Mass Effect 2. Some of the best writing games writing around.
Talking about writing is one of the hardest things in games journalism. We can all see good graphics and impressive technology, but when we talk about good or bad writing it isn’t so simple, and we’re often reduced to a vague statement. The problem with this is that it creates the illusion that writing is unimportant, or merely a matter of opinion. This isn’t the case.
There are two core things to consider when evaluating writing. The first is “What is the writer trying to do here?”. Objectively we can tell if an aim is original or generic, but a subjective judgement of whether we like what the writer has aimed for is also important. The latter is “Has the writer achieved this?” this is a more objective measure, although by no means always. When the objective is “to make people laugh” then some may laugh and others may not, making it subjective, while if the objective is “to explain what is going on” then it can be clearly seen if that information is presented or not.
There are four main areas to writing I can identify. I’ve talked about them in general senses here, and they apply to all writing mediums, although I’ve related them back to games each time as well. Each aspect is equally important, which is not to say they all need to be done equally well, but that each can carry a work if done well enough.
I may not have liked The Void much, but no-on can argue it’s concept isn’t original
The ability to come up with a premise, be it plot, setting, character or theme. The domain of the ‘idea man’, a writer whose skill is primarily coming up with original concepts or new spins on old ideas. Originality isn’t everything however, the ability to marry different concepts together, to play to your strengths as a writer and to follow through and fully investigate your idea belong here.
‘Hard’ Science fiction lives and dies on concept, with the ability to come up with a unique idea (often a technology or form of alien life) and thoroughly explore the possibilities is what the genre is measured on. Isaac Asimov was a master at this and would often use simple characters and a dry style in order to focus all attention on his concept and the plot that is driven by it. Short stories in general often prioritise this, with less time available for deep characters and complex plots, true ‘idea men’ like Asimov or Neil Gaiman, will often do their best work in the short story form.
In games when we talk about concept we talk about a unique setting or premise, often tied into the art direction that helps that world come alive. These can range from the truly original (and often surreal) such as The Void and Zeno Clash, to an interesting spin on an old idea, like Fallout’s clever retro future twist on the post apocalyptic setting. Half Life 2 is an example of an unoriginal premise (oppressive dystopian future) that has been well realised and blended into the plot, while Prince of Persia represents a well known concept (Arabian Mythology) that has seldom been explored in games. The generic ‘space marine’ shooter is a classic form of poor conception, one of the most prevalent forms of bad writing in games.
Modern Warfare shows us how to do a twist.
The ability to structure a work so that the narrative flows in a comprehensible and coherent way. One of the least addressed aspects of writing, allowing dramatic events to occur at the right time and letting the action rise and fall appropriately. If concept drives the beginning, plot tends to drive the middle of the action, moving towards the conclusion. Also coming in here is exposition, explaining the necessary information to the audience so that the plot can progress without upsetting the narrative flow.
The Thriller or Mystery story is the epitome of the plot aspect of writing, in these tales the twists and turns of an expert plot are the real purpose behind everything. True masters of plot craft ‘page turners’ that compel the reader to continue onwards in order to see what happens next. The likes of Tom Clancy, for all their other faults, are masters of tight and compelling plotting.
Gaming often has a hard time in plotting compared to different mediums, because lengthly gameplay sequences are often balanced with the greater narrative. Thus one must carefully balance gameplay and narrative, and either blend them together or move from one to the other in a timely fashion. The ability to make exposition optional however, is a great power of games, allowing the game to offer the minimum amount of backstory within the main narrative while allowing the player to discover more at their leisure. One of the reasons Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was so acclaimed was that it had tight, compelling plotting that rose and fell dramatically. Most Bioware games utilise a simple structure based on Joseph Campbell’s famous ‘A Hero’s Journey’ that, while unoriginal, acts as a solid base for the tales they tell. Gears of War often skips over exposition and has events that seem to simply occur one after another without ever flowing in a logical sense, and it a prime example of poor plotting in games. Open world games often throw out any idea of structured plot in exchange for interactivity and choice.
