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RPG Codex Editorial: Darth Roxor on the State of RPG Writing
Editorial - posted by Infinitron on Wed 25 January 2017, 22:50:17
[Editorial by Darth Roxor]
Writing in modern RPGs. How much does it suck and why? Discuss!!! A case study.
Some of you may remember a thread that I started over a year ago, in which I ranted about the sad state of writing in modern RPGs. It was, indeed, little more than a rant. But some time after posting it, I was wrestling with the thought of writing a full article about the issue, this time with some more analysis and cross-reference, and less broad statements that relate only to dialogue. Indeed, at one point I’ve realised that it isn’t just dialogue that bothers me in the modern, “expert approved” RPG narrative structure – it’s nearly every aspect of its form and presentation, as well as certain extraneous and less-visible elements that only become obvious when you think about them. What you are reading now is the result.
In this article, I will try to analyse the ways RPGs old and new implement their stories and writing, largely in reference to how they actually function in this particular medium; how the approaches compare to other forms of entertainment; and what are, in my view, the most important elements that contribute to the near-universally low quality of writing.
But before we begin, I feel it’s important to drop a few disclaimers here to explain my agenda and pre-emptively torpedo at least a few of the dumb comments, whose appearance I can already predict at this very stage.
1. Many of the negative examples I quote here come from recent games that are still fresh in my mind, and which happen to be exemplars of the various problems I’ve identified. This article is not yet another attempt to take a few kicks at Pillars of Eternity. In fact, the statements written here are very likely to be true for most of your favourite games.
2. I will give many examples to base my claims upon, and many of these will not be related to games. Some of them may even appear downright arbitrary, but I assure you that they have a purpose to serve.
3. Reading, by itself, is not “teh hard”. Reading bad writing in large quantities, however, most certainly is.
4. I reserve full right to be pretentious and make sweeping statements disguised as facts.
5. Spoilers abound, and not just for games.
Proceed at your own risk!
Also thanks to a bunch of people for all the pics.
The recent obsession with “lore” in all games is possibly what bothers me the most about modern game writing. It’s like everything nowadays has to have “lore” and/or uphold the “lore” from previous parts of a series. You know there is a problem when even id Software claim that Doom 4 will have “plenty of lore and audio diary-like pieces of intel to find for people who care about that thing.”
That’s a big word, “lore”. Nicely-sounding, mysterious, with old origins. But what the hell does it even mean? I asked lord Randolph Quirk (or at least a dictionary approved by him) for opinion:
This definition is interesting to us for one reason – “information that is not written down.” Now consider what the so-called “lore” is supposed to mean in your modern game – backstory that is dumped somewhere for the player to stumble upon. Nowadays you will even be given a whole submenu where all this is safely stowed away, and which you will likely never open.
To present in full why the subject of lore has become a problem, we first have to consider its role in a game. It is widely understood that worldbuilding is an important aspect of RPGs, and that it ties closely to all the other ones, such as exploration and story/world interactivity. The ways to establish a setting and make it believable are many, but the methods largely correspond to how big the setting is supposed to be. Unfortunately, RPGs for a longer while have been suffering from an illness that I would call “fantasitis”, which has crept a long time ago into pulp fantasy literature, and which mostly entails (badly) copying the Tolkien approach – a fantasy world has to be grand, with a robust mythology, huge geography and history spanning over six millennia, to the point that you might as well forget about writing a fantasy novel if you’re not planning (at least!) a trilogy from the get-go.
Back in the day, RPGs could avoid the problem because they used licensed settings, mostly D&D, which were familiar to many players. Thus, there was no need to describe everything in detail, and if any additional information appeared that was just added flavour, you could either recognise it as a reference or use it as an adventure seed for your own PnP sessions. As licensed settings went away, they were replaced by worlds built from scratch. And fantasitis.
Since RPG studios can’t really afford to plan for trilogies, you get the whole grand fantasy world crammed into a single game. And since hack writers just don’t know when to stop expanding the world into even more eras and continents, and because they are disproportionally proud of their work, there is a lot of backstory to dump there. Yet as their worlds keep growing, even more problems arise as the writers take each element of their work under scrutiny and realise that they forgot to define something. Once this happens, the time comes to reinvent the wheel and make sure that the fantasitis also creeps into mundane world logic. Take, for instance, the writers of Obsidian’s Tyranny:
Read it and answer me this: what practical sense does this series of considerations make? The first one might perhaps be sound – differentiating time measurement can remind the player that he is in another world and can also be cleverly employed in gameplay. But the rest? Does anyone give a damn what the imaginary people feed their cows while you go out fighting dragons? How can this even translate into raw gameplay? It can, and does, make sense to ask this question for a game like Fallout, where food and water supplies have to be at least touched upon, whereas Tyranny is just another typical fantasyland with plenty of grass growing everywhere. It’s empty information with no significance, and the number 1 sin of the current approach to worldbuilding – over-exposition.
