Playwrights

This is a response to an article by writer and presenter Robert Florence, whom I admire very much.

Videogame writing sucks, yes? It’s all space marines, explosions and sexism. Where’s our Citizen Kane? Our 1984? Our Shakespeare? For all the glitz and finance, the games industry is missing even the most basic writing talent; we need people who can go half a page without writing “boom.”

But to be honest, I’m sick of everybody complaining. See, most of these crusaders seem to think that games ought to be written like films, or books; they want narrative arcs, three dimensional characters, conflict, resolution and so on. All of those things belong to good writing, but not necessarily good videogame writing.

In his WordPlay column for Edge magazine, James Leach, lead writer on Fable, Black and White and Theme Hospital, describes an example from a well-known stealth game. You move your character across a walkway, and accidentally tread on a loose floorboard. The creaking sound alerts a nearby guard who outwardly asks “what was that noise?” In a movie, that line would be redundant; cinematography and performance are used to pick up that kind of functional slack.

But in a stealth game, where hide and seek is first and foremost, moments like these need over-exposure, otherwise the player wont know when to hide and when to seek and the game would quickly get frustrating. Over-writing is your only option. You can’t cut to a suspicious looking guard every time the player missteps; that kind of disruption would mess with the game’s flow. You could go the Splinter Cell route, and pipe in some thrumming music when the player is in danger of being found. But how far does that go? If you say everything without dialogue, you might avoid clunky writing but you won’t improve it.

At the start of each level, players need to be told where to go, and given some idea of what to do. They need exposition, and explanation; your game won’t work if players don’t understand the rules. And since you can’t guarantee the intelligence of your audience, you need to write with universal appeal. This is why games might end up sounding dumb.

It isn’t maliciousness on the developer’s part; if anything, it’s compassion. They want everybody to be able to play their game. Certainly, you could accuse the industry of downgrading for the sake of mass appeal: I can’t excuse Master Chief’s gung-ho or Lara Croft’s bra size, stupidity of that kind isn’t protected by the medium’s idiosyncrasies. But at the same time, it’s unfair to tar game writers as sloppy and half-hearted, when in actuality, they’re just hitting different targets. The most effective game scripts keep us on the right path and in the know – in time, I hope the industry will work out how to edify and storytell at the same time. Until then, imagine the difficulty of making a game the size of Skyrim, and then imagine trying to write a narrative – or rather, hundreds of narratives – that everybody can follow. Then imagine pulling that off. The people that can do that are working in videogames, and I for one am very grateful.