4X

eXposition: Why is Game Storytelling So Bad?

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People play games for any number of reasons: to be challenged, to fill their need for competition, to be immersed in a new, exciting world. I, for one, play games to experience the story. As a writer and (sometime) professional storyteller, I take a particular interest in how these stories are told. And lately I find myself more and more disappointed by what the games industry is doing with narrative.

For example: Bioshock is considered by many people to be one of the best written video games of all time. The plot is often held up as the prime example of a game’s ability to tell a story and tell it well.

Let’s take a look at it (I should warn you that this article is filled to the brim with spoilers. You might think that’s obvious in an article about storytelling, but you never know). OK, everyone OK with me ruining the plot of a nine year old game? Good. Here’s a sample:

“It is revealed to the player that he is actually Andrew Ryan’s illegitimate son. Ryan had sexual intercourse with a young female stripper resulting in her pregnancy. Later, a smuggler purchased the embryo. Then a scientist accelerated the player character’s growth, making him vulnerable to several mental techniques…”

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One of gaming’s greatest villains. No, seriously.

Yikes. That is some primo dumb/convoluted/ridiculous storytelling. And this is considered to be some of the BEST the genre has to offer. Let’s do another one. This is the first Uncharted:

“Nate investigates the chamber. A group of zombie-like creatures swarm him and his companions. Then Nate finds a letter written by Drake exposing the truth: El Dorado is protected by a curse that turned both the Spanish colonists and the German soldiers into monsters.”

Ummmm… OK? Nazi conquistador zombies feels pretty “game-y” don’t you think? In a game that, to that point, had been fairly (y’know, for a video game) realistic, the zombie reveal was particularly disappointing.  

One more? Here’s Diablo III:

“The protagonist returns to Bastion’s Keep, but finds that Adria has betrayed them. Adria reveals she has been serving Diablo from the beginning, and that Leah’s father was possessed by Diablo. Adria uses the Black Soulstone to resurrect Diablo while forcing Leah to serve as his vessel. With all the souls of the Lords of Hell now within him, Diablo becomes the Prime Evil, and begins an assault on the High Heavens.”

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Spoiler Alert! Diablo appears in Diablo.

Yes, the big twist in a game called Diablo was that the big bad guy was in fact… Diablo. Good heavens! Though you don’t get it from the summary, the game worked so hard to force the Leah character to be sympathetic that it backfired and had the reverse impact. I feel like many players were rooting for Leah to get killed by that point. I know I was.

I’m not trying to pick on these games. They are all considered classics for very good reasons. Each is rightly described as an example of the pinnacle of our beloved hobby. Which is all the more reason to be upset that the writing is so bad.

Even the best games, the ones I think we’d all like to hold up as evidence of the ability of the genre to be art, are riddled with rote re-tellings, heavy handed plotting, flat characters, and ridiculous contrivances. Why? Why does gaming, which has evolved in almost every aspect since its inception – graphics, sound effects, music, controls – still feel stuck in the storytelling stone ages?

Writing vs Storytelling

Hang on. I’ve been using the word ‘writing’ so far, but I want to clarify. I’m not complaining about writing in the sense of poor grammar, spelling, sentence construction, etc. Of course, games have bad writing in that sense, too. This is the genre that gave us such all time classics as “All your base are belong to us” and “You spoony bard,” after all.

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Bad writing – not limited to video games.

A lot of that, however, can be explained by the fact that many games are made in places where English is not the developers’ first language. I reviewed Overfall last year, a game that had pretty good writing (grading on a curve here), but also had a bunch of malaprops and typos. The game was made in Istanbul. That doesn’t make the narrative any easier to read, but it does excuse the imperfect grammar, in my mind.

I’m not railing against those kinds of typos and translation errors. Honestly, in this twitter-pated Internet age, freaking out about things like correct verb usage seems particularly pedantic. Of course, it would be great if these problems could be fixed, but it’s not really my overarching concern.

