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Have you ever noticed how the writing in videogames is just meh? You probably did, but did it mean much to you? I am a sucker for a good story, so I see when it’s lousy, and it hurts. Here are just some of the most persistent mistakes that games feature way too often.
· Overused clichés (player is the “chosen one”, has amnesia, undertakes revenge quest, or “it was all a dream”)
· One-dimensional characters (either rotten to the core villains being evil just because, or the flawless in their goodness protagonists)
· Bad dialogues (why, why should those gorgeous games contain such cringe-worthy and lengthy lines full of awkward puns and pop-philosophy truisms? And don’t get me started on bad localization!)
· A weak plot that looks as if an author was making it up as they went – lots of disassembled twist and turns piled up in a failed attempt to build a tension)
However, this is not going to be a rant against writers. In fact, this is going to be an apologetic piece. I am a writer myself, and recently I waded into the world of game dev, catching a glimpse of the kitchen behind all the fun.
As games are usually a fruit of combined effort by large and multifaceted teams, you simply cannot find one guilty party. However, a bad story is too often laid at the door of an obvious scapegoat – the writer. Is it fair? Not really, and here is why.
Game designers see writer’s work as a filler
As veteran game writer Darby McDevitt puts it, “[Writing in games] is often relegated to the status of mortar to the designers' bricks”. Writers are supposed to “paste fun moments of gameplay together with a few lines of snappy, expository dialog”. That’s all. No motivation for a protagonist, no compelling plot, no complex characters for you.
“Write something here that will make a player want to go into that dungeon. Something epic, you know, in the spirit of the game. It must not tell them directly: go there, but should not be too nebulous either. Definitely a CTA, but subtle. Oh, and make it 200 characters or less.” Are you still surprised that dialogues in games are so corny?
Also, one of my pet peeves: in order to inform a player of something or elicit the action that will propel the game further, writers are asked to state the obvious things. For example, a protagonist wears a +1 armor that loses its power when it comes in contact with water. As a result, a character might say to the protagonist something like: “If you wade into that lake, you will get wet”. That’s just dumb, it never happens in real life, it sounds corny, and believe me, the writer knows it. Yet they are made to insert such lines anyway.
Here is what game writers are supposed to deal with. Now, when you see how everything is complicated, maybe you will suppress your urge to troll a game writer with a gift of paperhelp coupon or writing courses certificate.
Writers are often brought in close to the end of the project
All that writers strive to achieve is to create a compelling and exciting narrative where the story is a drive of a gameplay, and they both complete and support each other, and make it all fun and interesting for the player. However, this is rarely the case for two reasons.
First, the writer is rarely involved at all. Within the industry, they are considered to be an added-expense luxury that the project can do without. This is often true, I am sorry to admit. I mean, as a player, I can survive some bad storytelling if the gameplay is exciting, but I would not suffer throught the dull game just for the good narrative. If I wanted a good story, I’d rather watch a movie.
Second, if producers decide upon having a writer involved, they invite him or her late into the production, when the content is already there, levels, tires, balance math, and all. The writer is left with the task to weave the narrative into the content that they cannot change, so it ends up looking as if a writer tries to steal game designer’s thunder by stuffing melodramatic cut-scenes and wry witticisms all over the game.
The important thing that many people do not realize is the game writing is not about throwing here and there some strings of prettily arranged words. It is about shaping the narrative, giving the motivation, measuring the pacing – not unlike the gameplay in many aspects. There are many narrative-driven games that contain hardly any dialogue at all – Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Flashback, Out of this World.
But in order to produce something like that, the writer, designers, and artists must band together at the very beginning, on the preproduction stage. So the bad writing we see ending up in the game is not the writer’s fault – this is how industry, and money within it, work. For a similar reason, we do not have good original movies anymore.
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