The best plays and films have had great writing for a long time. The best TV shows have had great writing for about a decade now. But the writing in the best videogames is still cringe-inducingly awful. This is despite the fact that videogame blockbusters regularly have production budgets of $50M or more. When will videogames hit their “golden age” (at least, for writing)?
Lyle Cantor says
When we have AGI. Games are interactive; stories are not. The writing will always feel of poor quality until it can dynamically respond to user behavior.
Disagree. There are many, many games where story and gameplay are completely segregated and yet the story is *still* trash.
András Kovács says
I think it might be the case that games have many factors other than writing that potentially contribute to enjoyment, therefore at any given time the best-rated games should have worse writing than in other media. Many games also have no writing at all, like Kerbal Space Program or Dwarf Fortress, where all stories come from simulation and procedural generation. That said, I’m also appalled by the writing standards of AAA gaming.
I completely agree. Even games that are supposedly dialogue strong (in that emphasis is placed on dialogue as a gameplay element), such as the more recent Deus Ex that place an emphasis on exchange of ideas, have brutally bad writing.
It’s like instead of an actual two way conversation, they exchange a series of gruff declarations. Their opinions are never tentative, never nuanced, never enlightened.
Also, there’s something I like about philosophical conversations, where I feel like I’m learning something, or debates, where I feel like ideas interact in interesting ways. There’s a deference to the restrictions of reason and logic in the space of conversation, the same way a physical game world might have deference to real world physics. And what it is I like about those conversations is never found in video games, and barely even found in television.
I’m optimistic about Firewatch (firewatchgame.com). I’ve watched a 20 playthrough they release at E3 2015 and the dialogue was great.
Cool, yeah, promising.
This is something I was wondering about with the release of Fallout 4. The early Fallout games had decent writing relative to most other games, as did a similar isometric game, Planescape: Torment, but Fallout 4 drops this in favor of some pretty sparse and poor dialog. The gulf between typical and even good game dialog and what seems possible giving existing human ability seems vast compared to other aspects of game quality and to the quality of writing in other outlets.
Portal and Planescape Torment both had great writing. Games with good writing do exist, writing is simply not the chief metric by which games should be measured.
A theory: when the advance of other distinguishing factors of the games (graphics, sound, new game modes such as multiplayer or VR) will slow down.
I believe it is already happening, if nowhere else then in some indies, who have given up chasing the technology train. Wasn’t Braid fine for you? Check out The Darkest Dungeon (hardcore gothic one-dimensional dungeon crawl; Kickstarted) and Pathologic (2015 remastered edition of critically acclaimed 2005 Russian game is now on Steam; altogether new re-release forthcoming; Kickstarted)
Saul Till says
I stumbled on this site after searching(ages) for a particular piece of music I heard soundtracking a BBC doc. It’s always nice when that happens and I really like what you’ve done here. I’ve always wanted to explore modern classical music but never had any idea where to start(mainly my cues came from Spiritualized/Sonic Youth interviews). The fact that there are musings about plenty of the other stuff I’m interested in – games, AI, etc. – is even cooler. Anyway, I thought I’d have a shot at answering this question.
The mainstream games industry is, ATM, consumed by climbing purely technical peaks. I’ve no idea how long it’ll take them to truly plateau in terms of graphics but until they do only a set amount of development effort will be allocated to writing. Mainstream games are sold on their most obvious, easily identifiable qualities, so things like graphics and world-size will continue to be the focus of AAA developers and their publishers until there’s no more technological high-ground to grab. There will be improvements but I suspect they’ll be small, incremental ones. The Last Of Us and its DLC had reasonable writing AFAICR(and one particular scene, involving a tag-along father and his son, that remains the most startling cutscene I’ve ever seen in a game), and the Portals were both brilliantly written. Naughty Dog sets the precedent in this area, but even then the overall narrative direction in their TLOU was crammed full of ‘ludonarrative dissonance'(apologies), eg. the main character – a family man and all-round good guy – being forced to slaughter 80-90 other human beings in the course of the game.
As much as I believe it’s important that the writing in games improves, I’m still not sure it’s anywhere near as crucial as it is in films or literature. Half-Life had barely any dialogue and yet it told a tight, consistent, utterly enthralling story that is to this day the most riveting game I’ve ever played. To me, if you’re going to make a linear, narrative-driven game Half-Life is how you do it. Show don’t tell.
BTW I’ve been playing Firewatch for the last few weeks and its dialogue is good. Ordinary people reacting credibly to an increasingly strange situation. It’s not as funny as I’d hoped it would be and if anything lets it down it’s the slightly off voice-acting by your boss Delilah, but I’m fairly near the end and there’s a sort-of-twist that sort-of-explains her demeanor. Again, although the writing’s pretty good it’s mainly the beautiful stylised world and the slow churn of events that really lingers. I can recommend it, although I’m ambivalent about whether ‘walking sims’ are a good thing in the long term.