No, what bothers me most isn’t really writing, but storytelling – a game’s ability to present a full featured narrative that engages the player and has something to communicate. Something that, at the very least, is capable of getting me from beginning A to ending B without having to resort to pregnant stripper zombie demigods.

Is it all terrible? Of course not. There have been games that tell stories fairly well – sadly some of the best told stories in gaming are the ones that use the fewest words. But overall? Picture yourself at the office, telling Nancy from HR about your latest gaming adventure – the way you’d talk about Stranger Things or the last Star Wars flick. Do you feel confident or embarrassed? It’s almost certainly the latter.

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80’s sense… Tingling.

And there’s no reason why that should be the case.

What makes a good story?

If I’m going to sit here and say there’s something wrong with these stories, I suppose I ought to plant my flag and say what I think makes for a well-written tale. First of all, to be clear, I’m in no way suggesting that I’m better than the writers currently in gaming because I very much am not.

As I’ll get into more below, writing for games is hard. It may be, currently, the hardest medium to write for and I think that does explain a lot of the problems. I’m coming at this as a reader, someone who enjoys great storytelling and wants to see it improved in games.

So what do I think makes a great story?

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One of my all time favorite books.

First, and maybe most importantly, there’s a narrative that goes from a well-defined beginning, to a middle and an ending. A progression of events that lead logically from one to the other. Duh. At some point, preferably near the end, the main character must make a decision – one that will change them from that point on. Things don’t just happen around the player regardless of what they do. Characters don’t just transform into evil demons – the main character (or in a game sense, the player) must make a decision that causes it to happen.

I also think the story needs to be dynamic, with a logical through-line of events. As Matt Stone and Trey Parker of South Park fame point out, each scene needs to be connected by an action – a “therefore” or a “but.” A story that rests on “and then” is one that feels as if it’s happening without the engine of character agency. It’s just a bunch of stuff that happened. However, the progression of the story needs to make sense. If, say, a bunch of zombies show up randomly in the middle of your story, that’s not an exciting twist. It’s jarring and it takes us out of the tale.

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Another personal favorite.

Finally, I believe a story must have believable, interesting, and well-crafted characters. This can be particularly tricky with gaming since the main character is often the player – a cipher representing the person at the keyboard/controller. But the characters we encounter have to feel real and interesting. They can’t just be story macguffins (like Leah in Diablo III) or empty vessels for the philosophical beliefs of the creator (as happens so often in the Bioshock games).

Not to go completely off tangent, but this was my main problem with (blasphemy in 3… 2…1…) Rogue One. The movie had great effects, a fun story, and cardboard characters that I never cared about. Even the ones that had some attempt at backstory never progressed or changed. They were all just sort of there. I don’t care about cutouts and all the pew pew in the world doesn’t matter if I’m not engaged with the people doing the shooting.

I’m sure there are other aspects, as well, that could be discussed. I’m sticking with these as a basic framework. I think it gives a pretty good idea of what I’m getting at and what’s currently missing from most games.

So why is game writing bad?

Rather than beat up on games, I’d like to try to find an explanation. If we understand the problem, perhaps we can also see a way to fix it.

Gaming doesn’t allow for easy narrative. In every other medium, the audience is a passive observer. That makes stories relatively easy to tell since you don’t have to compensate for the viewer/listener/reader changing things. That kind of control not a luxury most games can afford. When the player is locked into a narrative, that is often when they feel most disengaged from the story, rather than as a part of it – the exact opposite of all other kinds of entertainment media. Unfortunately, this means the developer must create a ton of content just to compensate for what a player may do. Many games struggle to hold the infrastructure of a story together when there are so many moving parts.

The Mass Effect/Dragon Age games are a great example of this principle in action. It’s impossible for Bioware to provide for every single possible option, and in the end they do a better job of presenting the feeling of choice rather than actual decision making. It’s no surprise, then, that the ending of just about every one of those games has been panned. There’s just no way to tie the story up in a way that is satisfying for every person.