Over-exposition is bad for a number of reasons. It kills any sense of imagination and mystery when all the information is laid out for you. It treats the player like an idiot that otherwise wouldn’t be able to comprehend the world around him, if not for the constant descriptions and bits of information assaulting him from every direction. It makes everything banal.
Take Star Wars as an example here – when Vader talks about space magic in the old trilogy, he mostly uses intentionally vague and big phrases. The death star is “nothing compared to the power of the force.” Why? “Because you don’t know the power of the dark side.” That’s all you need to know. Space magic is powerful and mysterious. That’s cool. On the other hand, in The Phantom Menace the whole “power of the force” is reduced to the concentration of midichlorians in a body. Was this explanation necessary? Did the universe get better through this exposition?
Naturally, this isn’t to say that the player has to be kept 100% in the dark. Everything is good in moderation, and some things that are more obscure than others may require additional explanation. Another example from cinema that I can cite here is the ending to The Seventh Seal: in the penultimate scene, you are shown a classic depiction of a danse macabre, with people from various social classes standing before death and presenting themselves. But in case someone doesn’t get it, there’s a scene with a more literal “dance of death” following right afterwards, and the movie doesn’t suffer for it.
I mention “everything in moderation” because there is a buzzword that is often mentioned as the perfect “antidote” for over-exposition. That is, of course, “show, don’t tell”. As with many buzzwords, “show, don’t tell” is meaningless without context. You can show too much just as you can tell too much, and both techniques have their uses in places that are meant for them. When it comes to “showing”, consider Samurai Jack, one of my favourite cartoons. It is famous for many of its “silent” episodes, but it also has plenty where a lot is presented with little both told and shown. Like the duel between Jack and the Shinobi that is constructed completely from crude, monochrome images. Or Jack and the Haunted House, where the coming of the demon haunting the place is presented through short, chaotic animations that basically boil down to: “evil demon appeared and did bad things”. There is nothing more you need to know, and you can fill the blanks yourself.
Of course, I also couldn’t possibly not mention the one Clone Wars cartoon episode, made by the same guy who did Samurai Jack, that has a grand total of 2 lines of dialogue. Watch and see just how much is happening in these 4 minutes, without a word of anything. Now imagine how this would look as a modern video game – you’d have frantic yells and radio chatter from start to finish at the very least.
So that’s showing, what about telling? Telling is perfectly fine when it is relevant and important. Can you imagine confronting Ravel in Planescape: Torment, a character speaking in riddles and plays on words, through “show, don’t tell”? Definitely not. But the problem is that in many recent RPGs the telling is both irrelevant and unimportant, and sometimes even downright insulting.
Take Pillars of Eternity. There are many people who say that Durance is a great companion. Personally, I disagree, because Durance doesn’t strike me as a particularly good or well-written character. However, I can see where they are coming from – is it really Durance himself that is good, or is it the backstory that he gives? I would argue the latter. The story about a great war against an avatar of an angry god that ends with the nuking of said avatar sounds pretty exciting to me. So here’s where the big problem appears – why does this not translate in any way into the narrative or gameplay of PoE itself? Why am I stuck going through the nonsensical main story of PoE instead of taking part in all those cool things? Durance’s story is neat, but it’s completely irrelevant. And worst of all, it spans over nearly the entire game, reminding you at all times that you are a sucker doing boring things while you could be doing cool things instead. The same can be said about all the NPCs who keep telling you that they come from whatever place with whatever weird environments. Lake of drowned tombs! Volcanic archipelago! Tundra! Wow, that’s nice! What a shame that I’m stuck going through generic fantasyland and will never get to visit all the things you are talking about, and not even a single piece of information included in your lore dumps is ever going to be put into practice again in the whole game.
Even worse in this regard is Shadowrun: Hong Kong. In PoE, NPCs only dumped lore at you, which was already bad enough, but in HK, you are bombed with uninteresting, samey life stories of people who Used To Be Someone In Seattle But Then Had To Start Running The Shadows™©®. It’s perplexing that with a setting as big as Shadowrun, Hong Kong chooses to bore you to tears with this kind of mundane crap.
