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Game Writing is So Bad, It’s Not Even Funny

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Are games now, or will they ever be an art form? The main obstacle to being counted as art is great writing, and there is not an established tradition of great writing in any game genre. Maybe adventure games, such as The Secret of Monkey Island, the Infocom text adventures, and the Sam & Max adventures at least got the humor side of things nailed down, and Grim Fandango is one of the very few examples of great writing in a video game I can come up with. Still, among the increasingly small percentage of the population who don't play video games, they appear more juvenile, violent, and stupid than other art mediums, partially because they are. 

When we talk about games as an entertainment medium, we always have to compare them to movies. It's the closest analogue, and yet it's not really a close fit at all. I remember hearing someone say that games must be behind on becoming an art form, because Birth of a Nation came only about 25 years after the first film, and here we are after 38-62 years (depending on what you count as the first video game) of electronic gaming and we apparently haven't got anything that matches the D.W. Griffith film. One major problem with that argument, in my view, is that games are not as well suited for important narratives as films. To be successful, games just have to be fun. There have been countless video game versions of Checkers, for instance, which even among board games completely lacks flavor and art. Games are much different from films in that they do not naturally have to have any art to them at all to be successful. The Killzone 2 writers can easily get by with their insane experimentation with game dialogue made entirely out of curse words, and not even the reviewers will bat an eye. 

Games don't have great writing because they don't have to. In my previous example of adventure games, we do have some games with great writing, from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy text adventure to Syberia. Why just adventure games? It's like natural selection, or, well, economics. Adventure games need good storylines to be successful, as most of the other game genres don't. An adventure game without a storyline or at least some genre flavor would be a mostly uninteresting series of odd puzzles, and not a successful product. Grim Fandango is over $60 on Amazon because it would be entertaining even if you sat a walkthrough on your lap and sped through the puzzles, simply talked to people and watched cutscenes. Comedy writing is especially strong in adventure games, and I think that's probably the first step of great writing. If we can get enough funny games, then maybe we can make our way to artistic games.

One odd quirk of the gaming industry: Reviewers and opinion-makers in the gaming industry don't care about writing, except for when the games attempt to have good writing. For instance, Metal Gear Solid 4 actually tried to tell a good story, and almost all of the criticism directed towards it was based on writing. Players either said the cutscenes were too long, or the writing was based too much on "information dumps" and unnatural-feeling story development. Both of those are writing problems. Now, talk to anybody about Gears of War 2, and you will almost certainly not hear any complaints based on its writing, even though it is appalling. If you don't give credit to Metal Gear Solid for the mostly successful attempt, then why should they try? If they didn't try, then no one would say anything about the writing one way or another, and they'd be just as well off with less money and effort spent. 

Back to comedy, where game writing is the most advanced, I foresee there being three legitimately funny games this year: Brutal Legend, Sam & Max Season Three, and the much lesser-known Deathspank. What's the problem with that list? Those three games come from the same three designers who worked on The Secret of Monkey Island almost twenty years ago, Tim Schafer, Dave Grossman, and Ron Gilbert, respectively for each of the games. If even now, we're still relying on the same three guys for the games with good writing, that isn't a good sign. 

So, what do video games need to do to establish a tradition for writing, and start building towards being widely considered an art form? Clearly, nothing's more important than just making good games, but that is more of an effect than a cause, and it's very nearly bootstrapping.  To provide the environment for good games to be made, we need a lot of things. We do need companies like EA and Valve to keep making the risks they have been recently, and trying to produce original IPs that aren't guaranteed blockbuster hits. This at least gets gamers used to buying games that aren't necessarily Madden or Call of Duty. Reviewers need to actually criticize a game if it has an awful story.

Most importantly, people have to buy good games and not buy bad games. Bad games are at thier peak right now, as Wii Play can sell over 10 million in the U.S. by packaging a Wiimote in the box and programming in a crappy version of Ping Pong. Consumers need to shun the bad games and give an impetus for ones with good writing to thrive. If game companies realize that people are going back to buy old adventure games or Beyond Good & Evil or something, then maybe that can make a difference. But besides all that, gaming probably just needs time. As gamers get older, new generations come up, and the demand will be there, hopefully.

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About Nathaniel Edwards

  • http://inthelabwitherroljames.blogspot.com Errol James

    I’ll play the casual gamer…

    Isn’t a bad game Gears of Wars 2? I wouldn’t want to expose my kids to that amount of blood and violence. I’d rather play the beautiful art known as Wii Tennis.

    If video games want to be embraced as an art form the casual audience is the way to go. I know it’s sad, but casual gamers are gamers too.

  • http://www.legalarcade.com Nathaniel Edwards

    If you thought I was complimenting GoW2, I wasn’t. I was using it as an example of a game that doesn’t try anything with its writing and yet gets away with it.

