Writing and The Future of the Gaming Industry

A look at the state of writing in modern video games in light of revelations about the plot of the new Tomb Raider prequel and our own concerns about Grand Theft Auto V.

Owain Paciuszko

Contributor

Following Ron Rosenberg’s recent comments regarding the upcoming Tomb Raider game getting a complete do-over, Robert Florence has written a very provocative article about the state of writing in video games in general.

Unfortunately, Florence asserts that almost all video games have terrible writing:

“Gears of War – sells a ton, critically acclaimed, terrible writing. Modern Warfare – same. Halo – same. Almost everything – same.”

This struck me as slightly peculiar. As a gamer I am usually drawn to video games where the story and the characters excite me moreso than the action or graphics. I can tolerate slightly ropey controls if I’m hooked by the plot or charmed by the people I meet.

Obviously, this hasn’t always been true, simpler games when I began playing such as Super Mario Bros didn’t include multi-layered narratives, but there it was beautifully streamlined, much like Lawrence Kasdan’s Raiders of the Lost Ark screenplay if you will.

Meanwhile, the likes of Dizzy on the Commodore 64 provided a puzzle solving narrative that at least tested your brain as opposed to your button bashing abilities.

However, it wasn’t until I played the likes of LucasArts’ Day Of The Tentacle and Sam & Max Hit The Road that I really realised the true potential of video games for storytelling. Whilst these games showed off a sense of wit and arch-humour hitherto unheard of, for me, in the medium it was ultimately Revolution’s Broken Sword: The Shadow of The Templars in 1996 that really blew me away.

In light of Florence’s article, I contacted Steve Ince via Twitter to get his reaction. Ince was one of the producers responsible for the first two Broken Sword games, and a writer on the third, he is also a champion of the importance of writing in video games, more specifically his book ‘Writing For Video Games’ (http://www.steve-ince.co.uk/book.htm) is undoubtedly a must-read for people working in, or hoping to work in, the video games industry regardless of their role.

For me, video games are an artform often neglected or dismissed and at all levels, much like in film, people should know the importance and implication of their work on the story and characters.

Ince stressed, in relation to Florence’s article that:

“I agree with most of it. Except there are good writers who take game writing seriously. Basing an assumption on a handful of examples does not make a case.”

I asked about there being a shift in perceptions for games makers and gamers to demand a better quality of writing in games, Ince was quick to point out that:

“There is already a shift. There’s been good writing for years. People just judge all games on just those they play… But, even in the best game writing, a lot of the lines will be bland or even crap because there are too many single lines.”

Indeed, certain Youtube compilation videos have highlighted hundreds of terrible lines of dialogue that crop up even in classic games (My favourite being from ‘Resident Evil’ where one character refers to another as “The master of unlocking.”)

As Florence points out massively successful games such as Gears Of War and Halo receive rave reviews despite having poor scripts, whilst a game with an intricate, involving plot and layered characters like LA Noire gets a rough ride from critics who are perhaps looking for the ‘wrong’ thing in their gaming experience.

On this very site Robert Beames listed the 10 Reasons Why Grand Theft Auto V Would ‘Suck’, and he noted that the insistence from gamers that they be able to customize the lead character, to create an avatar if you will, and to have sandbox play would ultimately be detrimental to the game’s success and endurance. As opposed to GTA IV which he commended for its more linear structure and focus on a defined character.

I agree, LA Noire seemed to have included its open city side-game as a concession to gamers insistence that they can explore the world, but this element was of no interest at all to me, and the game – it’s actual narrative – had instant replay value because I found it so compelling. Indeed, I return to Ince and co’s Broken Sword games at least once a year because I enjoy the story – which never diverts from a linear path – and the characters so much.

Can we expect good writing across the board though? Is it even necessary? Ince says that:

“High action games like Halo are not suited to great narrative or dialogue but that’s not what we expect.”

Should we not expect good writing from action games though? I’d argue that a game like Bioshock managed to marry intense action and spectacular set-pieces with a superb storyline and compelling characters, but it seems to be a rarity amongst a crop of cut-n-paste shoot-em-ups.

Whilst Halo might not lend itself to a great plot perhaps we could hope for an approach akin to blockbuster movies where we at least get the likes of Joss Whedon or J.J. Abrams making sure the characters shine even if the mechanics of the movie are very straightforward? For example, there have been a slew of near unplayable Evil Dead games that were all made tolerable thanks to the presence of Bruce Campbell’s Ash and his quips.

But it’s not a case of shoving in some ‘Hollywood names’ to play the roles, there have been many instances of this happening to varying degrees of success! It’s more a case of treating the game with a little more respect and having a clearer definition of the requirements behind the scenes going into production on a video game.

Just like with Hollywood there will be a rash of product churned out each year where the craft is secondary to turning a quick buck, but audiences won’t respond to empty experiences forever. Much like the rise of Christopher Nolan’s more cerebral blockbuster one can only hope that the biggest games of future years will have scripts packed with intelligence, layered characters and depth.

With the case of the Tomb Raider prequel there is a sense that the game’s makers don’t really understand their audience or the implication of their choices in regards to the story. Merely they sat round a table, realised that ‘reboots’ and ‘prequels’ were dark and gritty and then thought about, from a male perspective, what horrible things could happen to a woman and what would their gamers – who they, according to Rosenberg’s comments, seem to assume are all male – would want to ‘protect’ Lara from. In this instance Rosenberg has mentioned that Lara is confronted with the threat of rape from her kidnappers.

Ince commented on these choices saying:

“I think the Tomb Raider ‘rape’ idea is simply awful because it feels like rape is being used as a selling point. But did the Tomb Raider writers develop it that way or has the publisher marketing distorted what the writers intended?”

Florence meanwhile assumes that the Tomb Raider team will be sat down asking themselves some questions regarding people’s reactions to these narrative revelations:

“The reason why they’re only asking those questions today is because they are not good writers. They’re only writing because someone gave them that specific job. They don’t have any talent for it, and they don’t love it.”

It’s an interesting point and one that I believe Ince addresses in his book, that the need for games to have strong narratives and characters has sort of come about almost as an after-thought. Whilst plenty of video games were programmed entirely by individuals in the early days with a strong technical knowledge as well as a knack for storytelling, as the industry has grown people have approached it differently, not out of passion, but in the same way that perhaps ‘hack’ screenwriters and directors make a buck in Hollywood.

We need more artists in the video games industry and we need more producers and developers to respond to and champion these artists. There are plenty of strong writers working in video games today, but are they being sidelined or forced to compromise in order to adhere to the open-world needs of sandbox gaming and personalized characters?

Video games are still in their relative infancy as an artform and it’s exciting as the technology allows for more creative freedom to see what twists and turns this interactive medium will provide for storytellers. But the video games industry needs to allow these storytellers to get their foot in the door and have the jobs and opportunities their creativity deserves.