Now compare all this over-exposition, pointless banter and irrelevant lore to something like Betrayal at Krondor. You can’t say that Krondor isn’t wordy. If anything, it’s wordy to the stratosphere because its entire construction is meant to resemble a book in every possible way, with “functional” game text being reduced to the absolute minimum. In Krondor, you also hear a lot things that might seem unimportant at first or go through side quests that look like they have no connection to the events of the main storyline. But if you pay attention to the bits and pieces you keep hearing about, all of them will turn out to bear significance as the game goes on, even a petty thief stealing some rubies from the first big city you come across in chapter 1, or tavern gossip about the weird initiation practices of the temple of Kahooli. Krondor doesn’t have “empty” information. Every sentence in this game has meaning.
Moving on, also consider Arx Fatalis. Arx’s setting is built from scratch, and yet it manages to stay interesting and avoid fantasitis. Why? Because nearly all the “lore” bits you hear about are relevant only to the one underground colony where the action plays out. The game takes place in a microcosm and takes significant care to stick to it. The same can be said of Gothic 1 and 2 – any info regarding places or events outside Khorinis is just vague gossip that “things are bad on the mainland”. Everything else concerns the game world, and the game world only.
There is also a case to be made for minimalism and exploration managing to evoke a proper sense of mystery. The abandoned isle in Legend of Grimrock 2, with its talking heads that give you enigmatic sentences about events past, present and future, manages to convey a character leagues above any overdone, pointless lore book you can find in just about every game out there (with Morrowind being arguably the only exception). And finally, to mention something non-RPG for a change, also be sure to note the first Innsmouth chapter in Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. People will agree about its greatness for various reasons everywhere, but there is one thing that I don’t find mentioned often – there are plenty of small details that you have to look for all over the place, which add to the sense of unease. Deep ones jumping across rooftops, hanged men visible through inconspicuous windows, etc. If this game was released today, you’d have extra loud sound cues and neon signs pointing to all of these, just to make sure you don’t miss them. Not to mention gratuitous gore and journals.
Before we move on to the next big issue, there is one more thing related to over-exposition that I really want to address here. Ending slides. Their prominence has increased drastically recently as well, and their current implementation philosophy is also deeply flawed.
Ending slides can make for an interesting post-scriptum to a playthrough: “Here’s what happens in the coming 50 years as a result of your actions,” which is then met with “oops” or “yay” coming from the player. However, today they have become a way for developers to cover their asses and deflect accusations regarding choices made in a game not being followed by consequences. Thus you are presented with two dozen slides describing events not 50 years into the future, when they are beyond your control already, but, say, a month, or even ones that have already started happening. It makes you wonder whether these shouldn’t be included in the game proper when you can still interact with them, but your question will typically be answered with, “what do you mean ‘these choices are fake’? You get an ending slide at the end! How’s that for reactivity?”
Hope you don't expect to see crazy Legatus Carbo again, or the consequences of having him start a great war with not-Mongols, because none of this will ever be coming.
It certainly wasn't easier, but it definitely wasn't any harder either.
PoE is once again extremely guilty of this – there’s not a single choice that really matters in the game: the reactivity is close to none, even with its multiple reputations and whatever else. But you get to see some different screens at the end. Age of Decadence suffers in this regard as well, possibly at times even more than Pillars, because AoD has considerably more “major” choices that you have to take, some of which should have outcomes of some kind visible instantly. Nothing really happens in the game itself, though. Just some disappointing text at the end of a chapter.
Now that we’ve identified at least one major problem with the low quality of writing in RPGs, perhaps it’s time to discuss the prime reason behind it – the writers themselves. For that, let us get back for a moment to the Tyranny interview. The person I quoted was one Paul Kirsch, narrative designer. According to his profile on LinkedIn, his education includes “Bachelor of Arts, Creative Writing” and “Master of Fine Arts, Popular Fiction.”
This is a background that you will see frequently among video game writers. Majors in (typically English) literature studies or creative writing are just about a dime a dozen. At first glance this might even look sound – after all, what man would make for a better writer than a creative writing graduate, i.e. someone who was shaped over the course of years to perform the job?
Let us take a step back and consider some of the most acclaimed writers of “low brow” fiction, such as science fiction or fantasy. For old science fiction, the majority of the authors were scientists – physicists, chemists, physicians, etc. For fantasy, you will often stumble upon linguists, historians and philosophers. You may also run into lawyers and journalists. Creative writing graduates are going to be a relative minority, while those who profess degrees in literature will typically have the advantage of studying classical literature.
There are two points pertaining to the above list of trades that I want to bring up.
First, you can largely divide them into two fields: practical and conceptual. Put very basically, all of them promote a large degree of creativity, albeit in different ways. The scientific occupations are devoted to problem solving and research intended to provide advancements in science. The more conceptual ones, like philosophy or linguistics, encompass general epistemological and ontological musings, and the ways the world itself can be perceived. Even history can have creativity to it, through branches such as archeology. None of these fields are purely analytical. Unlike literature studies.
