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…”
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.”
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.