In December, 2011, GamesTM ran a feature on the making of Metal Gear Solid. The magazine interviewed Agness Kaku, a fluent speaker of both English and Japanese who’d done localisation work for the series. Asked what she thought of ostensible visionary Hideo Kojima, she said: “I don’t think he’s a writer. The fact that he would even be considered one shows how low the standards are in the game industry. Nothing in Metal Gear Solid 2 is above a fanfic level. He wouldn’t last a morning in a network TV writers’ room.”
This was around the time I started writing about games—first as a hobby, later as a career—and Kaku’s words stuck with me. Kojima’s work was awful—just puerile, convoluted crap. And the fact it was held aloft made me reconsider whether games, despite noble efforts from Jason Rohrer, Brendan McNamara, Mary DeMarle and others, really were becoming more sophisticated in terms of screen-writing.
Four years later, very little has changed. Videogame writing is still plagued by several trends and tropes that limit the medium’s potential.
I won’t spend the whole article ragging on Kojima, but he is the worst for this. Metal Gear Solid is a disasterpiece of over-writing, where every narrative beat—every moment of characterisation—is dragged out with clunky, oozing dialogue. This isn’t about demonising cutscenes—cutscenes, done right, can work fine. It’s more to do with brevity. Keeping things brief is the key to good script-writing. And if you can use actions or visuals to let your audience know what’s happening, that’s even better. Take a look around Jensen’s apartment in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. It has bags of character, not just in the e-books or journals you can pick up, but the various detritus lying around the bedroom. Same goes for Rapture, in BioShock, or Half-Life 2’s City 17. Instead of explaining characters and plot in laborious, patronising detail, game writing is better when it takes advantage of 3D space, and shows the audience what’s happening.
On the contrary, visual storytelling works better if there’s a base level of narrative that isn’t open to interpretation. Showing is better than telling, but some games—Journey, Braid, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter—confuse deliberate obfuscation with sophistication. Visual story hints are no good if the characters don’t respond to them. Rather than present a bag of images, and then drop the player in there, hoping that a narrative through-line will simply develop, it’s stronger to take a stance and try to contextualise what’s on screen. That kind of “mute storytelling,” where the player character doesn’t speak and the narrative beats appear without any explicit comment from the writers, feels ambivalent, like everything on screen is equally meaningful, or equally meaningless. By all means paint story on the walls, but have the characters—and by proxy, the writers—respond to it. Don’t be afraid of telling players what to think and how to feel. It’s your story. Personalise it.
This one doesn’t apply strictly to games—Hollywood, at the moment, has a poisonous obsession with getting inside characters’ heads. The Nolan Batman films are especially guilty, particularly with The Joker in The Dark Knight, who was sold as a nihilistic poster boy. Action movies and superhero films in particular are bogged down in psychoanalysis. It’s a commendable idea, to elevate the blockbuster above popcorn entertainment, but the efforts are invariably strained. Take a look at the scenes where Harvey Dent and James Gordon are discussing bringing down the mob, and Batman walks in in his pointy rubber suit. Psychology and action rarely combine, and nor should they. Tomb Raider would be fine without all the posturing about Lara’s psyche. Uncharted works great as a straight action title—there’s no need to complicate Nathan Drake or his “backstory.” The key thing to remember is that writing a smart, solid, exciting action script is just as admirable as doing a psycho-drama, perhaps more so. There’s no credibility to be earned from pseudo-analytical over-writing—just look at Far Cry 3. So keep psychology out of it. John McClane is a great character, and he never goes on about his daddy issues.
There’s a bit in Always Sometimes Monsters when Viper, an ex-girlfriend of one of your pals, and a heroin addict, comes to you and says “look what I’ve got?” “What is it?” you reply. “A baggie of heroin.” A baggie of heroin. She actually says “a baggie of heroin.” Videogames have been doing this for a while now, straining to incorporate adult material, and it always comes off as inauthentic. I’m thinking of the attempted rape scene in Beyond, the crap with Dom’s wife in Gears of War, the endless drug references in Grand Theft Auto. It’s all teenage and try-hard—it feels like it’s written by milquetoast-y guys who haven’t really done much in life. I appreciate writers trying to go a bit deeper, but right now, a lot of the ostensible “adult” games are disrespectful of the source material. Topics like drug abuse, racism and sex are being chucked in, like seasoning, to give an illusion of sophistication—again, look at Far Cry 3. But you shouldn’t tokenize these things. To do them properly, you need to be prepared to go through a lot of research, and actually give a shit about the subject.
There are lots of things wrong with videogames. They’re sexist, violent, sexist, stupid, sexist, racist, sexist, homophobic and sexist. But the way to remedy these things isn’t to make fun of the fact that they exist—isn’t to make games that are “about games.” Identifying what you think is a problem should be the first part of the ideas process, not the sum total of a script. This is why Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods (or rather, Joss Whedon’s everything) doesn’t work for me. It pokes fun at horror movie conventions but ultimately is an example of them itself. Same goes for Spec Ops: The Line and, once again, Far Cry 3. If you think games are violent, write a game that isn’t violent, or that treats violence with a little more nuance. That’s a much stronger act of rebellion, and a more exciting project, that merely satirizing—i.e. pompously passing judgement over—your contemporaries.
