Writing can make or break a game. It takes many forms - from dialogue to in-game literature, voiceovers or even scripted environmental events - but in almost all cases it aims to move the game along, distil complexity into something meaningful, give justifications for gameplay conceits and keep the player attached to the characters and scenarios through story.
When it comes to pointing out ‘good writing’ in games though, we don’t always look to the examples that do these things best. More often than not we associate ‘good writing’ with well-crafted story content and entertaining text or dialogue, and while this obviously isn’t a negative thing in and of itself, it leaves room for the idea that there are games with great, skilful writing that we don’t think of as such because they aren’t literary or don’t tell a gripping story. So is there a problem with the way we evaluate the quality of writing in games?
Often when we talk about writing, we refer to the bits between or on top of the gameplay, where the characters talk to one another or you read some text to gain exposition. Yet while that kind of writing is easier for us to identify and analyse (by looking for the indicators of quality we recognise from literature and other media), the more game-specific, more technical (and depending on the game, more vital) form of writing that takes place during and informs the gameplay can often be overlooked.
With the exception of pure narrative (for example in a cutscene), writing in games must be function first, which is to say it’s less to do with crafting a story and more to do with non-literary concerns like player retention and awareness. Concerns like how does a player know the only way to exit the room is through a ladder in the roof? What does an AI character say to alert the player to incoming danger? How will the game explain to the player that a particular area is off-limits?
Whether these concerns are addressed seamlessly depends almost entirely on the quality of the writing which, like most other art in games, is usually there to build part of the scaffolding as much as part of the pretty façade. For example having a character deliver a “no, this doesn’t go here” or a “just three more to go” or heaven forbid a “hey, listen” serves a gameplay purpose rather than a literary one, and so should be judged on whether that purpose is realised.
Even if an offhand character remark gives you exactly the information you need at the right time to have things click into place and make you feel like a genius or a badass, such writing is unlikely to be called out as ‘good’, and I think it boils down to the fact that this kind of functional writing only really exists in video games.
As a baseline, consider Naughty Dog's Uncharted trilogy and The Last of Us, which are generally very well regarded in terms of writing and storytelling. This can be seen most recently in The Last of Us Left Behind DLC, in which the narrative cleverly negotiates our familiarity with coming-of-age stories.
Although stories of this type tend to be predictable and hard to pull off owing to the sheer number of times they’ve been told, the characterisation and literary restraint in Left Behind allows an experience that feels exciting and surprising while still managing to convey something deeply universal. Had the characters been written more salaciously or more in line with traditional young love stories, the player would surely have anticipated this and the impact of Left Behind would have been undermined.
Stories like these show that video games are just as capable of incredible storytelling as film and literature, but it’s plain to see that the cleverness and skill with which the game’s narrative aspects are handled are satisfying to us in all the ways we recognise from those purely narrative forms. We recognise them as hallmarks of good storytelling. So what about the cleverness and writing skills unique to video games as a form? For an example of that I’m going to jump to a game similar to The Last of Us in many ways, but also very different.
Whether or not the story being told in the latest game - Judgment - was of a high quality in the traditional sense, the writing was exceptional. Take the declassified missions for example, which appeared in each chapter and offered an optional set of parameters to the player, increasing the challenge but also the reward.
The parameters obviously had to be fun from a gameplay point of view, but their in-game justification required scenarios that made sense to that exact part of the narrative, could be left out entirely if the player so chose, and delivered a reasonable explanation for why visibility was suddenly limited or the mission had to be accomplished under a certain time constraint. In addition to this, voiceover had to be written that explained these ludicrous happenings from the perspective of one of the main characters, bringing in their own perspective and personality.
In the end the player has an understanding of the option, the consequences and the story, and they’ve stayed immersed in the artifice of the game throughout. It’s a great (if not very subtle) example of games writing acting as the carpenter’s hammer rather than the novelist’s pen. While none of it hit you in the gut, brought a tear to your eye or made you gasp with an unexpected twist, it was good writing nonetheless.
Zooming in from the overarching scenario-type writing to the minute-to-minute experience kind, you can also see a vital role that’s easy to overlook. We’ve all had experiences where the entirety of what’s happening in a game fails to be communicated to us coherently, either because we haven’t grasped an important mechanic or are just not looking at it the intended way.
Often in fast-paced action-heavy games where that doesn’t happen a lot (like Gears), it’s because your focus and understanding of the scenario is being shaped by mission directives or context-specific character speech. For all its malignment, “RAZOR HAIL” is a pretty stunningly effective thing for a character to scream at you if you need to be told “keep yourself covered from above at all times or you’ll be ripped to shreds”.
Whether a particular game is built around mechanics or a story at its core (or both), the function of this seemingly incidental writing is to connect the player in their limited perspective to their place in the immediate scenario and the wider game world.
A poorly written or communicated aspect of the game will break the player’s ability to experience the game as intended, even as the disruptive and unpredictable tendencies of the player will break any writer’s attempt to focus attention too absolutely or tell a story too linearly. Yet for all this, if the writing of a game is absolutely nailed the player will hardly even notice it’s there while they’re playing.
It’s this unique relationship between players and game designers - each affecting the way the other creates and experiences - that makes the supporting writing in games so largely unlike the writing in any other media, and it’s why that writing is just as worthy and just as deserving of our analysis and attention as the more literary kind we tend to focus on.
Tim is a freelance writer based in Sydney. You can catch up with him on Twitter and why not join the whole IGN Australia team on Facebook?