The notion that someone who knows a lot about literature will make for a good writer is close to saying that a theatre historian will be a good actor. Certainly, it can be invaluable to know the history and convention of the genre you’re trying to emulate, but the problem I can see here is that all of this is theory, not practice. Can they really say why do the specific stylistic choices make the prose work? Do they really know what words stand for, can they detect the minute differences between near-synonymous expressions? Or are they just recreating the writing of the masters by engaging in copious amounts of copying, producing mirror images that look like the real deal, but lack most of the substance that makes it count? A “creative writing” course is sort of the opposite – highly practical, less analytical – but it shares the question whether these people really know words.
What I mean to say is largely this – you know a linguist will understand the implications of the things he writes, in terms of grammar, pragmatics, etc. You know professional conmen, i.e. lawyers and journalists, will also understand the weight behind words. It is also to be expected from people who deal with subjects utilising highly specific terminology, such as scientists. This kind of specificity and understanding of language itself is something that you will find to be sorely missing in your average modern writer’s skillset.
It might be tempting to take the preceding paragraphs and conclude from them that the literature/creative writing backgrounds of modern writers are the issue. However, there is one significant problem with this hypothesis: it cannot be denied that there were talented and acclaimed writers who were “just” English majors.
So, what gives?
Another temptation is to dismiss them as flukes or the exceptions that prove the rule, but this doesn’t hold water as well once you start adding them up and it turns out that there are relatively many of them. Or perhaps I should say “there were many of them” – and this, I believe, is where we have to look for the crux of the problem.
That is to say, most of the acclaimed English major writers were taking their courses in times when humanist academia was in a much better shape. These people didn’t have to take part in deadweight nonsense the likes of gender studies. Meanwhile, the poor bastards today that sign up for the same courses as their masters and idols are exposed to an environment that is:
a) Extremely forgiving/undemanding and giving out degrees to every average joe;
b) Generally favourable of everything post-modern, and all the things associated with it.
The combination of these two problems is the ultimate rotten foundation on which all terrible writing is based, for a number of reasons. First, undemanding courses require no effort from the student – the lack of effort leads to complacency, and complacency stifles creativity. Second, didactic structures tailored for the lowest common denominator are typically based on inflexible models with simple, rigid goals, which stifles creativity even further. All this is made even more prominent by post-modern sensibilities, according to which nothing can really be judged or evaluated, because the problem leading to something being bad is always due to some nebulous, unchangeable reason… or the problem doesn’t exist altogether. Finally, and perhaps worst of all, the disregard for past models and thought, exchanged for ill-advised attempts at reinventing the wheel and heedlessly pushing forward, that stems from universities and teachers being stuck in post-modern bubbles kills the one thing that has always been the basis of academia, and which also constitutes an important support platform for creativity – the proliferation of ideas.
Let us, in this case, take all the prior considerations together and try to make a model modern graduate who wants to start his writing career!
This auspicious fellow will be stripped of any broad knowledge or linguistic mastery and unwilling to learn anything new. He will be overly sure of his skill and immune to any criticism due to being patted on the head all the time. He will be the master of creation by checklist because his evaluation was always based on checklists. And with this arrogance, lack of erudition and mastery of regurgitation, he will send out his CV to Obsidian Entertainment, where he will become a narrative designer.
We don’t have to look far to find an example of the above and see its effect on the modern RPG. In fact, the Tyranny interview I’ve already cited in chapter 1 is its perfect manifestation, and though I’m not particularly happy about focusing so much on a single game, it’s just too exemplary not to mention it.
When asked about the ideas that influenced the creation of an environment where “evil wins”, Mr Maclean had this to say:
Which is interesting to say the least.
Really. What lets you picture the evil in the bronze age is all about modern ideas, at best from the 19th century, and ones which are also ridiculously common, if not even omnipresent? Have you even tried to read a single history or mythology handbook to ancient Greece? The amount of genuine evil and disregard for humanity you can find there is enough to fill a whole series of Tyranny games, spanning over ten games. Here’s an excerpt that I’ve always particularly liked from the work by Jan Parandowski, an early 20th century Polish archeologist and writer. This is how he describes Mycenae:
And that’s just one place in ancient Greece where evil is sure as hell in charge of government. Even more material can be found among the gods and the way they rule the world, which at times even hinges on doing bad things to people only for the laughs.
