opinions on the topic of "story" as it pertains to games.

 

1) Despite the excellent examples of plot driven games I listed above, what I truly value in game writing is simply dialogue.  At the end of the day I really just need the actual words coming out of a character's mouth to be even vaguely relatable.  I barely even care if it's 'interesting' as long as it sounds like something you might actually hear from a random person in the real world.  If you've got relatable dialogue you've got a lot of credit towards the general perception of a game with "great writing" IMO.  You don't get paid per syllable, and it's not an intelligence contest; just talk like people talk and don't over think it.  To a good degree the desire for relatable characters plays into my second strong story opinion...

 

2) I really don't give a shit about 'saving the world' in a game.  I'm sure you can read into that cynicism about solving modern political issues, but really, who relates to that as a goal?  Stop it.  We as humans have so many common experiences already, it's a waste not to use those shared experiences and craft a story around relationships and events we actually deal with in our lives.  Do I care about stopping the international terror organization from breaking the super virus vial, or do I care about saving a loved one?  My list earlier of 'games I play to see what happens' involves very little 'saving the world'.  With rare exception you already know what happens when a world needs saving, *gasp* the world gets saved!  (Yeah yeah, hush, astute reader!  No spoilers in comments!)

 

3) Don't Techno-MacGuffin me.  Regardless of the overall plot arc, I *completely* zone out the moment someone starts squawking at me to "isolate the permashield reactor before the rezosphere updates!".  Again, just keep it simple and don't overthink it.  Use concepts that can translate to actual words.  Anyway, nine times out of ten I only need to shut down the 'Pleseopod Device' because it'll let me save the world. (We already know I'm apparently fine with a total global reset ;-)

 

________________________

 

I hate to paint with such a broad brush, but these three issues are part of why I have such a hard time completing many FPS campaigns, and many (*not ALL*) JRPGs?  Hell, I had what I can only describe as 'violent bodily rejection' to watching the FF7 Advent Children movie.

 

I also know I am beating the "relatable" drum pretty hard.

 

The moment where you sneak off to the bathroom to check your cell phone in Catherine, the moment the wizard Manannan leaves you alone in the house to work your mischief around your chores in Kings Quest 3, the time you're fearing for your safety as a woman in her apartment with intruders in Heavy Rain... those moments are lifelong gaming hall of fame magical moments.  I think back on them years later and grin out loud.

 

________________________

 

I dabble with writing based on necessity for making games with only a couple people (and zero outsourcing).  After Epic I wrote most of our adventure game Lili.  There's a crime of a "techno MacGuffin" at one point, but it was due to an unforeseen production change.  There's also a big bad guy to defeat, but that's more of a hook for gameplay reasons.  It also needed more editing, but overall I was very proud of the results (and Lili's writing had some acclaim from people whose professional opinion I really value).

 

Aside from trying to be funny and writing with the same casual nature as one would use on FaceBook with friends, we tried really hard to give Lili a story we could all relate to.  We went with Lili having conflicts about her career after school.  There's pressure from Lili's father to follow in his path, she's interested in doing something for herself, and it's chock full of paraphrased conversations I've had with real people like my wife.

 

Bottom line, I don't consider myself a "writer" any more than any other developer who takes it on themselves to write their own games... but I found that the three things I felt strongly about when playing games was also a great guide for the first time I had to write something.

 

 

Thanks for reading!

 
 

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Comments


Dillon Rogers
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Interesting.

Mr. Perry, do you have any games where you thought the writing was notable that didn't rely on any form of dialogue? Not a game that has like... bad dialogue, but one that told its story relying on different methods (text, environmental, audio, ect.).

Just curious if you had any exceptions to that rule, because it seems that would limit the concept of writing in games by a large degree.

Katy Smith
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I'm totally butting in here, but I really enjoyed the storytelling in Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor. There's no dialog, but there's a lot of storytelling just in the environment. There was one point early on in the game where I was like "wait, what am I seeing here?" and that was really refreshing.

Morten Iversen
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Limbo by Playdead

Lee Perry
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I'd point to ICO and SoTC as great examples, but my other example of Breakdown was great in that regard to. They told the story with loads of environmental action moments and situations.

Joshua Darlington
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In story games, story is a mechanic that's used and balanced with other mechanics. Saying that a certain game is plot driven can be over reductive and miss the complicated interaction of mechanics that makes it more or less playable.

Cave paintings are story. The juxtaposition of symbolic elements creates a mechanical dramatic syntax. It's a form of writing.

If you are not using a dedicated writing professional to design your dramatic mechanics, you may be missing an opportunity for success. A game writer, a narrative designer, a quest designer, a transmedia narrative designer, a game writer, a comic book writer, a novelist, a poet, a dramatist, a radio dramatist, a TV writer, a screenwriter, and an pen and paper RPG designer will all have their own strengths. If game dialogue is written in a prose register, it could have been written by a novelist. One way to avoid clunky dialogue or test the dramatic heat of character confrontations is to do table reads.

Why save the universe? One important part of the ethics of armed combat is proportionality. If you are going to have the player kill 1000 bad guys, they need to be stopping an immediate threat that outweighs the players ultraviolence. Are intimate stories better? Yes, intimate relationships trigger deep emotions and strong dramatic heat. However, there is a balance in all dramatic design. You can't have a hero ethically kill 1000 bad guys over a single intimate relationship. You can have a protagonist go insane and kill 1000 people, but insane people are less sympathetic.

Lee Perry
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Fair point about a scale of violence, for an intimate story. Something like Shadow of the Colossus does a great job with that in kind of making that very emotion palpable. I'm always wondering while playing it "am I the bad guy here?"... that kind of moral ambiguity was one of the aspects that made it a classic IMO. It wasn't black and white "kill the bad guys".

Andrew Simons
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I feel like "Heavy Rain" sets a fairly low bar for quality of game story. It really isn't that good. There are good moments, yes, but they often don't do much for the story as a whole. The apartment intruder scene had absolutely no relation to the story and went on for far too long. Not to mention there were several plot threads that went nowhere, in addition to full-blown plot holes. And don't even get me started on how exploitative Madison Paige's scenes are - David Cage routinely treats female characters in this way (his games nearly always feature shower scenes, and women are always far more exposed in them than male characters are, just as one example).

Not to mention the game mechanics are incredibly uninspired. Quick time events only have a few very niche applications that they actually work in (and even then usually only the "mash x" ones do any good), yet the Quantic Dream thinks they can use them almost entirely in place of gameplay. It just isn't very engaging. This might seem nitpicky, but it's actually really important that a game's story and mechanics work with each other. How does "press arbitrary button to see rest of cutscene" help the player experience the story better than actually giving them proper control of the character? If they wants to make a story without real gameplay, they should just commit to making an actual movie. And just for clarification: adding lots and lots of gameplay onto the story wouldn't necessarily be better. The Walking Dead adventure game was fantastic even though it just used simple adventure game mechanics, but those mechanics actually helped to characterize Lee.

Deborah Teramis Christian
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I'm so with you on the overuse and dulling effect of "saving the world" as a plot crutch. It seems to be the logical extension of the dramatic "babies will die if X happens!" urgency-builder, but man is it overdone, and for most settings a personally unrelatable goal.

Thanks for your thoughts in this great post. I came across it through social media, so you have obviously hit a chord for many writers.


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