(NB. This is excerpted from an email I sent to Ben Paddon.)
The basic problem, as I see it, is that we have many game developers who are interested in telling a good story but rarely have experience in what that means. I have a degree in writing (for whatever’s that worth) and I’ve been doing it in various capacities for the last ten years as well as teaching for the last two. The problems that we see with game writing? Absolutely freshman year creative writing class problems. There’s a reason why people shudder when we say stuff like ‘where’s the Citizen Kane/Watchmen/emotionally wrought game that will make me cry of our medium?”
You see the same preoccupation with emotional affect in untrained writers, or writers who haven’t had much experience. The first novel I ever attempted to write had the word ‘dark’ seventeen times in the first paragraph. I was fourteen. Ironically, it read a lot like a game pitch, with its preoccupation with cyborg warriors and glowing red eyes and people what accidentally killed their families. I really wanted it to have the same feel as the detective novels I was reading, so I emphasized how dark everything was in an attempt to create atmosphere. In my third-year creative writing class, there was a man who had designed this elaborate backstory for his comic series, a broad and evocative world of the afterlife that took influences from a diverse spread of cultures. The problem was, the actual stories were terrible. He had expected the narrative to be carried by the world design, and it simply wasn’t.
In art, when people begin to learn to draw, they do what’s called symbolic drawing: instead of drawing a face by observing what’s in front of them, a beginner artist will draw the symbol for a face, which is an oval with almond-shaped eyes and a nose and mouth. They’ll get frustrated, because they want to draw well but they put down what eyes and a face are supposed to look like, and the two don’t match up. Learning to draw is mostly ignoring what you think the world around you should look like, and drawing it the way it actually is. We have a similar problem in game writing, where we really want our stories to feel Important, but try to get it across through angst-ridden warriors and blood splatter everywhere and more exposed breasts than in an art school. These elements keep cropping up because when people think about the elements that are common within enjoyable stories, boobs, blood, and badasses keep coming up.
Thing is, those are the surface qualities of good stories. The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly is probably one of the biggest influences on the creation of badasses in the western hemisphere. People remember the showdown at the end over Arch Stanton’s grave, but what gives that scene emotional resonance is every interaction the characters have had up to that point and the various alliances and betrayals that have happened over the course of the movie. Yes, Clint Eastwood is a quick and accurate hand with the revolver and he doesn’t talk much, but he wins because he thought ahead, not because he was grizzled and spoke in one-liners. We care about him because he has sympathy for the soldiers who die needlessly and he’s the cleverest pragmatist in a pragmatic world, not because he saves Tuco from hanging in a cool way. That focus on character is what separates the Blondies from the Snake Plisskens – one is a well-drawn character with defined motivations and personality, and the other is a pulp stereotype. Games have largely been the latter. The boobs and blood and badassery are largely the result of good characters, not the cause, and mistaking one for another leads to things like Kane and Lynch and Alpha Protocol.
We even already have the game that’ll make us cry. It’s called Planetfall, and it’s a text adventure that was published by Infocom in the 1980s. You are marooned on an alien planet and have to find ways to survive. It’s completely barren, except for a robot named Floyd, who plays the role of your charming sidekick and comic relief. Throughout the game he does you several favours, usually while cracking wise – if you save the game in his presence, he says “Oh boy! Are we going to do something dangerous now?”. He’s a devoted friend. And at the end of the game, he sacrifices himself to save your life. A lot of people have been quoted as saying that was the first moment that made them cry. Afterwards, you’re wandering throughout the complex, and there’s nobody else there. It’s completely desolate. There’s nobody to comment when you save the game – almost no reason to save the game to begin with. And when Floyd is repaired at the end of the game, it’s a moment so joyous that it’s hard to believe. All that is because of the connection that the player has with that character. It’s what Ken Levine and co. wish Bioshock’s Little Sisters were.
I was at David Cage’s presentation on why Heavy Rain is the future of game writing at GDC. Despite the biases that Abbott talks about, I thought it was quite inspiring. I like David Cage, because he’s managed to do the work of the experimental fringe while being sponsored by Sony and made a pretty decent return for them in the process. I also really enjoyed Heavy Rain, but mostly because of what it promised in terms of emotionally mature narratives, not because of the story itself. There were a few emotionally striking moments (and they usually are informed by Cage’s experience as a father) but overall the story of Heavy Rain is a mess. The same thing is the case with Dragon Age or LA Noire, ad nauseam – games which do innovative things in terms of the gameplay of game narrative, but the story is lackluster. Cage’s talk was inspiring because – putting aside the endless self-lauding for Heavy Rain – he strongly advocated for an increased role of writers in the game development process.
But ultimately, I think we need game designers and developers who know how to write, both classically and for the unique medium of games. Learning how to write is a process of making mistakes until they get less obvious. We keep paying $60 for the mistakes, especially when noted writers from other media come in and completely fail to take advantage of the medium, leading to things like having to wait behind your party members in Homefront so you can watch their dialogue. Let’s find some people who have already made all the mistakes and hire them instead.