Design Issues in Gaming: Writing for Games

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By now, those who have kept up with this blog know that I discuss video games a lot. I also, however, enjoy all forms of entertainment, but most notably books. As such, I like anything that has some form of writing involved in its creation process. Due to my inclinations, I am distressed if a video game has poor writing, and celebrate a game with great writing. For various reasons, video games have a reputation of having bad writing. I would like to delve into why this might be the case, reveal some common mistakes, give both good and bad examples, and even present some solutions.

A few quick notes before I begin: even though I’ve studied video games and writing for them, what I present to you in this article is by no means comprehensive. They are based on my experiences and opinions, and there may be more examples and solutions than what will fit in this article. (You can share your thoughts, examples, and possible solutions in the comments below) Additionally, this article will have spoilers for several games in it! They will be labeled with SPOILER and END SPOILER when they come up. If you want to read another article related to writing in games, you can check out Blank Slate Characters in Video Games.

So, to start out, what makes writing for games tricky? Here are a few thoughts:

  • While writing isn’t new, video games, and games with a story, are relatively new.
  • The interactivity may change how the story my play out, sometimes altering development time and project scope when making a video game.
  • Sometimes content gets cut in the development process.
  • This doesn’t happen in every game’s development, but there may not be a lot of writers on a team (sometimes a game designer also does the writing).
  • Some games don’t require writing, but get end up getting a plot shoved in it anyway.

Another thing to consider is that some tropes are overused in the game industry. Take a look at these plots, and I’m sure they sound familiar:

Zelda2
The Legend of Zelda series over uses the “save the princess” trope.
  • Rescue the Princess (Mario, Zelda, etc.)
  • Save the world from the villain (Final Fantasy series, Fire Emblem series, Zelda, Kirby, Metroid, etc.)
  • Win a competition (Pokemon, sports games, some puzzle games, some Mega Man Battle Network games, etc.)

These tropes are so common because the simplest way to write for a game (and often, writing in general), is to generate conflict in some way. A threat to the world’s way of life is a very easy plot to write.

Now to call out some games with noticeably bad writing even for the medium of video games that are frequently on my mind. I will even mention why, so there are SPOILERS ahead:

TAGGoldenSunDD
Golden Sun Dark Dawn is one of the few games were story and game play interfere with each other.
  • Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn featured frequent switching between armies (which in its own right can be confusing). This game also featured a plot where the heroes break a divine covenant no one knew about (the covenant was for mankind to not fight any more wars, not a great message for a war game, or in general), thus triggering the creator goddess’s divine punishment (turning people to stone), and the heroes had to kill her to turn the population back to normal. If that sounds convoluted, that’s because it is.
  • Fire Emblem Fates: Revelations For a game that featured three different timelines, they got the third and supposedly most important one wrong. Most notable was that there was a scene where the main character somehow convinced his allies to jump off of what was previously established to be a bottomless pit (well, the main character knew it wasn’t, but the allies he recruited shouldn’t have known this, as the main character couldn’t talk about it due to a curse), and for whatever reason, he didn’t jump first (actually, he jumped last). To top it off this bottomless pit leads to a magical land, and despite the fall, the heroes are unscathed upon entering. This makes no sense.
  • Golden Sun: Dark Dawn Somehow, the heroes played into the villain’s hands throughout the game. I’m not sure how the villains planned it, but in order for the villains to have pulled it off, one of the playable characters had to accidentally break a plot device in order to start their journey. The villains didn’t influence this occurrence to happen, so they would have to have seen the future in order to plan this, and no, that ability wasn’t established anywhere in the game. Finally, for story reasons, the game prevents you from backtracking, which is vital for finding very useful collectibles that impact the difficulty of the game significantly. Story and game play should never interfere with each other.
  • Puyo Puyo Tetris’s Story mode has very drawn out dialogue sequences, mostly to explain how Puyo Puyo and Tetris were mashed together. Combined with awkward word choices, and grating voice acting made for cut scenes that I personally skipped after the first two chapters. Puzzle games don’t need an explanation, do they?

END SPOILERS

So that is what bad writing looks like in games, but which games have good writing? here are a few and why. There will be more SPOILERS here:

UndertaleTAG
Undertale has one of the best story and game play integration I’ve ever seen.
  • Final Fantasy IV, VI, and VII: Most Final Fantasy games have good writing. These are the more exceptional cases in the series, where the story doesn’t interfere with or slow down game play. Final Fantasy IV has drama, redemption for some characters, and well placed plot twists. Final Fantasy VI, has a lot of characters, many with character growth, and high stakes involving the end of the world. Final Fantasy VII, has most of the above. (Of note, I have only played Final Fantasy I through VII, and am playing IX right now, but haven’t finished it yet. I have some catching up to do.)
  • Fire Emblem (the seventh game in the series, in some countries known as Fire Emblem: Blazing Blade) This game had fantastic writing, with drama, character arcs, political intrigue, and all thirty something characters had a story and personality that is seen through the optional support conversation feature.
  • Golden Sun and Golden Sun: The Lost Age Both games had long dialogue sequences, but there was something interesting to see as they happened, and there was plenty of story and character building here. While Golden Sun: The Lost Age’s plot was more convoluted than its predecessor, it was still internally consistent, and the plot twists didn’t interfere with character motivation.
  • Undertale This game’s story, game play, and the emotions it wanted to convey were integrated perfectly. Even the flavor text of this game added to the experience, and the game has a ton of endings based on the player’s actions, none of which are written poorly. The amount of humor scattered throughout the game is a rarity in games, for whatever reason.

END SPOILERS

So, what are some solutions that game writers can do to prevent bad writing in their games? Here are a few:

  • Stay succinct enough so the player gets to play the game.
  • Word choice is very important, so hire good writers, and if translating a game to another language, a good localization team to prevent awkward dialogue.
  • Choose your battles: What game play features need a story explanation, and which do not?
  • Use story to motivate players, and keep it interesting with a mystery to solve. Keep them asking what happens next.
  • Don’t let the story alter the game play.
  • If using voice acting, do it right!
  • Be very careful with plot twists.
  • Stay consistent with your content.
  • And answer this question, does this game need a story?

Games become much better or much worse thanks to its writing, and can go unnoticed or overlooked in some games when they are in development, due to prioritizing game play over story. It is crucial to get story and writing right, especially in RPGs and story heavy games, such as adventure games. Without a well designed story, some games feel empty, but with a good story and appealing characters, a game can feel full of life, and may be considered work of art. Hopefully, we have more to look forward to when it comes to good game writing, and less to laugh at in the future as the game industry matures.


So that was a quick look at writing in games, and some of the issues that plague video game stories. What about you, my readers? Do you have any more examples of good video game writing? Bad game writing? Would you like me to cover a case study of any particular game? Let me know in the comments below! If you enjoyed this article, be sure to give it a like. If you want to keep up with this blog, you can subscribe via email by clicking the link below. Until next time, have fun gaming.

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