Gamers deserve to experience high quality writing, and that’s the truth. While video games initially started as exercises in puzzle-solving, strategies or tests of personal accuracy, they have now developed into a complicated art form. For many, having a good story is paramount. After all, it’s not just the thing that gets you from A to B, it’s the thing that keeps you hooked throughout.
Good stories should not be restricted to books but should be part of every sort of media we consume. Good stories excite, inform and immerse – and when it comes to gaming, the one genre that makes the consumer an active participant in the imagined world, there’s nothing we want more.
How much story is really needed, though?
Granted, a lot of games don’t need much story. Take the original Sonic games – the initial brief was purely to facilitate as many gotta-go-fast moments as possible. And like Sonic, the original Mario games were basically about rescuing a princess, with the most complex plot twist involving the princess being in another castle. Of course both of these iconic franchises evolved story-wise over time, but at first not much story was needed.
The Legend of Zelda games, by comparison, started off strong, and their focus on story drove a vast and detailed fantasy universe. It’s hard to imagine a Zelda game without the excellent story and mythology behind it.
Other games yet lack story entirely, maybe having just enough to cover the basic premise. BroForce is a great example – the entire premise is lots of famous ‘bro’ characters (Arnie, Signourney Weaver, Sylvester Stallone) charging into a Rambo-style environment to take out the Bad Guys. It’s a high-octane version of Worms, and the charging and fighting is the story. It is highly entertaining, and really doesn’t need anything more.
Other games yet treat story as an annoying but necessary obstacle to the main objective. Eternal Sonata, designed to tell the life story of composer Frédéric Chopin, creates a fantasy story in tandem with its educational segments that, while it does have some good moments, winds up being overly moralistic, repetitive and surprisingly babying.
The point is that different levels of attention to storyline are needed for different types of games. Making everything an epic to rival Homer’s Odyssey is not the point, but treating story elements with passion and competence is.
So what about games where story is central?
Sometimes games set out to tell a good story. One of the best JRPG’s (Japanese Role-Playing Games) I ever played was Grandia II. While it suffered horribly from a linear adventuring system with no scope for exploration, it had an amazing battle mechanic, and one of the most engaging storylines a fourteen-year-0ld with a penchant for dark fantasy could wish for.
Characters appeared and exited the story at just the right places, and revelations were made at exactly the most satisfying moments. The game did not underestimate its audience – there was philosophy peppered around everywhere, and despite having the classic outrageous fantasy mega-monster battles we’ve come to expect of a JRPG, the weightiness of the subject matter – religion, politics and death – were not shied away from in the slightest. The only failing was that the game relied too much on story and was a bit verbose, which made more than a few heads begin to nod.
Other games let their stories become central sort of by accident. The Sonic games had the benefit of evolving in tandem with a series of TV shows and comics that provided a catalogue of backstory, eventually reaching the plot-writing pinnacle of Sonic Adventure in 2001 (although the dialogue was hilariously terrible).
Sonic Team have tried to maintain their writing quality as the world has evolved since then, but their writing has suffered terribly at the expense of trying to add fancy game mechanics instead. Not a good move!
So what about when you get something like Kingdom Hearts, which blends two pre-existing universes (Disney and Final Fantasy) rich in their mythos together with some philosophical leanings? The game had excellent gameplay, and with one colossal epic of a story it has a top spot in the storyline stakes. In everything from plot reveals to character dialogue, it was not only expertly done, but put faith in its audience’s intelligence and autonomy. Okay, some of the dialogue can be a little cheesy, and things get unnecessarily complicated from the second game onwards, but it still delivers well.
Finally, the Mass Effect universe is an example of a game where open-ended story is central. The storyline evolves depending on the player’s own decisions, and is totally immersive. Character reactions are believable, and many who considered themselves unskilled at shooters were motivated enough by the story to complete the game and pick up a new skill at the same time. An overall win!
I learned a lot from the stories you find in games. Sonic Adventure got me into Mayan archaeology, and Kingdom Hearts was responsible for my A* philosophy essay in school. Skies of Arcadia and its addictive Age of Exploration storyline was partially responsible for my first ever tall ship voyage. And there’s many more examples – you guys reading this can probably think of some examples of your own.