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Hi, I’m Commander Shephard and this is my favorite meme.

The alternative is games that seem ill-fitted for any kind of narrative at all. Imagine if Firaxis did an interview tomorrow announcing a story mode for Civ VI. That’s like putting a tuxedo on a gorilla – bad for everyone involved. These games feature a kind of “emergent storytelling.” There is no narrative and so we players sort of drape a story over the events. The story is what we bring to it and so it often feels more engaging because it’s ours – we made it by playing the game. But not every game can have that, and many times these experiences just feel like a bunch of random events rather than a story.

I think there’s an argument that Sorcerer King is an example of trying to give 4X a storyline. The complaint there, of course, is that the game is too limited. Well, yeah, that’s what happens when you force the player to follow a set plotline.

So maybe games just aren’t meant to have good stories? I don’t think that’s true, which leads to my next idea.

The genre simply hasn’t matured enough yet. I don’t mean this in the sense of growing out of childhood (although, honestly, gaming could use a little of that too). More that, as a genre, we’ve only had a relatively short time to learn how games work. It’s a complicated journey, this whole interactive adventure thing, and we’re still stepping into potholes and swerving around blind curves.

Humans are good at writing novels because we’ve had centuries of practice. Movies took around eighty years before they evolved past being pre-recorded stage productions. We’ve had television for over sixty years and we’re only just now figuring out the optimal ways of telling an episodic story.

Take a look at early movies. Even the critically acclaimed works like Maltese Falcon or Casablanca (and other non-Humphrey Bogart stuff, as well) feel more like plays than truly cinematic works. We were still figuring out the new medium, understanding how to avoid the weaknesses of camera-work, and utilize the strengths.

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Would’ve been cooler if it starred Master Chief.

And no medium has the additional challenge of having to compensate for viewer choice. Imagine Game of Thrones having to tell such a complicated, engaging narrative with every viewer choosing each character’s decision. It would be impossible. But that’s what we’re asking of games.

The truth is, we just may need more time to figure it out. But then, we’re kind of making it harder than it needs to be because…

There are no writers. OK, that’s an exaggeration. There are some writers in gaming. Most culled from the ranks of programmers, developers, artists. Very talented people who, unfortunately, aren’t writers.

In the early days of gaming, much like the early days of film, actually, teams were so small that everyone did everything. The dude who designed the little creeping alien that slid across your screen also decided what sound it would make and what music would play as you pew-pew-pewed. Those days are long gone. Even indie games will get someone specifically to do the art. Will outsource the soundtrack. But the story? Eh, anyone can write. Right?

The gaming industry is solid proof that not everyone can write. And in the end, that’s the problem. The aforementioned challenges exist, certainly, but we don’t even have the right people taking them on. It’s one thing to ascend a mountain, it’s quite another to try to do so without equipment, tools, or experience in climbing.

Novels have authors, editors, and experts in the written word. Every movie you see started with a script that was written by someone who does that for a living. TV shows have whole teams of men and women working on the plot, the dialogue, and the characters. They spend months, even years, developing a story for their chosen medium. Games, for the most part, have one person, if anyone at all, and most of them are coders first, writers second.

Is that the case 100% of the time? Of course not. Some games do have writers. But it’s not the norm, and even the most writer-heavy games have only one or two names associated with the story.

Further, most of those writers are considered fungible. When Amy Hennig left Uncharted, there was no huge freak out about where the game would go. I didn’t read one review of the latest installment where someone decried the loss of the game’s writer. Imagine if JK Rowling handed off the final Harry Potter book to some other person. Millions of millennials would have taken to the streets brandishing gifs of pitchforks and torches.

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Writer. Rock star

Obviously, hiring a writer (ideally lots of writers) is an additional expense and many games are barely on budget to begin with. I would argue that the cost of poor story in games is a far more insidious one, that does show up on the bottom line, even if we don’t see it in the numbers. Story matters and in order for it to be done well we need professional storytellers – aka, writers. We have hundreds of years of evidence that quality counts and games are no different.

