It’s not really uncommon to find gamers lampooning the quality of writing within the video game medium in some discussion related to narratives within gaming.
The internet is rife with complaints about video game storytelling being inferior to that seen in other media, such as books, films or TV series, and has even had some suggesting that video games as a whole would be better if developers simply abandoned any ambitious story-telling efforts.
Many may feel that such ideas may be derived from some gamers preferring gameplay over narrative, however, there are also many narrative-focused gamers that believe the overall standard of writing within video games could do with some improvement.
So, why do some gamers think that the video game medium overall often tends to have extraordinarily bad writing?
To answer this question, I’ll be looking at four common problems that many tend to indicate when explaining why video game narratives generally tend to be badly written.
The Overuse of Cliché Tropes
There is no problem with deciding to make use of writing tropes when crafting a narrative within a video game; there is, however, a problem when the writer decides to make use of bad or overused tropes as this often results in a predictable and thus less-engaging plot.
There are many different overused writing clichés within the medium of video games. Some of the most popular clichés include the protagonist being the proverbial “chosen one” (the only person capable of saving the world), the protagonist undertaking their quest due to the murder of their loved ones, a major character suffering from amnesia, the protagonist losing abilities halfway through the game and the use of quick-time event systems during dramatic moments, among others.
Some gamers do argue that a number of tropes may be difficult to avoid as they are inherently tied to the gameplay aspect of the game and thus are more likely to be somewhat more forgiving if they do encounter them. For example, some have suggested that the reason gamers often play as the “chosen one” is that it’s the most direct way to make the player the central aspect of not only the narrative, but the game overall.
However, then there are those tropes that players believe just need to simply fade out of existence because at this point they have nothing to add to the world other than new internet memes (press “F” to pay respects, anyone?)
Most gamers who would like to see higher quality narratives within video games are not asking writers/developers to completely abandon every single trope, but rather to work towards being less reliant on them in order to create better quality products.
One of the quickest ways to get people to lose interest in your story is to fill it with characters nobody cares about, which is often done by creating characters which destroy the player’s suspension of disbelief.
These are characters that can be one-dimensional (overwhelmingly good or evil), have no flaws or behave inconsistently with already defined areas of their personality.
A person doesn’t always have to relate to a particular character in order to enjoy a story, but they do need to be able to humanize them. They need to understand the motives of the protagonist or antagonist in order for the story to seem in any way believable.
When characters are one-dimensional or flawless, they are quite simply unrealistic and thus impossible to humanize as nobody is like that and this often leads to plots where, for example, the reasoning behind the antagonist’s actions is simply that they’re evil.
Perhaps, a very good example of a character that was badly characterised is Aiden Pearce from the first Watch Dogs game. Pearce very much inhabits a lot of the stereotypes one has come to associate with anti-hero action characters across any media (gravely voice, morally ambiguous set of skills, a desire for revenge, etc.) and while the motivations for his actions are somewhat explained, they are done so in such a way that they fail to elicit any sort of feelings of empathy from many players.
Contrast Aiden Pearce to, for example, Joel or Ellie from The Last of Us, who have been characterised well and thus whose stories are able to elicit emotional responses from the player and you’ll see the difference that good characterisation makes in the player’s perception of not only the narrative within the game, but the game itself as a whole.
Far too few games have characters that players actually really do care about and thus it’s one of the reasons that many feel games generally don’t have good stories.
Unfortunately, there have been a number of games that have been filled with some absolutely terrible dialogue.
There are a number of different reasons for why the dialogue within a game may be considered terrible. For example, writers attempting to make characters seem humorous or prophetic with cringeworthy lines, characters stating the obvious in order to get the player to understand what is taking place in the game, writers trying to create a running joke regarding a particular character with no prior explaining or context for it or a game’s dialogue being mistranslated in a grammatically incorrect manner.
Although sometimes awful dialogue may have a redeeming factor in that it’s laughably bad enough to become a meme, it almost always only accomplishes breaking the player’s immersion within a particular gameplay experience.
Most gamers don’t expect games to have the best dialogue to ever grace a page, but it’s also nice when the player can actually take the narrative within the game seriously.
It seems that many writers often confuse a convoluted narrative for being an engaging one.
It really does not matter how many lore-building elements a game may have if the person consuming the story does not really understand what is happening in this particular narrative to begin with.
Then, there’s also the idea of creating superficial twists and turns of events within the narrative that have no explanation or a poor one in a failed attempt to build dramatic tension. All this often ends with is the creation of a severe number of plot holes and the feeling that the writer was just making it up as they went along.
It is better to make use of an overused gaming trope to craft a sensible, predictable narrative that provides the player with a basic understanding of their goals, rather than creating something that makes absolutely no sense.
So, What Should Be Done To Better Writing In Video Games?
It’s important to understand that within the video game medium, narrative is most often not the central aspect of the product; gameplay is. Thus, it is expected that the narrative found within a game will very often not be able to live up to those found in other media, and this is fine.
Then, one also has to analyse the overall intentions of the game in question and determine whether the game’s narrative was actually a central part of the game. For example, many people like to compare The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt because they’re both games from the same genre, but then fail to look at the specific focus areas of the two games.
The main focus in The Witcher 3 is its narrative and thus it really does need to be of high quality, whereas Skyrim maintains more of gameplay focus in which the player crafts their own activities – thus it doesn’t really matter that some may feel the main questline is somewhat subpar as it’s not really the main reason people play the title.
It’s also important to note that there are also definitely games out there that do contain well-constructed stories and to surmise that the entire medium is filled with bad narratives would be a gross generalisation.
However, with all this said, it is not unfair for some gamers to want to see a larger number of titles containing more sophisticated and compelling narratives.
Most gamers don’t expect to encounter life-changing stories in video games, but they also don’t want the story to be actively drawing away from the overall gameplay experience.
If a gamer consistently encounters stories that simply fail to retain their attention, it could drive them way from not only enjoying and completing the game in question, but perhaps even the hobby overall over time.
Quite simply, if narrative plays a major role within a particular game, developers should be doing their best to make sure that it doesn’t overuse tropes, characters are well-defined and that the plot isn’t at all confusing. If not, why focus on creating a narrative, anyway?
But, what do you think? Do you think video games generally tend to have bad narratives? What is the best and worst narrative moment you ever had in a game? Do some developers pay too much attention to narratives? Please share in the comments down below.