As a writer who has spent a number of years toiling in the digital salt-mines of the video game industry, I often find myself defending my chosen profession. I've been told that game writing isn't a priority, that players don't care about anything as inconsequential as "story" and that a solid script and sharp dialogue aren't nearly as important as graphics and gameplay. Of course, given the state of most video game writing these days, I can't say I particularly blame any detractors.
The fact is that the video game writer is a relatively new species in the industry - and while there are undoubtedly a number games with incredibly strong narratives (BioShock and Portal chief among them), for the most part, game writing often remains mediocre at best and downright shameful at worst…So why is this the case? Look no further than…
THE 5 REASONS VIDEO GAME WRITING SUCKS (AND HOW TO FIX IT)
1.) THE WRITERS: One of the biggest reasons that video game writing tends to fail is clearly due to the writers themselves. That’s not to say that ALL game writers are bad. On the contrary, there are dozens of talented writers working in the industry, with wordsmiths like Drew Karpyshyn, Rhianna Pratchett and Erik Wolpaw crafting meaningful interactive narratives. Yet for every skilled video game writer in the field, it seems there are ten more churning out pure, unfiltered crap. As a result, 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.
How To Fix It: Developers and publishers simply need to hire more talented video game writers - which isn’t that far fetched considering that even during a recession the industry is raking in record profits. Of course, these days the number of employed full-time video game writers is surprisingly low. Fortunately, as writing becomes more of a priority for developers and publishers, the number of experienced game writers is likely to increase (we’ve already seen an exponential growth in the past few years). In the end of course, a good writer isn't going to make or break a game, but given the state of most interactive narratives, it couldn't hurt either.
2.) LACK OF PRIORITY: Let's face it: character, story and dialogue are all fairly low priorities for most game developers. That's not to say that producers don't think that game writing is important, but rather that they don't seem willing to invest in it. It's a sentiment which I'd argue, is contrary to the way most gamers feel about video game writing. Just look at the majority of game reviews out there, almost all of which rank story as being as vital as any other game element. As long as developers are publishers continue to treat video game writing as an afterthought, game narratives are going to continue to include unnecessary amounts of sloppy writing.
How To Fix It: If gamers and reviewers let developers and publishers know that writing is an important element of an overall gameplay experience, then that's exactly what developers will include. Sure, a game like GTA IV isn't going to sell millions of copies simply because of its script, but if GTA IV didn't have its compelling narrative, snappy dialogue and array of dizzying characters would it necessarily be as fun? If reviewers and gamers let developers know how they feel, then we'll have more games that not only look and play great, but also have immersive and well-written stories.
3.) WRITER INTEGRATION: It’s no coincidence that games like Portal and Mass Effect are lauded for their strong storylines and immersive dialogue. Both Valve and BioWare happen to be studios which fully integrate the writer into the game development process, creating games where the writing meshes seamlessly with gameplay, art and level design to create a compelling interactive experience. Sadly, the Valve and BioWare model is not always used in the industry, with many writers often working as outside contractors and integrated into the process after much of the work has already been done. As a result, storylines and characters are shoehorned into the final product and we end up with game writing that feel as flat and lifeless as a freshly stomped Goomba.
How To Fix It: Applying an integrated writer production model to games is clearly a win-win situation both for developers and gamers. By having writers fully integrated in the development process, writers are able to learn the strengths and limitations of the game, altering their narratives to suit the final product. Conversely, programmers, level editors, producers and artists can also tailor their own work towards creating a gripping interactive experience that works with the story rather than against it. If more developers approach this kind of collaborative process and maintain full-time writers on staff, then we’ll undoubtedly see more games that blow gamers away instead of simply...blowing.
4.) THE MEDIUM: Despite what Hollywood would have us believe, video games are not a medium that is even remotely similar to film or television. True, the mediums do share some common characteristics, but ultimately video games offer the audience an entirely ACTIVE participatory experience, while film and television relies on a PASSIVE audience experience. As a result video game narratives require writers who have an understanding of complex elements such as branching dialogue, non-linear storytelling and character and story elements based entirely on player interactions. Yet the video game industry often thinks that it can simply transplant screenwriters from film and television and expect them to apply the same linear forms of storytelling to video games. Just as you wouldn’t expect a poet to sit down and write a stage play without first understanding the medium, a great film or television writer might not necessarily understand what makes a great game narrative. That’s not to say that film and television writers can’t make great game writers, but rather that they need to fully understand the complex and non-linear nature of the medium they are working in.
The situation is further complicated because until recently, much of video game storytelling has used entirely linear methods of storytelling in the form of ubiquitous Hollywood-style cut scenes. Unfortunately, cut scenes can also hinder gameplay and the transition from player control to scripted video sequence can be jarring. In the end however, merging story with gameplay and finding a happy medium for the medium, remains one of the greatest challenges facing not only writers, but game development as a whole.
How To Fix It: First it needs to be made clear that game writing is a unique skill, and something that not all writers are capable of. As a result the industry’s current method of simply dropping in Hollywood film and television writers and expecting them to churn out triple-A gold, might not be the best solution. Rather game writers need to be supported and nurtured as they allow the medium to evolve. Additionally, the merger between narrative and gameplay is clearly going to require new and innovative ideas beyond the standard cut scene solution. Half-Life for example, was revolutionary in that much of the game’s plot was revealed in-game rather than through cut scenes. Similarly, Mass Effect used cut scenes sparsely, relying instead on the character dialogue wheel as a means of quickly interacting with NPCs and advancing the story. As game technology improves, developers will likely be able to find new and better ways to immerse player interaction in game narratives, but in the meantime it will be up to both clever game designers and game writers to find creative solutions that allows writing to work with the medium rather than against it.
5.) LOW EXPECTATIONS: It seems that when it comes to game writing, expectations among gamers are often so low that when something with only mediocre writing appears it is lauded for its unique narrative. This notion is further propagated by developers and publishers who seem to assume that gamers can't possibly appreciate meaningful narratives, complex characters and unique thematic and philosophical concepts within a video game. As a result we end up with games with overly simplistic stories, by the numbers action-movie plots, cardboard characters and pointless dialogue. In short, expectations are so low we have titles that never really take that next step in elevating game writing.
How To Fix It: Games such as BioShock prove that you can have a unique narrative which presents the player with challenging philosophical themes while also allowing them to kick a little splicer ass. The challenge for developers and game writers alike will be to take more risks in terms of both game content and the writing itself. Sure it's easy and highly profitable for developers to snatch up brainless movie licenses and churn out soulless action titles, but that shouldn’t detract from the idea that games can be as culturally and artistically relevant as a play, novel, film or painting. If developers continue to treat video games as a mindless form of entertainment and profit, then that's exactly what they'll remain. If however, developers are willing to create games which challenge players - not only in terms of gameplay and design, but also in terms of meaningful writing – then video games have the potential not only to entertain, but to enlighten as well. And in the end, that’s the greatest accomplishment any writer – regardless of the medium - can ever hope to achieve.