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Where Do You See Gaming Going? Part 3: Game Writing

Part 3 of the 'WDYSGG' series explores the uncanny valley games, from all genres, have entered in to. Has the simple narrative design of games of the 80s been lost? Is there just as much need for those stories of that of an Uncharted or BioShock?


This is part three of my on-going series, "Where Do You See Gaming Going?" This edition covers the concerns of game writing.

We have come a long way from Tetris. I remember trying to decipher the canned speech and scrolling story of Streets of Rage; it was a welcomed change to the yellow circle eating the blue ghosts. I can recall trying to make sense of the plot in NES's Rescue Embassy Mission and why it was important to avoid those meddling bullet-filled spotlights. I would like to think that with this history of writing in games, good writing was just as important then as it is now. Only "then" constituted a vastly different audience than the diverse demographic of the "now" we live in. Just as it is with the evolution of graphics in video games, game story lines and plots appear to have entered their personal uncanny valley. With every attempt to further immerse players in a world, the average and even the exceptional writing in games shows the many hurdles that have consistently shown this media in limited dimensions.

The funny thing about our current multi-faceted gaming culture, is that there is still a need for games that rely on their bare-bones components more than its possibly affluent story. We still need our Mario's, our Street Fighter's and of course our Tetris'. These games emphasize what all games need to be at their core -- fun. The concept of a game or any form of entertainment being 'fun' doesn't necessarily mean you are erratically waving your arms around trying to get a pixel from one spot on the screen to the next. The concept of games being fun should be because they are engaging, challenging, and in some cases, simple. Aeris dying in Final Fantasy VII and losing Argo in Shadow of the Colossus are both moving points in those respective games. Some have cried at those moments. Thanks to a competent writing and development team, both of these games are still fun.

 
I do take issue with games that do not know if the story will be "a part" of the games lure or if the story functions "apart" from the overall experience of the game. Halo 3: ODST is a prime example of a game within a franchise -- better yet, a game that exists within a genre that has had several issues determining how important the story is to the enjoyment of the overall game. ODST serves as further proof of how features like a multi-player mode can "save a game". Games are treated as four-course meals. If you don't like the salad, then just wait for the desert. This isn't complaining, this is acknowledging what the 'larger game' has become. In today's feature-heavy world, risk is scary. There are not a lot of big budget titles that have come out only offering a single player mode. When they do, they practically turn the game into an MMO. Side-quests and downloadible content coupled with achievements within achievements, have helped evolve gaming but seem to be pulling us all away from the story.

A couple months back I read an interview in Edge where developers from the game studio Ninja Theory, talked about how often story writing conflicts with game development. This theory-turned-fact, that story telling in games is more obstacle than necessity, was never made more clear than in the climax of the very games heralded for their artistic narratives. Our BioShock's, Uncharted's and Arkham Asylum's aren't capable of keeping us "fully entrenched" in their worlds without throwing an "impossible final boss" scenario at us. This I bend to, but when we are thrown a terrible ending; an ending so contrived and derivative it screams, "How video game is the video game you're playing?" Maybe not now, but later the sore thumb sticks out. Itsnit-picky and making a multi-million dollar game is going to have parts where cohesiveness falls by the wayside in order for fun to be had.

 

Writers and developers make compromises and as gamers we hopefully get to play the happy medium struck. We can be content with the current gems in this current generation of gaming, so much has advanced. It seems that the writing in games has shown itself to be functioning on two extreme ends. Writing in games like Braid appear to be where the most chances can be taken. As a high-production low(er) budget game Braid could have been "just another run & jump adventure game", but Braid introduces a video-game mechanic in the rewind feature. Truth-be-told I would have much rather Braid have been a game where I "stomp on stuff, rewind and save a princess", but I appreciate the creator's vision and passion to make the story the focal point of the experience.

Games with implied narrative should also be seen as a viable device for immersing players in a world with a well thought-out story. Left 4 Dead illustrates this with the writing on the walls from soon-to-be zombie food survivors and Shadow of The Colossus' hyper-minimalist approach to language and gesture this proves that games can be totally engrossing with the use of small intelligent devices to help players understand the world around them. Aside from a deity speaking gibberish and blood scribbled walls how useful is the 'implied narrative' in a generation where developers have to cater to an audience that generally wants everything spelled out for them?

My questions this time around are: Where else can you see writing in games improve? As gamers, do you see the necessity to involve more complex stories in games or do more traditionally developed games present an easier-to-digest layer of immersion? Who would win in a fight: Mario or Drake?

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