Naturally, the lack of basic research or knowledge relevant to the subject matter extends much farther in Tyranny, and it also stems from many of the problems outlined above. You can find entire treasure troves of ignorance and misinformation in the Tyranny pre-release promotional materials, especially concerning matters meant to establish the supposed “bronze age-inspired” setting, such as calling fast skirmisher troops the local equivalent of “Greek hoplites”, or articles regarding one army beating another because it’s armed with extra effective iron weapons and armour, as opposed to the other suckers’ bronze stuff (because, as we all know from our rpg handbooks, bronze has damage bonus 0 while iron has +1). If only the writers had devoted the modicum of effort necessary to research these things, instead of indulging in pointless musings regarding the nature of cattle fodder, clocks and candles in the world, and then proceeding to brag how their world is deeply thought-through and rooted in the bronze age.
To finally let Tyranny off the hook for a moment and return to something more universal, perhaps the worst consequence of the above problems regarding knowledge is that they can and often do lead to scenarios, where the writer substitutes content ideas that fit with the game context with his own opinions and agenda. As a result, suddenly everything needs to have double (or more) layers of modern social commentary piled up everywhere you look, even if it’s about as subtle as a derailed tramcar. I believe most readers will be well aware of examples that can be applied to this statement, so let’s instead cite one against it: an RPG that was founded completely on research, and which profited from it immensely – Darklands. Darklands sought to emulate a world of high medieval Germany, as perceived by its contemporaries, and it managed to do so almost perfectly, except for minor hiccups such as a few geographical mistakes. Darklands thrives only on its theme and clings to it without any additional bullshit, which is probably the number one reason why it is still so appreciated by those who’ve played it, and why it’s not likely to be matched any time soon. Nevertheless, some games are fortunately still trying, like Expeditions: Conquistador, a more recent one that also did an excellent job with its homework.
One of the more impressive features of Darklands is its catalogue of over 100 authentic medieval saints. This includes their lives, feast days and miracles, all of which directly translate into gameplay.
Righteous fury vs heathen scum.
Now to proceed to the second point outlined earlier – the lack of linguistic mastery. Trying to write “elaborate” prose, and most “big” RPGs today certainly do that, has one very important condition – it’s a good idea not to fall into purple prose (although I much prefer the Polish equivalent expression, which roughly translates to “graphomania”). Using fancy constructions and vocabulary is perfectly fine, as long as you know how to use them. Adverbing adverbingly and putting three adjectives before every noun, on the other hand, is pretty bad. This is why I stressed the importance of knowing what words mean so much before. When you are familiar with collocations, grammar, etymologies, registers and meanings, the number of words necessary to convey a message drop significantly. But if you are not familiar with all this, your writing is going to be a mess of overwrought, nonsensical expressions. The next time you play any game with lots of text, I advise you to pay closer attention to the [adjective] + [noun] phrases you find and think whether the combinations make sense, especially in metaphorical and descriptive expressions. I guarantee that most of these will turn out to be nothing but ballast – “cool” phrases devoid of meaning, if not even downright stupid, meant only to expand sentences.
I’ve been playing the beta of Torment: Tides of Numenera recently, and this one is a particular gold mine of stupid phrases. The purple prose there can be so ridiculous that I’ve even started keeping a notebook with some of the more interesting pieces. I couldn’t possibly not mention some of them. A number of my favourite examples thus far include:
- “The air is humid and dank” – but is the air also watery and wet? The air in the world of TToN is generally rather strange, considering that another time it’s “dead and stifling”, and yet another “thick, foul and textured with the slickness of maggots”. “Textured with the slickness of maggots” is quite the exemplar of empty meaning. I once had a flour moth infestation in my kitchen, and if there’s one thing I can tell you, it’s that maggots don’t leave any trace in the air, and they certainly don’t “texture” it with their “slickness”, whatever in God’s name that is even supposed to convey.
- “Suddenly, a grotesque noise rings through your shared worlds, like a bell if bells could rot” – take a moment to think about this last part, “if bells could rot”, and try to imagine it. Does this phrase actually tell you anything? How would the supposed rot influence the sound of the bell, apart from making it “grotesque”, which is just as vague? Would it be higher or lower pitched? Distorted? Muffled? Hello? Further, I would argue that bells, and metal items in general, can “rot” in a way, by becoming rusted through. Suddenly, “like a bell if bells could rust” sounds much less fancy and otherworldly… Similar to Numenera air, “like x if x could y” is a common construction as well – another poignant one is “you sense something… different. A smell, if emotions could smell.”
- "In front of you is a weary traveler whose grim visage is mostly obscured by a pointy hat. Upon closer inspection, the lines on his face indicate he has seen much and has many tales to tell" – for someone whose visage is “mostly obscured”, that’s certainly a lot of visible features to be described (weary, grim, lines on his face so prominent to indicate many things).
