Writing And Video Games


I really am, trust me.

What is a good writer?

What is good writing?

More importantly, what is good writing in a video game?

It seems that a lot of people like to discuss writing in video games nowadays, some of them are writers themselves, even video game writers.

That’s why it’s surprising to see how some one of them seem to be ignorant about the medium and what writing means in context to games. The talk is focused about “cinematic”, “believable characters” or “evoking emotion”.

Everybody seems to treat writing for video games as a separate entity from the game itself. It’s this strange disconnect that “good writing” means good prose or diction, good character development, believable dialogue, a good story. Nobody seems to be interested in adapting their thousand year old writing techniques from passive media to an active one.

No, rather we have writers pushing a story or message, because that is traditionally how you “write”. No thought is given to the fact that players are active participants not passive observers.

You are not Kratos or Corvo, you are an “active observer”. It’s not any different from reading a book or watching TV, you observe, follow, the characters and their stories, you are only there to turn the page or skip a chapter, never anything more.

This is a fundamental misunderstanding of what games provide for storytelling as a medium. If turning the page is all that you do, what did you accomplish that couldn’t have been by a book or film? Higher graphical fidelity? Better sound? The satisfaction of completing a challenge to experience the next part of the story?

“You can watch the next episode after you finish doing your homework”

Even in our modern “story-focused” games all we do is chose a path, we are granted limited agency in the narrative, but in the end we only experience what the writer already cooked up for the characters. We can chose the story we want to hear.

This is not wrong, it is however not utilizing the medium to its full potential and only few games exist that create a solid narrative through gameplay and never in its entirety. Bethesda’s games always had a degree of agency but the player still moved in constricted narrative ways, be he the Nerevarine or the Dovahkiin.

Writers must learn to cede narrative authorship to players if they want to utilize the medium to its fullest. This doesn’t mean they must abandon narrative, but rather that the narrative must be flexible enough to accommodate the players authorship as well. A shift in perspective is in order. As a writer you are co-authoring the story, you just set narrative elements in place, hooks, checks and balances, contingencies and consequences.

Anyone that ever wrote a campaign for D&D and DMed it will know what I mean by this.

You can have all the narrative elements in place, roadblocks, challenges, events, characters and an overarching plot, however how these elements are ultimately tied together is entirely dependent on the players themselves. If you try to force a narrative by erecting invisible walls, impossible or illogical contrivances the story will suffer. Writing a character-driven video game is impossible this way because the player will invalidate your characters sooner or later.

Gordon Freeman will jump up and down like an idiot while talking to an NPC, Adam Jensen will carry soda-machines and stack them for fun, the Dovahkiin robs people blind by putting buckets over their heads etc. pp. Your meticulously crafted character makes no sense anymore, he does things that are not in the narrative envisioned by you, he does not save the princess.

I do not care about clearing my name or saving Emily as Corvo, I honestly couldn’t give a shit about the brat. I do not “identify” with the character because I am just an observer, I go through the motions to shoot dudes in the face and get some plot dumped on me later. This isn’t the players fault, it’s your (the writers) fault for putting us in a situation without context.

What does it mean to live in Dunwall?

What does it mean to be a Khajit in Skyrim?

What does it mean to be oppressed by The Authority in Rage?

You squandered the opportunity at great storytelling. The opportunity to make the player experience life differently, to look at the world from a perspective he can not see otherwise, experience power differentials that are inaccessible to him in real life.

The denial to craft games where a player can experience the narrative context of the world, to immerse themselves in a persona that will provide a meaningful experience of narrative is surprising. Binary choices are not interesting or sufficient and having dialogue-forests with discrete states isn’t the core of agency.

Abstraction can take place, the (visual, etc.) fidelity can be lower, it just hinges on the believability of your world.

In the above video it was stated by one of the writers for Torment: Tides of Numenera, that previously world-building was “enough” and “cool” but that today sci-fi and fantasy is driven by building believable characters instead. That is not true for video games, this can not be true for video games.

Video games are all about the worlds, all about the setting, all about player-interaction with these worlds. Narrative is built from the inside out not from the top down. Worlds are not defined by characters, characters are defined by their environments.

I am cautious about Torment now as the writers seem to have a fundamental misunderstanding what writing for video games entails. Standing out here is Patrick Rothfuss, the writer of “Name Of The Wind” and “Wise Mans Fear”, without any sort of video game background.

…and writers are cheap, there is a lot of good and talented writers out there…

That might be so, but that doesn’t mean they know or understand what writing for games entails. Just hiring a talented writer isn’t enough.

The Citizen Kane of video games will not be written, it will be played.


One Response to Writing And Video Games

  1. Pingback: Followup: Writing And Video Games – Primer | liveware.problem

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