A storybook ending

So how do we fix the writing in games?

  • Accept the challenges unique to the genre and embrace them as opportunities to do unique, engaging work
  • Give the medium time to grow, expect some missteps, but have high standards
  • Bring in people who can actually write, professional storytellers, who are excited to express their ideas in a new way

It won’t be a fast fix, but I have no doubt it will be a rewarding one.

What do you think is wrong with game writing and how would you fix it? Let me know in the comments below.

Nate’s Additional Take

While I agree with much of what Joshua has written, I don’t think the field is nearly so bleak and barren. I’ve found that there are many good games that buck this trend, but one stands out to me in particular: Red Dead Redemption. This title has everything that Joshua is looking for. It has narrative. It has action. It has a solid story with very believable characters. It has a lot of grey areas. Actually, it is mostly steeped in grey to the point that you aren’t sure who is good and who is bad. You have a choice in your decisions that will lead to a logical change in people’s attitude towards you. Is it a perfect game? No, but it is damn near there, and an excellent example of how storytelling can be (and is) done well in games. It’s a shame it doesn’t happen more often.

22 replies »

    • Classic examples where the players bring the stories to the game. In these games events play out and the player connects these events into a narrative, creating their own story.

      I’m surprised that Witcher 3 was not brought up. My understanding is that it was a game that gave the players good choices while maintaining a linear plot progression.

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  1. I’d second Norsemanviking here. You touched upon an idea in your article – that players can drape a story around games like Civ VI – but I think it was too quickly dismissed.

    Rimworld and Dwarf Fortress are great examples because they provide tools in-game that make it easier to tell a story afterwards. Record-keeping (in Rimworld with the right mods) and randomly-generated characters/environs/flavour text can provide the anchors to weave a consistent story, no matter how crazy things might get during gameplay.

    Rimworld and Dwarf Fortress aren’t the only ones that do this. Crusader Kings II keeps a log of all world events (and distils it into an easily-readable version accessible in-game at any time) and even provides functionality such as being able to get a simplified screenshot of the world map at any point (so, if one remembers to take regular screenshots, one can see the various kingdoms and empires vying for control over centuries).

    Story writing has emerged to be quite a popular pass-time around these sorts of games. You only need to hop onto Reddit, or browse Paradox’s After Action Report (AAR) sub-fora, to see just how much pleasure the community takes from these stories.

    I think this is the right direction to go in terms of story-telling with video games. Give players the tools they need to distil the essence of a story from a seemingly-chaotic world (logs, map records etc.) and provide a little literary sugar (random characters, flavour text) and fantastic stories result.

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    • I agree that emergent story in games is important and definitely something I enjoy. However, I didn’t spend a ton of time on it because it’s not really what I’m trying to say. I don’t think the solution to storytelling in gaming is to stop doing it – that works for games like Dwarf Fortress and the Paradox stuff, less so for something like the latest Mass Effect or Uncharted.

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    • Two examples where the player brings the story to the game. Events happen and you as the player connect these events, creating the story.

      I’m surprised Witcher 3 wasn’t mentioned, as I have heard that it did a good job of allowing the player to make choices while sticking to a linear plot.

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  2. Personally I agree with much of what is said here. In 30 odd years of gaming the games that sucessfully drew me into their story are few and far between.

    The only one that I can think of that left me with the same satisfaction as finishing a good book was Planescape: Torment which was released a number of years ago.

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  3. IMHO Amplitude has some pretty good 4X story writing, with main quests for the player’s faction and smaller quests sometimes coupled to minor factions. It’s up to the player how and to what degree they follow the quest line (of course it has certain benefits/unlocks). Amplitude has done this for Endless Legend successfully and is now doing the same with Endless Space 2. I would like your opinion on how original their stories are (the races themselves are pretty wild already, like the Horatio and the Riftborn). For me it’s great and immersive, to prevent the feeling it’s just about getting good numbers. These games are missing the inherent historical immersion civ brings. Civ ran into this problem themselves with Beyond Earth. Without that element it’s hard to create a living universe. Either that or embracing the 4X formula: hit your opponents with big sticks!