- "It wears fine clothes that serve to accentuate the tall, thin crest on its head. […]. Its clothes are finely tailored and well made" – take note how much effort the writer is putting into this description to make sure you, the dumb, clueless player, don’t miss a thing.
But Torment is obviously not the only one around. One of the most perfect examples of ill-conceived purple prose comes, once again, from Tyranny.
Disregard the grammatical/typographical mistakes in the text, because they are of little importance, and focus on what it tries to communicate. Plainly, this is an attempt at synaesthesia, where various sensations are supposed to be conveyed through unusual means. The problem here is that the writer has put no thought into the text, instead going berserk and putting in as many sensations as he/she could. Note how colours (blue) are first perceived by contact, but then, suddenly, they can also be heard (green). Similarly, fingers can first taste, but then they can also hear and smell in the same line. They can also taste the same air that initially comes through as colour-bearing. There is no consistency, no thought, no sense, even though something interesting could be constructed here if followed from the first line - “blue” is as an obvious substitute for “cold”, while “skin tingling with a pointed sensation” could mean goosebumps.
A major problem springing from the above is that the more “jumbled” your writing is, the more trouble you will have to keep it cohesive and coherent, which, I would argue, is one of the most important qualities of a text. To define cohesion and coherence, let’s just say that the writing needs to be consistent on a macro and micro level – that everything flows logically from point A to point B and finally to Z, while the local qualities remain comparable all over in separate points A, D, L and Z. There are many ways to disrupt this, and unfortunately they are very easy to commit, such as by retreating to flight-of-fancy kind of expressions that the writer feels are very witty or fitting for one particular point (and often they may even be so), but which are at odds with everything else. The same is true for expressions that have become commonplace in pulp writing of all kinds, and which are mercilessly being regurgitated without any thought.
The perfect example of a game with broken coherence can be found in Wasteland 2. One could say that the “wacky” style of WL2 should have no place for coherence to begin with, but that is absolutely not true – in fact, to stay coherent and funny in an absurd context, and not just descend into random stupidity, is possibly much harder than in all the others. The sinusoidal style of Wasteland is probably the fault of having a dozen or something writers doing it, which is an entirely separate problem of its own, but this doesn’t excuse sudden shifts in style within the same segments. The most distinctive moment of this kind happens in Titan Canyon, once you disarm the big nuke, return to the monk settlement to find it in chaos and talk to Father Enola. In prior conversations, Enola acts like a typical cult leader/preacher, with a manner of speech a bit more “elevated” than most characters. What are the final scornful words of this abbot-like figure directed at the player who wrecked his community and destroyed the little order that was in the area? “You suck!” Where’s the fire and brimstone? The solemn promise of inevitable damnation? The zeal and anger of an overthrown heresiarch?
Just the kind of guy who’d send you to hell with a quick “you suck!” [pic shamelessly stolen from some youtube let’s play]
There is one obvious way that the purple prose and general nonsense could be fought - most of it could be quickly and easily fished out by a competent editor, and by that, I mean a real editor worth his salt, and not the dozen writers all reading each other’s works and commenting upon them in a rotten display of pseudo-peer review, or a bunch of QA people looking for typos. Unfortunately, the art of real edition has either been forsaken long ago or never even introduced into the big games industry. We can only wonder as to why – perhaps it’s because the writers are prima donnas who can’t accept too much criticism. Perhaps it’s because the workload would be too big for a single editor, raising the need for multiple ones, which would up development costs. Or maybe there’s just a lack of manpower on the market.
Before proceeding to the next set of issues, there is one more thing I want to mention here. Do note that my criticism concerns only the people who try to do “elaborate” writing. None of this applies to game developers who really couldn’t give a damn about creating a multilayered plot structure with a dozen stylisations. If anything, I have nothing but respect for them, because it typically means they focus on things that actually matter for games, i.e. the goddamn gameplay. The bottom line is that “bad” writing by people who aren’t cut for it is fine when they are aware of their limitations and weaknesses. Bad writing by pompous poseurs who think themselves the next Tolkien, however, is definitely not fine.
The third major issue is an important one for many reasons, primarily because it helps unveil even further the incompetence and lack of creativity that sits deep inside game developers. I am referring, of course, to the shallow copying of elements from other media, which don’t really fit particularly well with video games, followed by developers hailing their products not as “games”, but as “interactive [x]” and the like. Interactive movies, books, shows and whatever other stupid fads that for some reason enjoy popularity are quite possibly the main reason why the whole video game world is stuck in place and refusing to move forward, despite the claims to the contrary that sing praises of “revolutionary new art forms”, which are supposed to be found in these pseudo-genres.
