Artistry in Games Stipula_fountain_pen Gaming's Low Standards of Writing Opinion  writing tomb raider the walking dead portal 2 games films dear esther Bioshock Infinite

Video game writing is rubbish.

Not all of it, sure, but for the most part, it’s rubbish. And not just big budget, AAA, blockbuster titles – most indie games have rubbish writing too. That means not just rubbish stories, but rubbish dialogue too. The lot. I don’t mean to be disparaging to any game writers out there (though I obviously am being pretty d*** disparaging, so apologies) but the best of game writing isn’t in the same league as the best of, say, screenwriting. Between nonsensical plots, baffling characters and dialogue that could be charitably described as stilted, game writing has problems. But the biggest problem of all is how b***** accepting we all are of it.

Why does it suck?

Bad writing is almost taken for granted – to the point where as soon as a game turns up which looks like its writer might have actually read a novel once, we trip over ourselves to praise it. It’s no wonder that critics from other mediums (such as, infamously, the late Roger Ebert) have been slow to recognise games’ artistic potential when the best we have to offer falls so short. Game writing is letting everyone else down – game design has come on leaps and bounds, artistic design is stronger than ever (at least in the indie world), scores are routinely astonishing and even voice acting, much maligned as the red-headed stepchild of the game development process, is showing signs of improvement. Writing needs to catch up.

There are a few factors involved here, obviously. One is the technical nature of game development. Most of the people involved in making games have approached the field from the technical side, beginning as programmers. This is in contrast to the closest equivalent industry, films, in which most people start out in creative disciplines such as cinematography or acting. There are exceptions, of course – the Brothers Strause (Skyline, Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem) started out in digital effects. Their films are also uniformly terrible, so might just help my point. I don’t want too much of my point to hinge on a blurry distinction between ‘technical’ and ‘creative’ disciplines, or the idea that no-one can bridge the two, because that’s plainly nonsense, but it seems fair to suggest that someone who starts out programming is not necessarily going to have the right skill set for creative writing.

Another part of the problem is that the gaming press don’t really discuss writing much, or attach much weight to it. When was the last time that you saw a game given a low review score on the basis of its writing? Much longer ago than when you saw a film get the equivalent treatment, I’d wager. Games are occasionally singled out for praise based on their writing (I’ll get to that in a second), but are rarely seriously criticised for it. This is perhaps understandable – writing is less central to games than it is to films thanks to the interactive element – but bad writing still seems to get a free pass more often than it should.

Why does it matter?

One consequence of this state of affairs is that games with writing that wouldn’t pass muster in any other discipline find themselves singled out for extraordinary praise. I’ve already moaned extensively about Dear Esther, a game I’m not much of a fan of, but one thing that particularly struck me was its decidedly purple prose. The game features lines such as, “Did this whole island rise to the surface of my stomach, forcing the gulls to take flight?” and the magnificent, “The syphilis had torn through his guts like a drunk driver, scrambling his organs like eggs on a plate.” Is anyone else hungry? Despite these transgressions against the literary form, the game’s writing was widely described as “magnificent.” Less offensive to my taste have been some AAA titles from the last few years. The Tomb Raider remake garnered positive attention for its writing, and I understand why – it was an attempt to update and humanize a rather limited, but iconic character. On the other hand, the dialogue ranged from embarrassing to perfunctory, letting the whole game down in the process.

Artistry in Games Tomb-1024x591 Gaming's Low Standards of Writing Opinion  writing tomb raider the walking dead portal 2 games films dear esther Bioshock Infinite
Hey, I’ve come a long way since the 90’s, cut me some slack here.

A silver lining?

Now, before I get dismissed as a moody, cynical, impossible-to-please b******, there are some games whose writing undeniably succeeds. There have been comedic triumphs among the old LucasArts adventure games, metaphysical mysteries from Bioshock Infinite and heart-rending emotional kicks from The Walking Dead. None of these games have perfect writing (as if there is such a thing), but they are pretty d*** good, by and large. They’re also exceptions. They’re all also still below the best of film, television and novels. I can think of only one game that undeniably reaches the same lofty heights as other mediums: the exceptionally written Portal 2, which in my opinion stands head and shoulders above anything else that gaming has thus far produced.

Portal 2 works well on multiple levels. Looking at the big picture, it neatly uses a very clear 3 act structure, with strong tonal contrasts between each, driven by the dominant character in each act (GLaDOS, Cave Johnson and Wheatley, respectively). Each of these three characters is unique and fully fleshed out, and seems to fit perfectly into the larger-than-life world of Aperture Science. The plot itself is simple, allowing the player to focus on; a) the gameplay, and b) the absolutely hilarious dialogue throughout. Portal 2 is surely one of, if not the funniest games ever written, and the jokes come thick and fast. Anyone who’s played the game will remember moments like Cave Johnson’s rant about incendiary lemons, the army of mantis men and GLaDOS’ seemingly never-ending array of vicious insults. And somehow, despite the odds, in the midst of the wicked humor, Portal 2 still manages to pack an emotional punch through the subplot about Caroline, Cave Johnson’s long-suffering secretary. Not every game needs to aim for comedy in the way that Portal 2 does, of course, but more game writers should look to it as a great example of balancing plot, character and gameplay; revealing plot elements through gameplay; and striking a consistent tone throughout.

There’s reason to be optimistic, of course. I think that most of the best-written games ever made have been made in the last few years, and expect to see game writing continue to improve as it is taken more seriously as an important element of the medium. Amid evidence that gamers remember fewer details of the stories of games than they do of films, developers will hopefully renew their focus on narrative and dialogue.

There’s something that we can do to help, though: take them to task. Don’t just celebrate the games that get it right, challenge those that don’t. When a game has lines that make you wince and plots that just plain don’t make sense, say so. When you play games that don’t even seem to care about your emotional investment in characters – or just plain don’t know how to invest you in them – tell people. It’s time to raise gaming’s standards and send a message that the writing we’re getting just isn’t good enough. Games can be beautiful, powerful, astonishing things, but writing has an important part to play in that…

By Dominic Preston

Waster, layabout and all-round ne'er-do-well who still can't do Twitter and thinks the world would be a better place if everyone had philosophy degrees.

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