Good writing in games is not optional
I came across an interesting blog post yesterday from Robert Florence, the former host of VideoGaiden, in connection with the Tomb Raider furore that really struck a chord with me, and helped settle a few questions that have been bugging me for a while. Put aside for now the subject of misogyny in games — don’t worry, I’m well aware that saying that is a bit like telling you to keep drinking tea and ignore the ten-ton rhinoceros bearing down on you with murder in it’s tiny eyes — and engage for a moment with the idea that video games are failing across the board on something that I consider a primary axis for judging whether a thing is good. In a significant number of cases, story and character come far down the list of priorities in development.
I’m not just claiming that the creativity of individuals is being stifled by their corporate overlords, or the admittedly risk-adverse nature of multi-million pound studios, but that most games writing is bad regardless of whether the developer in question is kicking ass (doing risky things) and taking names (being a bit innovative) in other areas.
I’m going to post up two short statements, both taken from PC indie game developers, that you should read before I make my argument:
“Krater is a game where a lot of work have been invested in the music. And the story how the main theme of the game music was created is a fascinating one. It all started when the Swedish musician Christian Gabel and Fatshark Producer Robert Bäckström met at a party a couple of years ago. In their discussion Christian revealed how he, in the early nineties, found a set of illustrations that seemed to be concept art for an abandoned film production…
…The illustrations inspired Christian to start toying around with the idea of writing a 80′s sounding film score for the concept art and the movie that was never made. And when Robert disclosed (sometimes the NDA is left behind in the bar) that they were working on an old-school RPG in post-apocalyptic Sweden it was soon obvious for both parts that Christian should write the game music, based on the film score.” – taken from the Krater website
“FTL at this point is very close to what we consider “Feature Complete.” This is a big and exciting milestone for the game. We currently hope to still be on track for a late August (early September?) final release…
…In other news, we’ve spent the last month working with the very talented writer Tom Jubert (of Penumbra fame). He’s been a great addition to our team in helping us add significantly more events to the game and creating the personalities of our various alien races.” – taken from the FTL website
Both of these groups are producing some very interesting stuff: Krater, a kind of post-apocalyptic action RPG which incorporates squad tactics and an isometric viewpoint into its colourful Beyond Thunderdome fantasy world, and FTL, an expansive roguelike space sim that promises the thrill of exploration along with the chunky 70s aesthetics of Buck Rogers. Both games have trailers that look absolutely fantastic, offering tempting hints of layers of intelligent design and a genuine passion for their subject matter that bodes well for treating their players with respect.
Both however have no room in their marketing campaigns, or in the way they choose to talk about the games that they are making, for the things that I care about above and beyond any other factor: narrative, complexity, morality, choice, character and challenging the players’ assumptions. Take a look at the FTL Kickstarter page. These guys are part of the first generation of poster-children for this manner of funding; they did everything right, from communicating with their backers and talking about what the money was actually being used for, to providing as much evidence of what the finished article would be like as possible. Reading through it, you would be hard pressed to find a mention of something as fundamental to the experience as the details of the setting — the time period, allies and enemies, characters and events that make up the umwelt of the game universe’s fiction.
It’s disappointing to read, as you do in the quotes that began this ramble, that writers are being taken on to add flavour to a game that is so close to release. It’s less frustrating, but still a little irritating, to read about how the music and aesthetic of a game came into being presumably long before the plot was even considered. My point — if you will be generous enough to admit that I have one — is that too often the consideration of a fundamental aspect of design is demonstrably left out in the cold.
It’s very easy to answer, as some respondents may do, that games of this or that type have no need for writing. I may be able to admit that in extremely specialised cases, like simple puzzles that are moulded around the need for players to be able to pick up a game while in a spare moment riding the bus. That may be true, but investing something into the world of the game inevitably improves matters, damn it. I find it difficult to imagine playing something like Plants vs Zombies and not feeling a certain joy over how they’ve managed to infuse something so simple with so much character, so much life. Some of that is down to the slickness of the presentation, but at the heart of the appeal is a string of clever jokes, parodies and outright puns that for me show the influence of a mind at work.
I am going to play the games I have been talking about. In fact, I am going to play the games that Rab Florence pours such scorn on, the Halos and Gears of Wars. I’m going to play them, and enjoy them, because playing games is something that I deeply enjoy doing. But every time the opportunity to poke fun at the braindead space marines, the dodgy deus ex machina and the flimsy cardboard cut-out situations comes up, I’m going to be taking it.
Plot and structure is a key way that I relate to games, and if I’m being constantly let down in that area, I’m not going to let my expectations shrivel up and drop off. I’m going to keep shouting about it. We get the games that we deserve, and I think we deserve better.