Martin Amis was right… writing and video games.

I know this post is late… I was holding off on a writing a post until I had played one particular game a little bit more, but I still don’t think I’ve spent enough time with it to be able to give an adequate post. So, today’s (yesterday’s) post is going to have to be on something completely untopical… like most things here.

We are going back to a gaming topic though! We’re going to combine my recent literary run on this blog with the usual gaming nonsense that I talk about. I’m just coming out of a two week gaming haze, so let’s talk about writing in video games.

It’s depressing if you really take the time to consider it; most video game writing is repetitive and uninspired gobs of dialog and cliche. The “story” of so many games today either comes off as a complete afterthought or just serves to clue the player in as to what previously established story they are loosely following (whether it’s the elite enforcement squad FPS or the magical rock collecting JRPG or whatever). It may be completely tired to say this in this current generation of consoles, but the emphasis on graphics can only go so far… the writing and story quality has, for the most part, completely flatlined over the last 10 years.

I’ve said before on this blog that I’m a challenge oriented gamer who is all about the endorphin release and being told by the game that I did the right thing. Really, I’m like a monkey with extremely good reflexes. I complain all the time that games are too easy and I search around for ridiculous challenges for no real reason. Every now and then though, I do want to be taken along on a truly interesting and involved story, or explore a completely new game universe.

The thing is, I have no idea what can be done to solve this problem. All I can really do is hope that the focus shifts a little more towards original storytelling… or at least sharper writing. I will offer a few hints about avoiding cliches though, just in case you have the ear of a game developer or two. These suggestions are broken up by genre, and most of the time they don’t even really involve an overhaul of the core gameplay, just a slight change in presentation.

RPGS – Find some other reason for the heroes to go through seven or eight consecutive and differently themed dungeons. Do away with long forgotten evils on the verge of reawakening and destroying the earth. I’m sure there can be a truly compelling villain and a truly sympathetic hero without having them both try to gather up a series of old artifacts that combine to create some ultimate power.

FPS – Come up with better protagonists and motivations. Most shooter characters are completely devoid of personality and sometimes even a name. You’re literally putting the player behind that character’s eyes… give them something to work with.

All genres – Use amnesia sparingly. I understand, the idea is to quickly get the player’s initial bewilderment from the interface and game world to match that of the character’s, but it’s completely overused.

Adventure games – Oh nevermind… the writing is usually one of the selling points of an adventure game.

Strategy games – This is a tough one since I recently had so much fun with Red Alert 3’s cartoonish storytelling. As a general tip, the generals and whatnot that the player interacts with should have a personality, and the player should have a better sense of the overall war in a campaign.

Sandbox games – DON’T chain the player to your story. The point is to let them run free, so let them do that as soon as possible. Let the story be there for those who want it, but don’t make it mandatory.

So, while offering no real solutions to the problem… there’s a tip or two.

What I’m saying is, the video games industry needs more english majors.


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July 2009
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