Why are the stories in video games so bad?

Time now to pursue the second most pressing mystery in video gaming. (The first, of course, being: “Why does my PC keep freezing just as I finally start getting somewhere in this $#@! game?”)

heavyrainby Leigh Alexander

People often say they are enthusiastic about games because “they can tell stories”, or because they enable narrative moments not possible in other media. But although there are numerous flashes of brilliance in games, this potential often feels like something they circle, but never attain.

That’s because the act of writing for games and the skillset required is vastly different from what you’d think or expect, and even people who do it professionally, toiling quietly behind the scenes, often seem frustrated at how poorly-understood the work is.

Game developers tend to underestimate the importance of having a writer around, and they are very important (speaking as a writer, of course). Lots of creators think that because their game doesn’t “have a lot of dialogue” or require a lot of text, that there is no need for writing.

There’s also the idea that a game is an experience for the player to have—that the player discovers his or her own narrative through the unique decisions and movements they make in its world, and that a writer’s just going to impose some kind of artificial constraint, cramping the player’s movement in the name of forcing them to plod through some dull linear tale.

In my experience of game developers, they often just think other things are more important: the fun, the mechanics, the performance of the software, and sometimes those are fair priorities in an industry where there’s never enough time and money to be certain the game will turn out well and everyone just tries to focus on their own discipline.

Plenty of creators I’ve met will tell you that the player just doesn’t care about the story. In some genres that’s absolutely true—you just want to page through the artificial plot and melodramatic dialogue so that you can go kill more things in a new area. Maybe more players would be motivated by story instead of merely tolerant of it if the storytelling was interesting and new, and not just another inbred geek action narrative. But rarely are games influenced by things outside of games, except for a list of usual suspects. And when most people who buy a traditional-length game will never play it for long enough to finish it, why bother?

None of these things are necessarily certain, but it often comes out that way nonetheless. The story and the gameplay are often at cross-purposes, feeling like separate entities where one gets in the way of the other at best, and they defeat one another in the worst case.

Having a writer helps, but developers often just bring writers in to help fill in dialogue around setpieces (make up a reason for everyone to have a huge zombie battle in the football arena!) not to contribute to an overall narrative design. Writers on big games have told me privately of the friction they felt between what they wanted to happen in the game and the absurd, dissonant moments of gameplay that were beloved to the developers and too late to change.

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