|TLDR.jpg (Also note: This gigantic lore-lump is just for choosing your character's sex.)|
"Too long. Lose half."
"The half that you don't need."
- Their Finest
My whole career has been based on writing very story-heavy games, with lots of words. Our company, Spiderweb Software, is small. We can't afford fancy graphics, so we have to rely on words. Interesting, quality words.
We're currently remastering the series with our most loved story and our bestest words. We also finished a new series, which had a lot of words which I suspect weren't as good because it didn't sell as well. Now we're planning a whole new series, and we need to figure out how many and what sort of words to cram into that.
We have a lot of decisions to make, so I've been thinking a lot about words in games. I have made a number of observations.
A decently sized novel contains about 100,000 words. The Bible contains about a million words.
My wordiest and most popular game, Avernum 3, which I am now remastering, had about 200,000 words. At its release, people talked about how very, very, many words it had. Yet, by current standards, it is very terse.
In comparison, one of the best-written RPGs in recent times, The Witcher 3, had about 450,000 words. For The Witcher 3, "best-written" means "One really good storyline and many, many other storylines that were basically OK." (To be fair, I think the Heart of Stone DLC was really well-written.)
The word bloat continues. While Divinity: Original Sin had a mere 350,000 words, Tyranny spent 600,000 words telling the story of how you became the word's most evil middle manager, on a bold quest to try to tell apart the game's 73 factions.
And this is positively tongue-tied next to Torment: Tides of Numenara's 1,200,000 words. I admit I am curious about what story is so gigantic and epic that it requires 3 times more words than The Lord of the Rings. I will never find out, as there is nothing that will tempt me to play a game with 1.2 Bibles worth of text.
|This is me playing your RPG lol.|
Vogel's Laws of Video Game Storytelling
1. Players will forgive your game for having a good story, as long as you allow them to ignore it.
2. When people say a video game has a "good story," what they mean is that it has a story.
3. The story of almost all video games is, "See that guy over there? That guy is bad. Kill that guy." This almost never leads to a good story.
|For reference, this is how to get me to read the text in your RPG.|
Observations About Words In Video Games
1. For a while, there was a big demand for games like Baldur's Gate and Planescape: Torment. That is, old-school icon-based RPGs with big stories, told in lots and lots of words. Early hits, like Divinity: Original Sin and Pillars of Eternity made a lot of money off this demand. Sales of later games in this style, like Tyranny and Torment: Tides of Numenara suggest that this pent up demand has largely been satisfied.
2. It's really easy to make words. Really, really, really easy. Any writer with half a grain of skill can spew out 500,000 like it is nothing. And if that writer's fingers get tired, an intern with aspirations of authorhood will chip in 100,000 more. And when that intern passes out, you can let your Kickstarter backers add words to your game and they’ll pay you for the privilege.
3. No, really, think about that last point. People will pay you to be able to write for your game! Adding words to your game has negative cost! Think about this the next time someone tries to use a giant word count to sell you a game.
4. The secret of great writing is not adding words. It's cutting them. You can almost always improve your writing by slashing chunks out of it and refining the rest. However, as game development is done with limited budgets and limited time, this editing process almost never takes place.
5. When a writer gets famous, they stop being edited. This is why the fifth Harry Potter book is 900 pages in which only like two things happen. This is also why, when a game in 2017 is written by a Big Name and has a script with one bajillion words, most of those words are going to be pretty boring.
6. There are well-written games. Fallout: New Vegas and Witcher 3 are solid. I remember Baldur's Gate II and Planescape: Torment were all right, but I played those 20 years ago, and there may be a lot of nostalgia in play there. (For me and almost everyone else.) Planescape was cool, but I definitely remember blasting past a lot of text just to get through it.
7. Sturgeon's Law is in play here: "90% of everything is crap." For every Planescape: Torment, where they had a cool setting and story idea and really put the time in to write good text and have it interface with the gameplay well, there have been nine other games where they just threw up a bunch of Tolkein-light Kill-that-Bad-Guy stuff and hoped it stuck. It didn't.
8. Having lots of lore in your game is OK. Some players really love lore. But then, a lot of players really don't. I think it's best if you try to keep your lore separated a bit from the significant game text, like Skyrim putting the stuff in books you could easily ignore. World of Warcraft quest windows did this perfectly. All of the lore was in one lump ("You mean dwarves like to dig mines? WOAH!"), and the actual text of the quest ("Kill 10 goblin toddlers.") was broken out of it so you could digest it quickly.
9. Humor is very hard to write well. It is also one of the most enjoyable things to read. If you can make your game genuinely funny, people will love it forever. (The actual gameplay of Psychonauts was only B-, but people LOVE that game because of how funny it is.)
10. The ultimate goal of writing in a game: Have it be good enough that getting past the gameplay to reach the writing is your goal. Your writing should be the REWARD. If your writing is something the player has to slog through to get to the game play, there is too much writing.
|You have my UNDIVIDED ATTENTION.|
Physician, Heal Thyself
Every game I've ever written has had a lot of words. Some of those games, my fans really loved the words. Some of them, not so much.
My goal for my next series is to use fewer words, but to make them as light and interesting and funny as I can. I want words to be the reward, the thing that pulls people through the story. I am dreading this, because, again, writing something good and short is way more work than writing something dull and long.
In the meantime, I am remastering my old Avernum 3, with its pokey little 200,000 words. This means giving those words an editing pass. A lot of my time is spent chopping out extraneous words and revamping what is left to make it smoother, easier to read, and, whenever possible, funnier. If the new version has more words than the old version, I've done something wrong.
For a long time, I sold games with a lot of words. Now there is a lot more competition in that space, and words are super-cheap. I need to try to sell good words. Even if I never make a nice, dank meme, in this crowded market, you need to get every little advantage you can.