In my spare time, which I have oddles of seeing that college only prepares you for a career, not unemployment, I have been writing a campaign for D&D. This is something I’ve actually never done before, which is odd in retrospect. The reason I like video games is because they are an exciting way to deliver an interactive narrative, but that’s not really true. In fact if we really want to have a truly interactive narrative then video games, by their very nature, are pretty limited. This is something a lot of both game fans and game designers underestimate. I’m sure going into Mass Effect 3 BioWare envisioned a grandiose, sprawling narrative that would branch into hundreds of uniquely tailored endings, only to realize that there’s basically no way they can code, render, animate, model, texture, write, and voice act all that. Meanwhile marketing doesn’t get the memo and continue doing their job, lying about the product so people will buy it. But on pen-and-paper, where the only limit is the collective imagination of a group (plus the game rules) we really can do a story that’s completely and wholly interactive. Where players can make any kind of character they want, not having to decide between a nice guy or a bad guy.
So yes I’ve been having a lot of fun writing my campaign, and it’s given me a chance to reflect on the nature of writing an interactive story. There’s a quote I like from The Art and Making of Star Wars: The Old Republic about writing in games versus other media that goes something like this: Writing for theater is expressionism, writing for movies is realism, and writing for games is cubism. You have to be able to take it apart and look at it from all the angles. I’ve discovered that that’s very true, writing an interactive narrartive is a lot trickier because you can’t just ask yourself “What would my character do” you have to consider what other people would do. This forces you to write three or five different scenarios, and for a tabeltop RPG, while giving yourself enough wiggle room to improvise once your players do something completely unexpected, which they will. That for me hasn’t been a problem, I’m good at improvising and I understand that as a DM I’m not telling a story, I’m facilitating the story of someone else. What I did learn about writing this was how to use themes to tie all the different modules and adventures together, so they feel like a cohesive story and not a bunch of stuff that happens.
I’m sure you’re all familiar with George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and its HBO adaptation Game of Thrones. I’m sure you’re also familiar with how it has a million plots going on at once, and yet it somehow manages to still read like a story. What makes it A Song of Ice and Fire and not A Song of a Bunch of Stuff That Happens. Well there’s two tricks, the first is that most of the plots do tie in and influence one another, but the other is way Martin uses a solid core of a few select themes to tie all these scenes and plots together. The most obvious one is power, and in every scene in the TV show you can see how power is used, who has it, who doesn’t have it. Who gains power, usurps it, wields it, and how our expectations of who should and should not have power get subverted. Or even look at The Hunger Games. There’s a reason why it’s called that, and it has something to do with the fact that there are at least five references to food on nearly every page of that book. Part of the reason those books are so good is because of how well crafted they are, how deliberate their writing is.
I’ve applied that same deliberance to my own campaign. I decided very early on, before I started writing modules, that there were going to be at the very least three themes that should be explored in each adventure, to ensure that there is a constant tone that glues these different scenes into a cohesive narrative, one that can survive players making their own decisions and driving the narrative forward. This is hard, but it’s not impossible. Like I said, A Song of Ice and Fire and The Hunger Games were deliberately written, I just have to be even more deliberate.
This is where I want to steer the topic to the matter of why so many games have bad writing. I’ve even argued with someone who was convinced that the interactive nature of games made trying to use them to tell a story impossible, it just couldn’t be done. I was not convinced but that at all, I’ve already written on here previously why I think Mask of the Betrayer has the best story in a video game. It’s because that game had three, very deliberate themes that were explored in very single scene and module. Hell they actually hired a guy whose job it was to go through and make sure that everything included in the game matched those themes, if they didn’t, they were reworked or removed. This is also the reason why I’m LP’ing Planescape: Torment (the first real update will be out later this week), because nearly everything included in that game deals with the theme of torment in some way. What can change the nature of a man isn’t just a way to beat the very definite final boss, it’s what the whole things is about and every scene explores a possible answer to that question. Even if you don’t realize the game is doing that, you have to admit that there is still something at work keeping the story cohesive, how the writers are able to make a linear story out of a non-linear experience.
Games whose stories fall flat simply don’t do this. There are many reasons why but usually it’s because game designers don’t take college level creative writing classes (like I did) while getting their game design or computer science degrees. For example the desingers behind the Uncharted series have admitted that they first decide what set pieces they want their game to explore, and then go back and write a narrative tying them together after the fact. This is not a good way to write a story and while it explains why all of the Uncharted games have flat, uncompelling narratives and characters, it doesn’t explain the strangely specific ways they repeat themselves. Like their habit of introducing a side-kick who gets tons of depth and character development only to wholly disappear from the story half-way through. Or the way each game introduces a potential love interest for Nathan Drake only for him to always wind up with the same blonde chick at the end. I think we can just chalk those up to laziness.
Ah there’s the crux of the matter, laziness is what kills more game stories than anything else. It’s not that games make it impossible to write good stories, it’s that people who write for games are interested in putting in the effort to make the stories good. Sometimes, like in Skyrim they don’t even realize they’re using themes that sabotage their own narrative. Remember how some people got mad that they couldn’t kill kids in Skyrim and Bethesda defended their decision to disallow the murder of children because they wanted to make sure their game had a cohesive tone the whole time. After all in Skyrim you’re a hero, you save the world from an evil black dragon. Except, if I’m supposed to be a hero, why does so much of the game’s side content deal with me killing people for obviously evil forces for no other reason then because they tell me to? In Skyrim there is a side-quest for every one of the Daedric Princes, and about 95% of them are evil. Openly, unquestioningly evil. And they make you preform acts of evil for the promise of material reward. This is not heroic behavior people. Hell even the main quest is dubious at best, since even an evil person can recognize that stopping the dragons from destroying the world is basic self-preservation. Honestly at this point not being able to kill children creates more of a tonal dissonance than killing them.
By the way Bioshock explores this is exact same thing, only Bioshock was aware of the fact it was a game about killing people for no other reason then because someone told you to.