When you consider someone saying that they are making, for instance, an “interactive movie”, what does that really mean? It’s simple – “I can’t for the life of mine come up with anything original, so I’ll just take cues from other, hardly even related stuff.” Why this has been encouraged for years now is particularly puzzling when you try to turn the tables. Imagine someone saying he wants to “write a movie in a book format” or “paint a novel”. Doesn’t this sound awful or, at least, incompatible? Case in point, I read a book recently that started with the author saying, “this is the movie I’ve always wanted to write” – naturally, it’s very bad pulp sci-fi/fantasy that has been planned as a trilogy from the get-go. Every entertainment or art medium has its own qualities and characteristics that can’t work well when transplanted into another one, and I wonder when will game developers finally realise this, because representatives of other media have realised that long ago. Take, for example, this short video about Buster Keaton:
How old can we say cinematography, in the sense of long movies telling actual stories, was in Keaton’s time? Let’s say roughly 15 years. Already at that time did Keaton realise that your mute visual medium cannot function properly if based on text screens. So instead he focused on what the medium does stand for – action and visuals. We are now in 2017, video games have been around for over 35 years, they have turned into a huge industry and business, and we are still stuck with people who think that touting the hundred million billion word count in their new RPG is a good idea.
Why would it be? Because more words = more content = more gud (= more payment per word for hired hack writers, but I digress)? In a development update from March, inXile say that Torment: Tides of Numenera will have a whopping 1 million words. Naturally, this can be dismissed as just fake marketing fluff, but the message still highlights a problem: why is the word count a subject of marketing? The motive behind it is obvious because it has been the same for years now: our skilled writers want it to be like a book, and a book has lots of text! Commenting upon the absurdity of the idea can be safely skipped, so let us instead draw a comparison.
Consider Tolstoy’s War and Peace – perhaps it is slightly unfair to compare TToN and War and Peace because, ultimately, a game’s text structure is going to be much different from a book – it will need functional texts, item descriptions, different dialogue choices, etc. Indeed, much of the text content may even be exclusive of each other, if we take a very generous assumption that Torment will be non-linear enough to hide a lot of these words from the player during a single playthrough. But nevertheless, let’s do it, if just to indulge a kind of perverse flight of fancy and compare a “game-as-book” to an actual book.
The Project Gutenberg edition of the novel spans over 1890 pages and roughly 570k words. Tolstoy was a world-class novelist and a master of the written word, which was certainly a factor in him being able to produce this intimidating colossus. Torment, apparently, has almost double the word count of War and Peace. I have my doubts whether the writers at inXile profess the same writing ability as Tolstoy, and whether they can make this huge mass of words engaging enough for me to read, even if I’m supposed to read only half of it. Even worse yet, more comparisons could be made to material of a more similar category, like all the fantasy series that span multiple entries, and which certainly achieve even higher word counts when put together. I’m sure we can all think of at least one such series, and we can also agree that most of them are of rather poor quality. So perhaps the real question here is not whether TToN can compare to War and Peace, but whether it can be captivating enough not to sink into mediocrity along with all the other one-million-word fantasy drivel. I would say the prospects are bleak. That is due to a few reasons.
First is the purple prose mentioned in the previous point, coupled with logorrhea that isn’t being checked by any competent editor.
Second is Bioware-style “non-linearity” in dialogue, where most dialogue options lead to the same outcome, just worded a bit differently, which is a ballast that infects nearly every RPG and refuses to go away. TToN has plenty of this, although, to its credit, those different replies at least give you tiny alignment shifts. Insignificant, but it’s a start.
Finally, third are the “novel-like” attributes, which have made a furious comeback with the recent wave of Kickstarter RPGs that desperately cling to old role models in an attempt to portray themselves as “oldschool” – and by “role models”, plural, I mean Planescape: Torment and nothing else.
The biggest offender among the “book” elements are the descriptions and interjections in dialogue, such as “<blablabla,> he says with a sigh”. The vast majority of these are unnecessary, and they can be safely skipped without losing anything. If you can’t write your game dialogue in a way that makes it obvious what the speaker is feeling/doing at the moment, perhaps you should consider changing jobs – I wonder how adventure games managed to survive without stage directions interfering in every dialogue. Not to mention that these descriptions are an element almost inherently belonging to books, meant to keep up the flow and formatting. For games with dialogue windows or pop-up messages, they simply serve no function. Sometimes they are useful to establish some character’s significant quirk, like Pharod constantly smacking his lips in PS:T, but those are exceptions. Like I said, take any recent KS-funded RPG to find examples, Wasteland 2 and PoE probably being kings here, and try to read through the dialogues while consciously skipping the non-dialogue interjections. You won’t miss a thing.