    BTW, with civ 6 I noticed Firaxis is much more trying to reach out to the player community by means of memes. The Gandhi meme, Spartans, the whole Alexander meme. They are purposely putting stuff in the game that is not exactly historical accuracy but more catering to the player’s experience. Not that I’m complaining or anything, I just noticed this.

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    • I’m on record as saying that I believe Endless Legend is the best 4X game ever made. That said, Amplitude is very hit and miss for me with storytelling. On the one hand, their races/backstories are great. Super unique and very creative. Some of the writing can be a bit longwinded for me, the little stories around the main quests can be a bit… Let’s say self-indulgent. But I admit that may be reflective of my personal taste.

      Some of the storytelling around the side quests though is pretty egregious. There’s that one quest in EL where you have to kill one or the other member of a minor race and you’re given no reason to choose between the two. It’s really bad. Once you do kill one (usually I pick whoever is standing closer to my army at the time) you get a pretty cool story quest from the other, but at that point I’m already soured on the whole thing.

      It’s a missed opportunity and a clear misstep

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  4. The lack of storytelling in most of the strategy games I played in the last years is the reason why i alternated strategy games with point and click games. The latter one rarely offer much of a choice on what’s going on, but rarely fail in deliver a pleasant story to follow, almost as an interactive comics or a book.
    I also agree with Joshua about Endless Legend. I tried to love it, but it failed so much in delivering any coherent story feeling (not saying every 4x game needs a fully immersive campaign), but EL really failed in involving me completely for some reason.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I think a lot of these games have professional writers. I think the writers are just brought in late in the process after gameplay basics are hashed out, and they’re expected to produce writing to order that fits existing gameplay without fitting so closely that the gameplay can’t change if development needs so require, and makes primary use of existing assets.

    The result is that sometimes you get little moments of brilliance, particularly in RPGs where side characters can have subplots, but the story as a whole tends to be shallow, undirected, and unconnected to the tone and theme of the gameplay.

    Easy example- Fallout 4. The story has no connection to the core gameplay. The core gameplay is about a historical person waking up from cryogenic sleep and becoming a sort of legendary warlord and nation builder in the post apocalyptic wasteland, growing and discovering new skills, and forging a disparate people into a pseudo nation that reflects the one he or she grew up in, before the bombs fell.

    That’s how you spend your time.

    The storyline has little to do with any of that. No matter how well written the dialogue, it’s never going to gel because it’s not related to what you’re actually doing with your time.

    This could be patched over, to a degree, but ought ideally just be replaced by a story about doing… the things… you’re doing.

    And meanwhile in an effort to bring you romance options of every conceivable genitals and species, none of the romantic relationships have any depth, and none of them connect meaningfully to EITHER the story or the gameplay. Imagine if the only relationship possible was with one person, but you had the chance to really interact with them over the long term as you worked together on a shared goal to which both of your contributions were important. Imagine meaningful choices, like disagreements between your loved one and some other faction as to how the nation building should proceed, with long term consequences based on the personalities of everyone involved. And by long term I don’t just mean a small permanent bonus. Relationship consequences and consequences for your country you’re building that affect future choices.

    I’m sure that could have been written, but I bet it wasn’t because it commits the game to a very narrow path in exchange for greater depth, and it means the story cannot function if partway through development a chabge has to be made to a core mechanic in which the story relies.

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    • I agree completely. That’s something I was trying to get at in the article. Writing for games, where player choice is so integral, is HARD. I do think, however, that it’s not just a matter of bringing in professional writers but also professional writers who know how to write games. I think they bring in people who are novelists or screenwriters and those are very different challenges. Of course, because the industry doesn’t develop writers, it’s hard to find writers who can create compelling narratives in games, so they industry is forced to turn to people who don’t know how to write games and…

      The snake eat its tail, as it were.

