Good computer game writing is mostly found in two major genres of games. Role-playing games and first-person shooter games. However, it wasn’t always the case! FPS games were once only considered great for their engine and available weapons. However, the Half-Life series and Deus Ex changed all of that. When I look back at my (too many) years of gaming experience, all the games I remember had great writing. Well, there’s a reason for this:
The badly written ones weren’t worth remembering!
I had to go through my loose game disc collection to find the ones I’d forgotten. These include some pretty big-name games, starting with “Black and White” by Lionhead. This is a good example of where they were too interested in the engine and game mechanics to work on a story that engaged the player. There was far too much emphasis on the controls and the belief system used to influence the world, and I felt I was merely watching a game rather than being part of its story.
Another example of bad storytelling and computer game writing, in general, has to be “Doom3”. This has always been one of ID Games’ problems. The reasons I’ve heard for this revolve around the games being made to showcase the engine.
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So why should developers care about computer game writing? What does it bring to a game? Let’s start with believable characters with which the player can identify and connect. Or an engaging plot that draws the player in. Or an interesting setting that provokes an emotional response, such as a bustling city or vast, uninhabited wasteland. Although many of these aspects are thought up by the game designers, someone needs to bring the game to life using these features. Valve has always been a pioneer in computer game writing, having its dedicated writer as a science fiction writer, Mark Laidlaw. He has helped shape Gordon Freeman’s story since the first Half-Life game and keeps the plot and characters interesting. The intrigue brought to these games by his writing keeps fan discussion going for months before and after each release.
Another well-written game is Deus Ex, which had two dialogue writers! The results were obvious: believable and thoughtful dialogue, interesting characters, and a story so in-depth it makes the Grand Canyon look shallow.
Something else good writing can provide is the different choices a player must make during a game. In the game Bioshock, you often encounter characters known as “Little Sisters,” who are genetically altered children. Your disturbing choice here is to either restore their DNA to normal or to extract their valuable essence for your means, killing the child in the process! These choices impact the story, influencing your character’s moral compass and the game’s result. But more importantly, it makes the player pause and think about the implications of their actions within the game. In this case, the writer is Ken Levine, also the writer for other favorites of mine, System Shock 2 and Thief: The Dark Project.
Computer game writing is one of those areas that game developers often overlook. An excellent writer friend of mine has mentioned that the number of outlets for aspiring writers is “vanishingly small,” which made me think. How many independent developers out there have a dedicated writer? When I was developing games, I really should have looked into it; it would have vastly improved the quality of my dialogue and helped me tie up loose ends in my story.
The independent title “Defence Grid: The Awakening” is an example of a fairly standard tower defense game vastly improved by its writing (and its voice acting) that may have fallen by the wayside otherwise.
Casual game developers, especially, are missing out on this. I’ve played far too many badly written attempts at fitting a story into a hidden object or match-3 game. I’m sure that secret object fans don’t care much, but it would be worth considering if they would like to attract a wider user base.
Even free games should make an effort in their writing. The wonderful “Cave Story” had a great story with memorable characters, and that’s after its translation from Japanese!
Good computer game writing does not necessarily mean instant success for any game. Nor does bad writing mean instant failure. However, I would argue that the most memorable games are the ones that have the best writing. The sequels to these are the games I am most looking forward to!