A negative title for a very positive lesson. Cuz what’s wrong – and right – with videogame writing is also what works and what doesn’t work for, you know, video AKA TV. (“Really, TVWriter™ minion? Wow, we didn’t know.”)
Jeeze we hate when our own thoughts start turning sarcastic on us. Anyway:
by Ed Smith
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.
Telling, Not Showing
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, orHalf-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.
Showing, Not Telling
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.