Friday, September 26, 2014

The Problem With Video Game Writing

Video Games are not well written stories.

To be fair, an awful lot of them are not trying to be. I played a game recently called Farm For Your Life. It's fun. You build a farm, you harvest crops, you use those crops to make food, you serve that food in a restaurant, you use the funds from that farm to make your farm better and build walls and and build turrets to defend your farm and restaurant from ZOMBIE HORDES!!!

It's a lot of fun. It's one of those games I like to play when I'm listening to an audiobook.

But there's not really much of a narrative in Farm For Your Life. That's not a criticism. It doesn't need a narrative. It has a set up and then it can pretty much go forever. I think you can solve the zombie problem. You meet this scientist guy looking for a cure and you can help him, but I haven't done that because I'm not interested in ending the game. I like the farming and the restaurant and the killing zombies. It's a token and mostly pointless story that, as it should, plays second fiddle to cooking food and killing zombies. Good times.

There's a lot of games like that. In fact, that sort of 'writing' is where video games began. Did Pong or Pacman had a narrative? No, it just had dots and things you did with those dots. Did Mario and The Legend of Zelda have a narrative? No.

No, don't try and argue with me, they didn't. There is no story in The Legend of Zelda or Super Mario Bros. It's two video games where a princess is missing and you go through a series of challenges (levels in Mario and puzzles and dungeons in Zelda) and then you achieve your goal. They had as much story as a game of Monopoly.

However, that began to change pretty rapidly. Now we have a lot more story telling going on in Video Games. For some games, the story is everything (I'm looking at you, Heavy Rain) but for the vast majority of games, there's a story, but it's not really what we're there for. The story exists to string together a bunch of set pieces and things to shoot or hack of blast. Some games are commendable for their efforts - I was always particularly fond of the story telling in inFamous. Other games, like that one "based on" The Divine Comedy," well, their attempts at story telling are laughable. So there's a spectrum.

But they're all flawed. You see the problem is, Video Games are stories with padding. They're essentially pillows wrapped in pages from a Doc Savage novel. The plot has to frequently take long pauses for the player to play the game and overcome challenges and kill some enemies and jump over snake pits. All of these are dramatic as long as the player can see them, and then they're gone. That guy you shot in the tutorial? The third one from the left that looks exactly the same as the two guys next to him? You'll never hear about him again.

The majority of what you do in a video game is meaningless in terms of how it affects the plot.

Listen, plot has a structure. Some people cringe at the thought, but it does and it's almost unavoidable if you want to write a good plot. Basically, a plot looks like this:

- Something happens to make a protagonist act
- Protagonist begins working towards some kind of goal
- Protagonist has early victory
- Things begin to go wrong just as the Protagonist loses the option of turning back
- Protagonist struggles forward, but he suffers multiple set backs. His chances of success dwindle and the stakes keep going up.
- Protagonist confronts source of problems or final obstacle before his goal and succeeds or fails, either way he is forever changed.

That's not exactly set in stone but that's more or less how it works in every story. And we keep doing it like that because it works. But the key to drama is that part where the protagonist suffers set backs and fails multiple times. That's how you build excitement and tension. You can't have a story without it!

Unless you're a video game. Players don't want to fail. Players want to feel awesome and move forward and video games are written to accommodate this desire. Video game writers work around this by ever padding out the story and ever extending and changing the goals. Sometimes it works really well. I loved the hell out of 'Far Cry 3' because of its story telling. But these games that are "well written" are the exception and not the rule. Video game writing is, for the most part, pants.

But I struggle to hold that against video games. All this is measuring video games by old standards for a different medium. It's the only set of standards we have for now, so it will have to do. But because video games are interactive, they're a very new means of story telling. We're still figuring out the best way to make video game writing work.

We're not sure what, exactly, the rules are just yet. So for the moment, I still cut video games a lot of slack and often give them a free pass entirely. The medium is evolving and our ideas about story telling must evolve with it. So even though video game story telling is, right now, largely sucky and full of unfamiliar and uncomfortable ground, we're only seeing the adolescence of video games and the future is bright ahead of us.

All right, so now that I've made my position clear and all the gamer fanboys and putting away their torches and pitchforks, we can come back to what this means for you, oh writers of things that are not video games. In my last blog entry I said that there is a lot to be learned about story telling from comic books and movies and television, even if you want to write prose.

Well the same just can't be said of video games. There's nothing you can get from video games that you can't get from those other mediums I mentioned. But you can pick up a lot of had habits and incorrect ideas about story telling from video games. So, honestly, unless you're planning to write for video games, maybe just play video games for fun. There's plenty of other things to study. Switch the writer brain off for a while and just enjoy.

Okay kids, that's it. I'll catch you next time.

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