Good writing is hard.
As evidenced by that last sentence, it can be difficult to get your ideas down on the page, especially when it comes to creative media. Films, theatre, literature…these are all areas where there’s so many examples of mediocre and bland writing. From underdeveloped characters to dialogue that sounds like two pieces of Ikea furniture talking about a particularly disappointing porridge, there’s nothing worse than being boring. Even bad writing can be the most entertaining thing. Have you ever watched The Room with a bunch of your friends? It’s incredible.
Video games are the exact same. Granted, there’s an additional problem of the interactivity of the media, but as of the last few years, games have been used to tell stories as opposed to just being something disposable to distract you for an hour or two. There’s been a revolution in what games are used for nowadays. There’s this sense of being at the dawn of a new era in gaming. The writing has been lauded as some of the best in history, and not just in games, but any form of narrative. The question that I have is: Is it really? Are games truly revolutionary, or is the form able to hide a lot of downfalls in the writing?
The main problem with games is the disconnect between the narrative and the gameplay. When you have cutscenes explaining how sick the character is of war but then you spend the next 12 hours machine gunning people in the face, it’s a little bit jarring. It’s the risk of letting the person controlling the game have free reign, and of course you want them to, it’s a game, not a movie. One of the ways around this is to make your character a complete bastard, that way it doesn’t matter how many people you kill. But when you do that, it’s somewhat hard to relate to what essentially amounts to a villain.
Games have the ability to use this mechanism to their advantages. Particularly in the indie scene, certain games have used this very issue to come up with some incredible plot twists & story developments. Undertale is one of the prime examples of this from recent times, and even going all the way back to Braid, it’s astonishing when a game reveals something about it’s nature that turns the entire thing on it’s head. However, that’s not good writing. That’s a good story, and whilst the two are almost inextricable, you can have a good story without good writing. Take for instance the Souls series of games. These are lauded for their ability to tell a story in a unique and interesting way. The history of the world and characters are discovered via item descriptions and lines from NPCs, but the overall narrative and structure is basically non-existent. It’s incredible lore & world building, but there’s a lot lacking which makes it good writing. There’s no character development, dialogue, anything which fills in the details. And that’s the very strength of those games. It seems so much more real and like you’re a part of a much bigger world that you’re not seeing. It plays into the game perfectly too, like you’re a tiny pawn in this overwhelming intimidating world. Who knows what could be lurking around the next bend as you traverse this massive, ancient and frightening terrain. It’s a perfect set-up for that game, but the writing in terms of characters and plot isn’t really existent in Dark Souls.
What then is a game where the writing is fantastic? People often cite Bioshock as this, but it’s really not. It’s all a fairly standard sequence of events with a great twist. The characters (in both Bioshock and Infinite) never really develop. There’s revelations about the characters of course, but they have no impact on the story. In one case, the game ends just after the twist is revealed, robbing any potential for development.
My favourite example has to be The Last Of Us. It’s an example where there’s true character development, with a complex, thought-provoking and resonant ending. It’s so quiet and understated, there’s no massive twists in terms of the characters, you can relate to their actions even if you don’t agree with them. And it’s perfect. A lot of times, good writing is applauded in games when it isn’t really there, it’s just a great twist, and that’s something that is unique to the medium. Games can paper over thin characters and somewhat schlocky plot developments because you are the character, you don’t need that bonding with the protagonist, because you’re controlling them. Many AAA titles have basically the same player character. A burly musclebound man’s man. It’s a power fantasy, but you don’t need to empathise with them, just use them as a tool to experience the world. It’s why I feel like the death of the player in Modern Warfare is a great example of a twist in a game, but it’s not great writing. It’s a gimmick. Shock value more than anything else.
Assassin’s Creed is a weird example of the character development over a series. Pretty much every character is the same. Boring. Aside from two examples. Ezio & Haytham Kenway. They have genuinely interesting motivations, and you can see the former grow and develop from the rash, hot-headed ladies man to the wise and considerate leader of the assassin’s order. It’s truly amazing to behold, and it’s why I firmly believe that Ezio is one of the greatest characters in gaming history. The rest of the story though…it’s not the best. The present-day stuff with Desmond is one of the most boring and trudging parts of games I’ve played over the last few years. There’s elements like that in a lot of games, but a truly revolutionary game with fantastic characters, plot and lore is something I’m still waiting for in AAA gaming. But in all honesty, I’m fine with that. Games fulfil a different need that other media, and as long as there’s something I can bond with, it’s fantastic for me. I look forward to developers hopefully exploring their capacity for storytelling, but let’s not be so hasty as to hand out “WRITING OF THE YEAR” accolades to the first game with a half-decent protagonist.
Red Dead Redemption though. Best fucking writing in history.