    There are two ways of looking at casual games as for making games an art form:
    1. They hurt art games because the demand is shifting towards cheaper, more simplistic games with no narrative to them. If more people are buying Wii Carnival Games, then less are buying Braid.
    2. They help indirectly, because casual games are more likely to expand the gaming audience in general, which should eventually help them become an art form.

  • http://blogcritics.org/scitech/ Mark Buckingham

    Tim Schaefer/Double Fine Productions and the bulk of the Orange Box from Valve (Portal especially) are worth mentioning. These crews craft memorable characters, stories, and some great humor along the way. I just played through Portal for the fourth time last night and still get a kick out of the turrets and GLaDOS.

    Of course, this in no way refutes your point. They are the exception, not the rule. However, I don’t think writing is crucial to making a game good. What if Geometry Wars or N+ got all caught up in a “story mode”? Writing is exactly what’s WRONG with the last several Need for Speed games. Injecting story into racing games never made sense to me. I thought the racing itself was sufficient reason to play, and I’ve never, ever stuck with a crappy racing game simply because it “had a good story.” I don’t need a plotline or a reason to race; just give me a car and a course and turn me loose. Fortunately, Midnight Club: LA knew enough to keep the story to an absolute minimum, and Burnout Paradise has zero story to speak of. The time EA wasted on hiring actors and writers for Undercover would have been better spent fine tuning the product as much as these others.

    In adventure games and RPGs, and some FPS, action, and platforming games, writing definitely has its place (esp. point-and-click games, since gameplay is almost nil compared to story and interaction), but in the end, gameplay is as valid an art form as writing or aesthetics. Just because Roger Ebert doesn’t understand that doesn’t mean it’s not so.

  • http://blogcritics.org/scitech/ Mark Buckingham

    Tim Schafer/Double Fine Productions and the bulk of the Orange Box from Valve (Portal especially) are worth mentioning. These crews craft memorable characters, stories, and some great humor along the way. I just played through Portal for the fourth time last night and still get a kick out of the turrets and GLaDOS.

    Of course, this in no way refutes your point. They are the exception, not the rule. However, I don’t think writing is crucial to making a game good. What if Geometry Wars or N+ got all caught up in a “story mode”? Writing is exactly what’s WRONG with the last several Need for Speed games. Injecting story into racing games never made sense to me. I thought the racing itself was sufficient reason to play, and I’ve never, ever stuck with a crappy racing game simply because it “had a good story.” I don’t need a plotline or a reason to race; just give me a car and a course and turn me loose. Fortunately, Midnight Club: LA knew enough to keep the story to an absolute minimum, and Burnout Paradise has zero story to speak of. The time EA wasted on hiring actors and writers for Undercover would have been better spent fine tuning the product as much as these others.

    In adventure games and RPGs, and some FPS, action, and platforming games, writing definitely has its place (esp. point-and-click games, since gameplay is almost nil compared to story and interaction), but in the end, gameplay is as valid an art form as writing or aesthetics. Just because Roger Ebert doesn’t understand that doesn’t mean it’s not so.

  • http://www.legalarcade.com Nathaniel Edwards

    You’ll notice I mentioned both Tim Schafer and Valve in my essay. I also replayed Portal yesterday, probably the same as you because it was only $9.99 on Steam.

    Certainly, narratives don’t belong in all games, which I also said in the essay. That’s partially why they’re weak, because story isn’t necessary the same way it usually is in film.

  • http://inthelabwitherroljames.blogspot.com Errol James

    I’m not saying you were complementing Gears of Wars 2. To each his own is what I’m trying to say.

    Most of the people that play the Wii on a regular basis are casual gamers. By calling Wii play a bad game your basically shunning the casual gamer. Who knows maybe half of these casual gamers will evolve into hardcore gamers. You gotta start somewhere.

  • http://www.legalarcade.com Nathaniel Edwards

    I would not want to shun all casual games, at all. Peggle is just fine. Wii Sports is just fine. Wii Play, however, is a different story, and it is not good for games with narratives if that truthfully awful set of casual games is the best-selling game in the U.S., which it is.

    Again, some games don’t need narratives. That’s fine. It’s a diverse medium. I’m not saying that games without stories are all bad. But, currently the medium is trending back towards simplistic games without stories, and that’s not good for games to be accepted as an art form.

  • Langston Kahn

    I think you are tackling two different issues here. Holding games to a higher standard of narrative/writing and bringing games into the art world are two very diverse challenges. Here’s a link to some games which can be considered art maybe because of their lack of narrative and their focus on other aspects of gameplay than simple goal oriented entertainment.

    Not that I’m against goal oriented entertainment, I think Baldur’s Gate 2 is an example of a game that was very artfully designed and well written, but I would not call it art just because of the writing, I would call it art because of how it used writing to enhance the unique properties of the crpg medium to make one feel part of a larger story and an inhabitant of a world.

  • Mongo

    I think it’s getting better

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