Monday, September 1

The Quest for the Holy Grail 5 - Writing

Facing the continuing prospect of ignorance I wonder at how many more feeble jokes I can make about it before having to recycle them. I will always be ignorant, that is a given, but I can choose to be less ignorant today than I was yesterday.

Recently I chose to embrace broadening my horizons. I examined blogger's functions and I used the world's favourite search engine to find me some articles on writing in video games. The former was easy enough and more poking, prodding and massaging is required. It's like a game! The latter? When I first conducted the search I was told in an indifferent manner that a mere 37,100,000 interwebs awaited my perusal. Ouch! Necrotic equines be damned, this is an entire species. My arm is going to get very tired. Of course much of the material presented isn't actually what I want, yet even if 1% of it is worthwhile, that's still a century worth of reading if I am able to process ten sites a day, every day, without fail until I complete this task. There's a problem though. Over the weekend the number of related interwebs increased another 2 million. Ignorance is starting to look mighty appealing.

The wonder I discovered as I began this new quest was how eloquent, how considered the ideas and their presentation of so many sites. I have not yet encountered the pubescent, homophobic, mammary obsessed, pasty faced, sociopathic freaks that populate the personalities of so many game characters. Writers in games (or the developers that drive the engine that requires the writing) appear to have no idea of who their audience is. I will happily admit that there are probably as many sites that share these characteristics, maybe half, maybe more. However, this proportion isn't reflected in games, the characters, their stories, the pitch, pace and pause of the narration is dominated by the aforementioned characteristics.

Games writers and the entire industry just don't deliver. The standard of writing in games is a huge pile of steaming turd. Bioshock makes a valiant attempt, more win than lose. Uncharted: Drake's Fortune realises the cinematic game ideal well, it requires that the player be skilled right in the middle of the bell curve of the developer's expectations however, leading me to realise that the game actually works to undermine the quality of the experience for the very weak or very strong player. The pacing of the story potentially spoiled by the player's faux participation in it.

This, you see, is my problem with the whole writing in games thing. If game developers seek to emulate cinema, television or books then they really should be making cinema, television or books. Games are games. I'm not really buying into the whole interactive cinema thing. This doesn't mean I won't buy and play such games, but I'm not buying them with any expectation of good storytelling. The transgendered psychotic mess that is Mass Effect was enjoyable enough for me, but not because of its story. Actually if I'm to be completely honest with you, its story is priceless, I laughed myself to tears at nearly every dramatic moment in the game. Unfortunately this was not the intended reaction. I liked the cool powerz. That's why I played the game.

There are two ways this can change.

The first is the Dennis Dyack approach where cut-scenes remain an integral part of interactive cinema, formerly known as games. This is familiar, a known quantity, all of my friends chastise me for refuting its interactivity. The change isn't so much in the delivery mechanism, it comes in what's delivered. Dyack states that "story is very important to video games". Yet his own efforts with Too Human lack quality. I would change his phrasing to "quality storytelling is very important to interactive cinema style games". No gamers I know seriously proffer any games as examples of quality storytelling.

The second option is more insidious. Make the story a gameplay element. This is my holy grail of course. Embrace the existence of the player and make the "story" dependent on their existence. I'm not really talking about a choose your own adventure style of play either. The Sims is vaguely warm, if given a much more robust and meaningful relationship mechanic that can be manipulated, foreshadowed, the pacing played with, edited, that has a certain musicality that incorporates linguistic play. In a criminal investigation style of game allow the player to create the perfect crime and have the NPCs solve it. The relationship between cut scene and player is inverted. Once the gameplay element is completed the game runs its cinematic moment revealing whether the player escapes or is caught.

Let the cut scene report the player's skill to the player rather than reminding them of their irrelevance to the story and its creation. It's a game, make it about play.

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