The Role of Writing in Games

[S]ince the games are generally about power, control, and those other primitive things, the stories tend to be so as well. This means they tend to be power fantasies. That’€™s generally considered to be a pretty juvenile sort of story.

The stories in most video games serve the same purpose as calling the uber-checker a “king.”€ It adds an interesting shading to the game, but the game at its core is unchanged.

Remember:€“ my background is as a writer, so this actually pisses me off. Story deserves better treatment than that. (Koster 86)

I would be hard pressed to state this thought in a more clear or concise fashion. Put simply, the stories in most games tend to be weak compared to their media counterparts (novels, comic books, movies, television). Over the years, there have been a few exceptional stories that span larger issues, or address the nature of power and control itself; a modest number of games have alternatively succeeded in refining the “€œpower fantasy”€ into a more engaging telling, but the underlying principles have remained the same. Stories are tacked on, extraneous except in providing a context for player empowerment. While certainly not the sole issue, this is a fairly damning point when attempting to defend games as a valid form of creative expression.

So what can be done to improve the situation? The short answer is to hire professional writers. The vast majority of companies currently have their dialogue and story written and developed by the game designers, programmers, and artists themselves, rather than spending the money on a professional writer. Take the hint from the media that have come before: games are not that far different from comics, books, or movies, all of which have had significantly more time to develop techniques to tell a compelling and nuanced story, techniques that are effective across media.

Hiring professional writers is only one part of the equation, however. A carpenter and a furniture maker may both have common tools in their toolbox, but from there the box will be filled with tools most effective for their chosen specialization. In the same manner, a novelist and a scriptwriter may both have common tools in their literary toolboxes, but from there they will have focused on methods most effective for their oeuvre. Writing for video games is yet another specialization, with unique challenges created by the interactive nature of the medium. Unfortunately, we have not yet developed our own tools for this medium, and then aren’t effectively making use of the tools other media have provided us.

Part of the issue is how the game industry is set up in terms of bringing in new designers. While several universities and colleges have created game design majors, their focus has remained on the technical aspects, such as programming, game play, and the visual content of the game. Essentially, they are teaching one half of game design: they are teaching game structure, and how the game is played. Within academic circles, this has been titled ludology. There are plenty of games that are purely ludological in nature; Tetris immediately comes to mind. However, the vast majority of video games have at least a basic story to build around their ludological concept. Super Mario Brothers, for instance, has a basic story that a princess was kidnapped by a villainous monster, and you must battle through his minions to save her. Despite this prevalence of incorporated narrative or story, most game design degrees have a remarkable lack of writing course requirements. Basic courses in creative, technical, and script writing should be a fundamental aspect of any game design degree; regardless of the value of hiring a writer specifically, many companies will continue to rely on their game designers to generate the narrative. As such, they should be prepared to do so. The study of narrative within games, or narratology, is the other half of game design, and it is currently SORELY lacking.

Even games lauded for their stories are at best juvenile in nature and shoddily developed. Take Final Fantasy VII, for example. Final Fantasy VII is commonly cited for its emotional impact, in particular for a scene where one of your primary characters is unexpectedly murdered. And yet, despite having travelled with her companions for most of the game up to that point, her death is not really addressed by the other characters. What little dialogue that is done to address it is stilted and poorly justified emotionally. This lack of attention to established characters during and in response to a pivotal scene in the game is sloppy narration at best.

The biggest challenge that I can see to writing more nuanced stories within the medium is how to integrate the story into game play. There are several problems that relate to this. First, there is the issue of player impact upon the story. Players tend to explore, to try and test boundaries, and this sometimes breaks the game by allowing the player to cause the story advancement to no longer function through getting into places they shouldn’t be, or even killing off characters that are integral to the story. You can lock players down to a limited set of abilities or locations, but this ends up being just as detrimental to creating a nuanced story: either way, you are jarring the player out of an immersive state.

Game play itself is another problem. Boredom from an overly simplistic game mechanic will jar a player out of the story just as readily as an overly complex game mechanic. The game mechanic should be seamless, progressively more complex but quickly learnable, allowing the player to become immersed within the story. Any break from the immersion should be at the player’€™s choice, such as the ability to pause, or a menu screen, rather than through a design failure (complex, difficult to read interfaces; long load times; incongruous game elements).

The third, and perhaps least definable problem is the fundamental differences between media. Again referring to Koster:

  • Games tend to be experiential teaching. Stories teach vicariously.
  • Games are good at objectification. Stories are good at empathy.
  • Games tend to quantize, reduce, and classify. Stories tend to blur, deepen, and make subtle distinctions.
  • Games are external: they are about people’s actions. Stories (good ones, anyway) are internal: they are about people’s emotions and thoughts. (Koster 88)

I do not feel that these distinctions are inherent to the medium, but I will readily admit that they are firmly entrenched within the industry as it stands. The nature of games as they currently stand I think has a great deal to do with the people who are designing them: while this is slowly changing, the background for most active game designers is in a technical field, such as programming. This certainly offers benefits from a ludological viewpoint, but in a narratological view it reduces the likelihood of a nuanced story within games. There is a great deal of talent already within the industry, but with their abilities trained in other directions; frankly, I think what would benefit the industry nearly as much as hiring professional writers would be to start sending their designers to writer’s workshops: if we can’t bring writers into the game industry, then we should bring the industry to writing.

Another problem, related to the previously mentioned designer problem, was recently addressed by Kyle Orland, editor of The Video Game Media Watch, in his essay “It’s Our Fault That Games Aren’t Considered Art“. The game industry is ultimately an industry, and as such is governed by financial needs. Developers and publishers are going to create the games that they perceive will bring the greatest return on their investment. Reviewers (and in turn, buyers) emphasize the objective aspects of a game, the visual representation, the technical qualities of a game, but do not dwell on the content itself in terms of social or aesthetic value. We as reviewers, as people talking about games, tend not to discuss the artistic impact of a game, the social commentaries it may encompass, or the philosophical questions it may cause, even when these aspects do exist. How, then, are we supposed to convey to the publishers and developers that we desire this?

That is really what this all comes down to, of course: if we wish for games to be treated as a worthwhile, creative medium capable of artistic expression, then we need to start treating it as such. It is not enough to sit on our hands and wait for change to occur within the industry; we must work with what we have, and show the industry that it needs to change.

Work Cited:

Koster, Raph. A Theory of Fun for Game Design. Scottsdale: Paraglyph Press, 2005.
Orland, Kyle. “It’s Our Fault That Games Aren’t Considered Art”. The Video Game Media Watch, Nov 30 2005. http://www.vgmwatch.com/?p=910
Final Fantasy VII. Sakaguchi, Hironobu. Squaresoft, 1997.