On Game Writing, or The Death of Literature, or The Future of Interactive Media

My love of stories came from video games, and my reading skills developed with them. In grade four I was reading at a college-grade level despite rarely reading books outside of school, most likely because all the games I played had so much text (this was back when games didn’t have voice acting). Now I read everything I get my hands on, in whatever form the words happen to be in.

I’m not the only one who cares about stories in games. Some may scoff at games as a storytelling tool–the same ones who might scoff at film, or the genre novel–but it’s been a delight observing how this industry has grown since its inception. From games with little to no text to games with more words than entire novels. Games have gone from no story to needing story. And since the games industry is more profitable than Hollywood now, it behooves developers to really push the boundaries of story in games to compete, and surpass, film as a storytelling tool. To make game equivalents of Oscar bait films. But will they?

Modern games are ludicrously expensive to develop. That means that there’s pretty much no room for risk. Risk comes in tiny little ways, and if and only if the consumers latch on, those risks become safe and can be expanded on, fleshed out–in the inevitable sequel, after sequel. What that means is that games have to remain games. With point-scores and battles and levels. How often do you play games without battles? I look forward to the day video compression gets to the point where you could turn a movie into a Telltale-like interactive narrative and have it not need to gamify itself.

I’ve been played The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt recently and while it’s not perfect, narrative-wise, I love the freedom and the history and the exploration primarily because it’s all up to me to find everything. Everything seems to have a history and everyone has believable motivations. It’s one of the most breathing, living worlds I’ve encountered and I can only hope that its success will drive more games of its style.

And that will require writers. Writers! More writers. Better writers. Writers as employees instead of freelancers hired after the game is developed to explain why the chunky space marine is blasting the alien. Writers who are there from the game’s preproduction stage, to tell the lead designers that having their spacefaring warriors fight the capital-D Darkness using the power of capital-L Light is fucking stupid now that it’s not the 70s. To give characters real motivations, emotions, and narrative arcs from the beginning. Yeah, okay, chopping blocks and deadlines and cuts and budgets–the story is gonna wind up butchered one way or the other. But there are countless examples of games that still work, narratively, by the time they ship.

The industry is so young it’s just now realizing that story is important in games, and gamers are becoming more and more critical of poor game narratives. I firmly believe that eventually developers will realize that they need to find teams of narrative designers rather than doing it all themselves. Eventually there will be narrative design/interactive narrative classes in universities, because the skill to write linearly isn’t necessarily helpful for writing games.

Or maybe I just want to write for games and I’m bitter that too few developers are hiring.

– H.

2 thoughts on “On Game Writing, or The Death of Literature, or The Future of Interactive Media

  1. Excellent points. I haven’t played Witcher 3 yet (I’m a poor grad student, so I’m waiting for a good sale on Steam or GOG or something before I dive in), but I’ve heard very positive things about the quality of the storytelling in this iteration of the series so I’m excited to get to it.

    In the past ten years or so, games (AAAs, especially) have been trending toward stronger, more fully-realized narratives. I think, in part, this might have to do with how long games these days are getting. It’s hard to fill 100+ hours of gameplay with nothing but explosions and witty one-liners. Story is becoming increasingly important, and I wouldn’t be surprised if opportunities for game writing start ballooning in the immediate future. (So don’t give up hope…there’s still a chance for you yet.)

    • I think you’re right. Games are growing far beyond ten sidescrolling levels with no text to massive worlds that take weeks straight to fully explore, filled with characters and side plots and complex narratives. I think it’s only logical that, as developers follow the trends of big sandbox games and popular RPGs, nonlinear writers will grow to be in high demand. I’d just like it to come faster so I can enjoy more good stories in games! Thanks for commenting. 🙂

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