Thane from ME:2 has character coming out of his ears. Or at least he would if he had ears.
The ability to craft characters, the people that inhabit the world the narrative exists in. Good characterisation will create people who are believable and three dimensional who interest the audience and get them invested in their plight. Bad characterisation encompasses the clichéd and the derivative, one dimensional characters, who are dominated by a single trait unrealistically. A common mistake is that characterisation is only successful if the audience likes the character, this is not the case. Like most aspects of writing the measure of success is if the writer has succeeded in their intention. A villain who the audience truly despises is as successful a depiction as a hero they root for.
The ‘literary novel’ or ‘character study’ film often places a heavy importance on building characters who are complex and believable. The best character writers create a person who resonates so well with audiences they seem to have a life almost outside of the original narrative. They manage to be complex enough not to be entirely predictable, yet three dimensional enough that these decisions are always believable. The old touchstone of Citizen Kane comes to work here, being essentially a study of the worth of one man’s life, Kane is unusual enough to keep us interested, yet real enough that we can understand him.
Characterisation can present some difficulties in gaming, as in many early games the protagonist would rarely interact with other characters. Without other characters to interact with, and without the ‘inner monologue’ of novels, it can be difficult to comprehend the character of the protagonist. Indeed the idea of the mute ‘blank slate’ first person character is unique to games, and near impossible to pull off in any other medium. Bioware are the unquestioned masters of characterisation in games, with their legions of NPCs often intriguing and compelling, causing players to truly treasure their interactions with them. This is taken to extremes in Mass Effect 2, where meeting and understanding the various characters drives the vast majority of the plot. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time has gotten a lot of praise for it’s writing, despite a fairly simple story, because so much of it centres around the interaction of two well crafted characters. At the other end of the scale we have both the clichéd character (oh so many games, but let’s cite Gears of War once again) and the blank character (Valve protagonists, although more by choice than lack of talent).
All comedy is about form. Monkey Island shows us how it’s done.
One of the trickiest forms of writing to articulate, form is writing in it’s purest sense, the simple ability to put one word in front of another in an entertaining fashion. Like all aspects of writing form is measured by how well one has achieved one’s aims. A realistic drama has succeeded in form if it’s characters talk like real people, while a clever comedy has succeeded if it’s characters are unrealistically witty, as long as they are also funny. Poor form can be most easily seen by a writer with a limited vocabulary who uses the same descriptive words over and over. More subtly, it can be seen in sentences that are ugly and clunky, and break up the flow of the narrative.
Comedy usually places a high emphasis on form, with all else sublimated to the idea writing good gags and one liners. Oscar Wilde wrote plays with simple characters and irrelevant plots, but meticulously crafted his language to be as witty as possible. Paddy Schaefsky wrote films in which characters would move from one long, dramatic speech to another, without a simple back and forth, but made those speeches so intriguing it didn’t matter.
With games being a primarily visual narrative, form is most often used in the dialogue between two characters (often hampered by the lack of other characters, as mentioned above), or monologue by the protagonist. One of the most expert genres at this has been the comedy adventure game, where the protagonist having a witty remark for every possible interaction the player can conceive has become almost a staple. In a more complex sense form can also be taken to be communicating writing through interaction (Half Life 2′s inventive exposition ideas), although this shouldn’t necessarily be prioritised over more orthodox methods.
So what has this article achieved? Well I hope that it well help us all in how we talk and write about the process of writing in games, that it will give us all some agreed upon terms that we can use when we want to say more than simply “the writing is good or bad’”. Instead we can articulate that “the plotting is strong but the characters are clichéd” or “the dialogue is light and witty, not realistic, but pleasing to the ear”. It will also help us think about what we want from games, how they should emulate other media, and how interactivity can be used to help make game writing unique and different.
If you think I’m wrong, or I’ve failed to cover an important aspect of writing, please say so in the comments below, I’d like this to be a conversation to help us all articulate this thing we call writing in a clearer, more complex way.