This is part of the reason why it’s important to have quality writing in games. Start kids off young with good writing and good gaming combined, and their inquisitive minds will definitely achieve great things!
A challenger appears! The rampant phenomenon of Yugioh-ing!
Terrible writing is so rife in gaming, and wider geek culture at that, that it’s led to the development of a phenomenon that I’ve taken to calling ‘Yugioh-ing’, after the penchant in card games such as Yu-Gi-Oh! and Pokémon for overt repetition. You know, just in case you didn’t understand what was happening the third time they told you. The art of Yugioh-ing is also rampant in animé, although I can understand its commercial usefulness – taking every example of Yugioh-ing out of Naruto would probably cut the viewing time, and the resultant sales, in half.
I love Yu-Gi-Oh!, but seriously, see if you can make it through the above clip without cringing.
The fun but verbally-constipated Lost Odyssey is terribly guilty of this. So is Eternal Sonata. Final Fantasy mostly escapes just by being the opposite – overly-cryptic – instead. Unless we’re talking FFVIII with Squall’s constant point-of-view narrations, or FFXIV, which has amazingly bad dialogue that too often appears to have been added as an afterthought.
On the face of it, Yugioh-ing is just a careless way to get players from one cool fight scene to the next But if this is the only kind of writing your audience ever sees, it’s all they’ll ever know, and that’s a massive disservice to them. Even though it can be useful in terms of accessibility, I would still seek a less condescending way to convey the story to a disabled user, and wouldn’t want to settle for less.
Essentially, lazy writing is just teaching us consumers that we deserve to be babied, that we cannot understand complex plots, that we need constant affirmation through repetitive dialogue. And it teaches us that if we, too, wish to write, then we have to do the same thing. It’s like going to a comedy club and having the comedian explain every joke to you.
High quality writing is something that we can bring to all (applicable) areas of gaming. It needs to be approached in a different way to novel writing, as it’s a different format, but it doesn’t have to cost the planet – all it requires is a bit of consideration.
Some shining modern examples.
Most of the games mentioned here are in a historical context, so now comes a highlight of recent stellar picks for you.
Have you ever heard of Thomas Was Alone? It’s a game that’s available on Steam, and at first glance it seems rather simple: a puzzle-solving platformer about moving rectangles around in a minimalistic geometric environment. Not much at work here, you’d think? Not so.
You see, all your movements in the game are accompanied by a narrator, who reads out a running monologue, in third person, of the thoughts each rectangle is having. It doesn’t take long for you to become emotionally attached to these funny little quadrilaterals – by the third level, you’re aware they have distinct personalities, and towards the end you will notice aspects of human nature being brought out in each one as events culminate towards a rather worrying end. I had no idea I could get this emotionally invested in a rectangle until I played this game.
And then there’s the Stanley Parable. A game that became such a cult icon that its creators are currently taking time out from fame. You are office worker Stanley, and your every move is voiced-over by another mysterious invisible narrator. You have the power to deviate from the story if you choose, and the plot soon becomes about your relation to the narrator and the nature of personal choice and pre-destiny.
As a collective group, us gamers are becoming more assertive and demanding better attention to story elements. For example, earlier this year many openly protested at Peter Dinklage’s awful voice-over lines for the epic first-person shooter Destiny – not a fault on Dinklage’s part, as there’s only so much a good actor can do with bad lines. In the end many of his lines were re-written and improved, which is a great result.
And now we have some extremely talented writers working in the gaming industry, such as Rhianna Pratchett, future custodian of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld universe, who has given us such delights as Tomb Raider (2013), Mirror’s Edge and Bioshock Infinite.
We can continue to raise the bar on quality, and this can only happen with as much gaming, enjoyment and constructive critique as possible. Good writing must not be exclusive to the literary elite. We are gamers, and we deserve better!
That’s not to say there’s no place for cheese, though. Some writing fails have become sources of hilarity and enjoyment in their own right – for example, did you know that back in June Bungie sold a ton of t-shirts with Dinklage’s famous moon quote on them?
Now it’s over to you. What are some of your favourite games that managed to provide top-notch storytelling? And what storytelling gaffes will stay with you ’til the end of time?
main image © Bungie