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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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