The Power of Words
Will the Market Segment?

The Sins of Game Stories

If the souls of a thousand mangled videogame stories could band together and take reprisals against the industry that created them, it would be a massacre. No-one would be safe. It’s easy to lay blame for the shambles that is the typical game narrative at the foot of publishers, or developers, or Hollywood screenwriters, or whomever else you want to single out as a scapegoat, but in fact there are many sins, and we all bear some responsibility.


The Cardinal Sin: “What We Should Do Is…” 

The main reason why game stories suffer is captured in the old adage too many cooks spoil the broth.

Take a look at the films you really love. Take a look at their writing credits. Most have a single screenplay credit. A few, such as the works of master film-maker Akira Kurasawa, feature two screenplay credits (in these cases, it is Kurasawa-san working with a professional screenwriter). Very few if any of the films you really rate had screenplays written by more than two people… It’s the same situation in books – there are a few cases of beloved genre novels being written by two people, but the vast majority of quality book narratives are crafted by a lone individual. 

There’s a reason for this. Two people can work together to produce a great story. Three people might work together and produce a reasonable story. A dozen people will work together and produce nothing but gibberish.


The Rookie Sin: “How Hard Can It Be?” 

Everyone thinks they can write, but not everyone is a writer. Many of the diabolically overwrought and cliché infested monstrosities that pass as a game script were put together by people who have played games and watched movies and think that this qualifies them to write a game story. But writing a book or a film screenplay is hard – and writing a game script is even harder, because there are many more restrictions to contend with and the special advantages of our medium only add to the complexity of the task.

Please don’t let people who can’t write work on game scripts. It hurts us all. 


The Expert Sin: “I Know What I’m Doing”

The converse mistake is to hire an expert writer to work on a game script believing that doing so will solve everything, as often happens when publishers hire a Hollywood screenwriter with little or no game experience. Now I don’t mean to suggest that there are not screenwriters working from Hollywood who can write a good game story – I only mean to suggest that having worked in Hollywood, or having had a screenplay optioned, does not by itself qualify you to write for the vastly more difficult medium of games.

Most conventional writers are used to having unlimited narrative devices for exposition, free use of visual symbols for deepening the story and so forth. In short, they are used to the narrative language of films (or novels). But these methods are radically more expensive to render in videogames, and usually lead to the player watching cut scenes instead of playing the game.

You can write a game story that is delivered entirely in cut scenes – effectively making a game and an animated movie and then putting them together – but it will not only cost a fortune, it will fail to capitalise on the real potential of a videogame story. 


The Developer Sin: “We’re All In Agreement”

It’s the Cardinal Sin all over again… 

I’m certain democracy in videogame development can and does work. But I’m equally certain it doesn’t work with game stories except in rare and miraculous circumstances. It’s okay for everyone to contribute ideas and feedback, but the writing team must be in charge of the story. They’re the only one’s who (in theory at least) know what they’re doing!

When a developer changes its story to reach the agreement of everyone in its team, they almost inevitably blanch out the unique flavour and file down the interesting roughage of the story. The result will all too often be a story that feels like every other story you’ve ever heard.


The Publisher Sin: “You Need To Do This…” 

Yes, it’s the Cardinal Sin once again!

The best publishers know when to leave things well alone. It’s okay for external producers to contribute feedback, or even to dictate certain high level story elements, but if they begin to micromanage the story, narrative disaster will never be far away. 

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the writing team must be in charge of the story. But because the publisher holds the purse strings, the developer is sometimes afraid to say no to requests or demands from the external producers, even when they clearly know nothing about storytelling.

For developers, I suggest taking a leaf from Steel Monkeys’ book and getting a contract that allows the developer to fire the external producer if they interfere with the development process.

We should be working together, not working against each other. 


Forgive Us Our Trespasses…

Lest I lay the blame squarely at the feet of those of us who make the games, those who review and buy them are also somewhat at fault. The specialist press has a woefully poor track record of serious narrative criticism in the context of games, and gamers seem to gobble up the latest repackaging of the plot of Aliens or Lord of the Rings without ever stopping to say: “I liked your game, but I do wish the story had been better.” 

Perhaps I’m being too harsh. Perhaps gamers are content with the current quality of game stories, which to be fair has improved considerably in the last ten years. Sadly, even now it often fails to reach the not-especially-high benchmark set by television shows.

I would like to see our medium fulfil its narrative potential, and frankly, we’ve barely even begun to rise to this challenge. Perhaps that is the greatest sin of them all. 


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Preach brutha preach!


I couldn't agree more.

Ideally, game authors would serve a mandatory apprenticeship writing text-based games for the freeware interactive fiction community. In a text adventure, you can't lean on dazzling graphics or massive kill-counts to involve your audience; as such, the games that are the most popular in the I.F. community are the ones that give the player an interesting narrative.

That makes I.F. a fantastic incubator for good game writing--for narratives that explore complicity, identity, free-will and the nature of the relationship between player and player-character. Emily Short's "Galatea" takes place entirely in a conversation between an art critic and a sentient statue. Adam Cadre's "9:05" is a brilliant example of how to translate unreliable narration into a game. And Jon Ingold's "Insight" subtly anticipates the player's action and integrates them into the plot. (Emily Short's reading list is a good run-down of other notable I.F.)

Of course, interactive fiction writers can easily afford to take these sorts of risks. I.F. is comparatively quick to design and program, and it's as non-commercial as games get. I'm not expecting or asking that Bethsoft start releasing games that take place entirely in a single apartment. But: if game writers had more examples of interactive narrative's potential, they might strive for something more creative than the old plucky-child-of-prophecy or P.C.-wakes-up-with-amnesia tropes.

Thanks for the comment, Benshi! I'm interested to check out the IF's you flag... As someone who used to work on point-and-click adventures, I've wanted to look into IF but I wanted some recommendations, which you have now generously provided. Thanks again!

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