      That said, the relationship game you describe in your seventh paragraph? I would play that game.

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      • I’ve both run long term, I think reasonably high quality, tabletop rpgs, and I’ve done some IF writing. The difference between the former and the latter is indeed extreme. Both involve player choice, but the techniques available to respond to it are so different it’s astounding. In the former you find yourself learning to involve players so that they feel full freedom, while also learning to anticipate their choices in advance, or improvise if they go in an unanticipated direction. In the latter you learn to design your game such that the player will be likely to only want certain predictable choices you can implement in advance, while doing your best to make it look like you aren’t doing that and the story is proceeding organically.

        What I’m trying to outline though is that it isn’t just player choice. Look at a given game, let’s say, 20% of the way through the development cycle, including intended but unimplemented features. And look at the release version. There’s usually at least one thing that’s been added from whole cloth, and one that’s been cut or changes beyond recognition. If you write a story at the 20% mark that makes use of everything you expect at that stage, you might be screwed later.

        So I think that a lot of story writing weirdness is built from a desire to AVOID letting story integrate too deeply with gameplay, because that might cause problems later. I doubt many people consciously think that, but when your development cycle is built so that you write all the side plots on your open world game at the last second and require that they only use certain flags, that’s what you’re doing and you probably adopted that practice because the alternative, letting writers commit the programmers in advance to whatever the writer needs for the story to work, is hard to do.

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      • Exactly. Lots of professional writers have wrote for games, but never did so in an interactive media before. They are out of their element.

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  6. Nice article!

    In terms of storytelling, I think there are a few aspects to it.

    One relates to the world building narrative. It’s the environment in which the player interacts and in which their individual plot lines are experienced.

    Some games do really well with world building – and if it is a gameplay driven game (like strategy games and open world RPGs) often that’s all you need. The player creates their own narrative and story lines within those worlds. Alpha Centauri is a great example IMHO. Between the interludes where the planet talks to you, the special project videos, text descriptions and what not it does a great job.

    I agree that most games do poorly when it comes to making actually interesting plot lines. Most of it is B-grade action movie plot lines and not much more.

    I’ve played a fair amount of point and click adventure games over the years – including those from Wadjet eye as mentioned earlier. They are pretty solid. Gemini Rue was pretty awesome. The first Deus Ex game was great.

    More recently, digitial choose your own adventure style games can be pretty interesting in terms of plot. But ultimately many of these are more of a story delivered via puzzle instead of a proper game with an interesting story.

    One of the better ones is Inkle’s 80 Days. Pretty amazing. There is enough RNG built into the narrative that the experience can play out quite uniquely each time. It gives good context with enough player drive.ln diff to build a compelling story. But even there, the overall “plot” isn’t all that amazing.

    Frankly, the games that are pushing the narrative story angle just aren’t conducive to the typical action, shooter, RPG, tactical, strategy gentes. The most interesting games from a literary standpoint are things like Dear Ester, Gone Home, etc that develop the narrative first and then work the gameplay around it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I would agree that we’re doing way better in terms of worldbuilding vs narrative development. With games like RPGs and FPSs I think there are ways to tell a good story – we’ve seen it done before – and the more time, effort, and importance we assign to narrative in those games, the more it will happen.

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  7. Bloody hell.

    You give some damn fine examples on how it’s done poorly Joshua but there are some good examples to excellent character writing in video games.
    “The Last Of Us” is the best character driven story made for a video game platform.

    It bridged a gap created by choice in videogames that has been flag shipped by Bioware.
    By facilitating choice it can often detrail a story because it potentially loses focus.

    Naughty Dog made a very deliberate choice in The Last Of Us in that you play as the main character and you are NOT the main character.

    I won’t spoil anything about the story because it’s worth walking in fresh but I wish you would have played it because I would have been curious to know how it would have affected your perspective and article.

    Anyone who disagrees has either not played TLOU or hates “stupid
    Talking in me gamez yo”

    Like

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