A more appropriate title for this entry might be “unpoliticization,” because what I’m referring to is a refusal on behalf of game writers to get in the ring, explicitly, when it comes to politics. This perhaps clashes with my complaint that games fail to gracefully handle adult themes, and you could argue that Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto and Battlefield all have marked political leanings. But mostly, game writers seem content to stay ambivalent when it comes to politics. The Republican-lilted arse in CoD feels more like ignorance on behalf of the screen-writers, as opposed to properly formed, properly researched politicizing. Likewise, Grand Theft Auto’s disapproval of basically everything in America feels more like smugness and nihilism—like willful disengagement from politics, masquerading as satire. Game writing would be improved, and taken more seriously, if it wrestled with real-world politics—if the writers, when interviewed, were prepared to discuss their government, or bring up some statistics about social issue X. What I see in a lot of game scripts is basically cowardice, a pervasive worry that if the subject matter edges too far from the political centre, it’ll alienate a percentage of consumers. Games cost money and appealing to as many people at once is, naturally, the safest way to recoup investment and secure people’s jobs. But maybe people would be just as interested in games that have a weighty political bias as they would in objective, inoffensive entertainment. Maybe we aren’t all that stupid.
If you aren’t white, male and heterosexual, not only are you largely excluded from being represented in videogames, you’re often ridiculed by them. I’m looking at my bookcase now, which contains about 100 games from various eras and platforms, and there are maybe five titles which I’d argue shouldn’t be grouped in with the rest, insofar as they don’t actively attack non-whites, non-males and non-heterosexuals. The rest, to varying extents, belittle and spoof everybody who doesn’t slot into Caucasian middle-class. From here I can see Uncharted, Red Dead Redemption, Dead Rising, Watch Dogs and GTA, all of which propagate the idea that white guys are who matter. Women are objectified. Non-heterosexuals are caricatured. People of colour are stereotyped. Until the representation of non-white, non-straight, non-men gets better, videogame writing will remain in the gutter.
Videogame writers call this “universe building.” I prefer to think of it as “merchandising.” Look at Halo, Gears of War, Assassin’s Creed—all the big names. As well as the various games, sequels and spin-offs, these franchises are comprised of books, comics, TV shows and movies. And all this stuff is junk. Those Halo spin-offs exist, not because they’re a story worth telling, but because they make a profit. Lore is a way to disguise money-spinning. It’s also boring. Who cares if “to stop the Planextans you need to recover the Lost Orb of Ziggath”? Why do back-stories matter? Who gives a crap how rooted in some fictional history, or mythology, or legend something is—this is all stuff that’s just been made up. Lore slows videogame writing down. It makes it all sound insular and inconsequential and sub-Tolkien. Ignoring the blatant financial aspect, lore is just bad writing. It muddies plot and overcomplicates characters. It fills the precious “universe” with contradictions, and inevitably comes across as false.
I’ve loved violence in movies, TV shows and books. Some of the most powerful moments in fiction are violent—Sonny’s death in The Godfather, the myriad tragedies of The Wire, the end of A Farewell to Arms. But games rarely use violence for dramatic impact. Blood is shed in videogames in the name of spectacle or a kind of “coolness.” The violence is repackaged into fun, a kind of empty input on behalf of the player to generate an output from the game—you kill all the bad guys in the level, and get to the next one. And even when a named character is killed, the world hardly changes. You defeat Alduin in Skyrim and everyone treats you just the same. When Kate dies at the end of GTA 4, Niko is ejected back onto the streets of Liberty, to kill, rampage and crash around like usual. There are exceptions—the two deaths at the end of the “Summer” section in The Last of Us clearly have some impact on Joel and Ellie—but mostly, violence is an accepted reality. People worry about blood and gore effects, as if being able to chop a guard’s head off and throw it around in Fallout is going to send kids into a real-world frenzy. But it’s the sheer quantity of violence in games—all unchecked, unremarked upon and unimportant—that’s the problem. Writers would do well to make sure that every kill, more or less, changes the trajectory of the story, or at least resonates in some way with the main character. Violence has to be earned. It shouldn’t be what a game is “for.”
You might think they’re acceptable practicalities, or “gameisms”, but those characters that hand out missions or operate in-game shops matter. It’s not a case of recording hundreds of lines of ambient dialogue so that the guy behind the counter in Whiterun tavern never repeats himself. It’s just about giving the illusion of a life behind what this character does in relation to the player—making it seem like they’re something more complex than a gameplay or item hub. I’ve ragged on Far Cry a fair bit here, but I think Far Cry 4 actually does this really well. The first time you collect one of the radio tower missions, there’s a cutscene with a guy lying on a bed, in agony. You ask what happened. “He was trying to destroy one of the propaganda towers, and he fell.” The radio tower missions could easily feel repetitive and “gamey,” like box-ticking extra “content” used to pad out the running time. But now there’s a human element. There’s an urgency. There’s something more to this than videogame functionality. Deadly Premonition is good for this as well. There’s a large cast of shop owners, who you visit to replenish your equipment, but they all seem to have lives behind what you’re seeing—they shut up shop at closing time, and either hit the bar or go back home. It’s tempting to file characters into your script who serve a purely practical purpose—in the scripts I’ve worked on, I’ve had these characters as well, who pop up in one scene just to move things along. But you have to either do more with them or excise them completely, otherwise the cogs and gears start to show, and the fiction becomes less plausible. Don’t reduce people to gameplay hubs. Give them some life.
Ed Smith is a freelance critic who has written for Eurogamer, New Statesman and The Escapist. Find him on Twitter @mostsincerelyed.