Games and Words: What Makes For Good Writing?


Not all that long ago, I wrote about Vampire: Bloodlines, and why I considered it the game which featured the best writing. This caused a minor stir, and at last count two people who aren’t us had expressed opinons. Two! That’s how the French Revolution got started.*

This got me thinking. Subjectivity and personal preference aside, what is good writing for a game? Is it a fundamentally different discipline to writing for a film, a tv show, a comic book? Good writing is good writing, surely – but at the same time, even if the Final Fantasy games were glittering gems of deep character exploration and gorgeous poetry, I would still be tempted to argue that the way the Final Fantasy games work would undermine even the very best writing. Does good writing vary depending on genre also? What works for BioShock would reduce me to a blind fury in a roleplayer.

It is peculiar how wildly people differ on this subject. I thought recent fanboy darling The Witcher featured agonisingly bad writing** but there are those who will defend it bitterly, holding it up as a shining paragon of everything they think the genre should be. Turn the discussion to Dragon Age (and don’t I always?), and while I argue for the brilliance of the writing, it’s not hard to find legions of detractors. Different strokes for different folks, of course, but when you consider other forms, other media, then you usually find something much closer to a consensus. Bad writing is bad, good writing is good.

Maybe this has more to do with cultural acceptance. Most other media has been swallowed by the mainstream, with high profile critics in all the daily newspapers for telly, films, music, books etc. With acceptance comes a status quo, and with high profile critics comes a hierarchy. Games, so far, have dodged this. Critics exist in gaming, but their impact is far smaller than in film or book criticism. Games are coming of age concurrently with the electronet after all, and this very site stands testament to this generation’s belief that all one needs to be a critic is a keyboard and an opinion.

About the only game that unites everyone together for cuddles and word-love is Planescape: Torment. Everyone agrees that Torment is wonderfully written. There are no dissenters – Black Isle employed some wonderful writers, and Avellone’s brilliance is clear to see in dozens of games, particularly in Planescape but also Knights of the Old Republic 2 (for all it’s flaws, and God knows it has plenty, it is a wonderfully written game). But let’s make this a little more difficult, shall we? Planescape is well written – but is it great writing for a game? For all it’s strengths, most of the time Planescape isn’t much more than a novel. Most of the time, all I’m doing is reading reams and reams of 12pt text. It is very well written – but it is not uniquely suited to being a game.

For my part, I would argue that a game needs flexibility in its writing. It needs to give the player options, to allow them to meander and alter the flow of the game. That said, I suppose most of the time that only applies to RPGs.  Arkham Asylum, BioShock – the writing here needs to engage, interest, draw the player onwards. It needs to tempt, hint, seduce, all without just infodumping on the head of the player. Give us hints – but make us work.

Cor, this game writing business sounds tricky. No wonder most people get it so wrong. So over to you, EDRites – what makes good writing in a videogame? How’s the writing in Dragon Age? What about Thief: The Dark Project? Tomb Raider? Tell the world.


*Not actually true. The French Revolution got started because the King was a rubbish moderator, and closed down all the comment threads.

**Although it did have norks, so there’s that. If you’re twelve.

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3 Comments on “Games and Words: What Makes For Good Writing?”

  1. Golly. We’ve got risqué with pictures recently. We’ll need an adult warning next.

    I was thinking about exactly this recently and came to the worrying conclusion that I couldn’t think of a single game that was genuinely well-written. I know, controversial. Planescape: Torment had its moments, but in any other format, it’d be low-grade fantasy fiction. It wouldn’t be published, let alone a bestseller. And Vampire would suffer the same fate, in fact worse; it’d sell worse than bloody Twilight.

    Narrative in games is about getting a player from point A to B rather than delivering literary greatness. When they attempt this they end up overwritten and lengthy.

    But, if we absolutely must have a discussion about most impressively written games, my money is on Grim Fandango or Monkey Island. I don’t care much for semi-coherent ramblings or deep philosophy, if I want, I’ll read Dan Brown.

  2. Joe Says:

    Good writing makes me feel something, to put it simply. Not being overburdened with the weaker emotions such as remorse, I was most impressed when KOTOR made me feel terribly guilty after (accidentally) threatening a beggar on Tatooine. Similarly, Deionnara managed to make me feel quite bad in the opening hours of Planescape, despite the fact that I was blameless for what had happened to her.

    In the same way, romance sub-plots need to do one of two things to engage me; make me giggle and snort out loud at 3 in the morning, or make me want to give the character in question a big hug. I was very surprised when, playing Dragon Age a few days ago, I was struck by a sudden attack of conscience. I’d been leading Leliana on, accidentally at first but then with the intention of finding out how far I could take it before she or Alistair would make me choose, when she all of a sudden ended it herself, and made me feel terrible at the same time. In fact, if I wasn’t so dead-set on finally becoming Queen this time and ruling Ferelden with an blood-soaked iron fist, I would have dropped Alistair for Leliana. I was very surprised, since in my last playthrough she wasn’t a character I particularly connected with. I was so impressed that I promoted her to my main party. Alistair is of course a permanent member, since he makes me giggle almost every time he speaks.

    Dragon Age is a particularly good example of writing that makes me connect with the game on many levels. By the time I finally get to kill the villain from my origin story, I’ve been baying for their blood for a good twenty hours at least. Similarly, Jon Irenicus from Baldur’s Gate 2; At the end I was torn between my desire to decorate the Planarsphere with his assorted innards, and my admiration for just how evil the man was. In fact, nearly all the characters from BG2 provoke an emotional response, from poor wingless Aerie even to Xzar, after being played by the Harpers anyway.

    As an example of good and bad writing, I offer Freelancer. It’s good in that it has likeable characters and a good story, but it plays more like a film than a game. There’s no interactivity, I can be a pirate or a trader or whatever, but the story says I will be a hero and save everyone even if what I really want to do is sell water by the ton or hang around trade lanes getting kicks from shooting the ring before people can dock. Yes, I can do that and ignore the story, but that severely limits my options to hanging around Liberty in the weakest ships in the system.

    • Paul S Says:

      Eloquently put. That really is what makes Dragon Age so very special – unexpectedly getting you in the feelings. Games should be the medium best placed for doing this, but I can count the number of games that actually did it to me without hitting double digits.

      Your Freelancer example is a good one also, and a curse that blights far too many games. I don’t necessarily object to games that limit my options, as long as the game in question doesn’t pretend otherwise. BioShock was simple and linear, and that was fine.

      The big problem is that games writing needs to do lots of different things, and that can vary wildly depending on the game in question. This, I think, is the core of why it is so difficult for people to get right.

      As for Irenicus – good golly, yes. Actually, I may return to him for a special post in his honour at a later date, as he really is a magnificent character.

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