One significant thing has to be stressed concerning the above “novelisation” of RPGs: it still remains just shallow copying and cue-taking without thought. That is because these games never go all the way in with the style or theme they are trying to emulate, instead sticking to the same old conventions, just polluted with qualities stolen from other media. As a counter-example, consider an RPG that really wanted to be a “book in game format”, and which managed to do it successfully – Betrayal at Krondor. All text windows in BaK look like paper, texts between chapters are marked with page numbers, even the quick save option is called “bookmark”. The way BaK limits “functional” texts to the bare minimum is also very commendable, instead letting everything stay “in character”. This is the way you do a game with stylisation – you pull no punches and dedicate it completely to the theme. Alas, that requires effort and creativity, which in these times are very hard to come by.
A much more civilised way to say “your [stealth] check has failed, your ambush has been detected and you won’t be getting the initiative in this fight.”
Or that all of that has succeeded.
Yet sometimes it even looks like it’s not just creativity, but also common sense that is hard to come by. Last January, when I was brawling with community member Felipepepe about his Undertale review, at one point he asked me when was the last time I saw different fonts being used in a game to represent different personalities or moods. My reaction to this was “big deal, there’s dozens of that, like in Bloodlines, and… and…” and then it hit me – there is nothing else. In fact, it’s pretty interesting in itself that you’ll find most developers citing comic books as their hobbies or influences, but one of their most basic features, i.e. fonts shifting in size, type and colour to convey various features of sound, is completely missing from games. Characters in Undertale also don't differ through fonts alone - they also have varying beeps and boops accompanying their speech.
Still, a lot of the reckless novelisation in RPGs also stems from a few incorrect assumptions regarding storytelling. One is the already described problem of Deep Lore, where the player is treated like a fool who needs to have everything written down in a comprehensive format, to assure that he understands everything. But just consider how many interesting things can be done using video game structure to achieve storytelling levels impossible to attain in other media. The way you can obfuscate info or toy with the player through the combination of audio, video and interactivity is unparalleled, but instead everyone seems intent on just skipping some of those parts and retreating to safe waters. Possibly the most obnoxious of these "safe” ways out are audio logs and all other assorted journals.
I don’t know which game was the one to introduce audio logs in their current form, it might have been System Shock, but it was definitely System Shock 2 that popularised the concept, and Bioshock took it into overdrive. Nowadays, it seems that you just can’t have a post-medieval game that wouldn’t have them, and in almost all instances, the result of their inclusion is terrible.
For starters, let us consider why audio logs worked in System Shock 2. First, they had a logical reason to be there – most of the people in the game were scientific personnel. Second, they were short, and their message typically fit on the limited PDA data screen, without the need for scrolling. Third, and most importantly, they were usually paired with relevant environmental narration that gave them even more context and logical reason to be there – take, for example, the last message you find from sergeant Bronson, about her trying to hold her guts in before dying after a shootout. You find it on her corpse, inside a busted room, with other security personnel corpses strewn around in an obvious “last stand” scenario. The moment you enter, you know exactly what you’ve stumbled upon, the audio log is only there to drive the point home and confirm that Bronson was there and she did not survive.
Now, most other games that try to copy System Shock 2’s approach throw all these considerations out the window. Although, in reality, they are copying not SS2, but Bioshock, which was the first one to mangle the SS2 formula and thoughtlessly re-use its concepts. Compare the audio logs found in Bioshock to the ones found in its predecessor: they are recorded by completely random people; they just keep talking on and on and on, forcing you to sit around and listen for extended periods of time, pulling you out of the game’s action; and they are found all over the place, without any real context – some of the placements even make no sense at all. There are two main reasons for this. One is the ever-present checklist school of design, where an element just has to be included, because it was featured in a successful prior game – the less consideration given to the inclusion, the better. Second is just pure old simplicity and cheapness. It’s easier and faster to write a few lines of text, put them somewhere conspicuous for the player to stumble upon, perhaps even record some audio, than craft an engaging set of scenes that would contain the narrative. Consider, for instance, the post-mortem article about Raven Software’s Singularity:
Once Singularity was released we saw an avalanche of negative comments online about how derivative certain gameplay elements were. "I hate the audio logs and explainer videos. Raven totally copied them from Bioshock!" they claimed.
Yes. Yes, we did.
We copied the idea because audio logs [are] cheap to make, easy to set up and could fill in the gaps created by our massive rewiring of the story.
The only two games in recent time that I think did something interesting with “audio logs” were Betrayer and SOMA. In Betrayer, you seek out the spirits of the long-dead, who tell you what led to their damnation. One could say the way they present this is structured similarly to logs. But the catch is that the ghosts are demented and offer only incoherent parts of their stories – they only form something logical once you finish their “questlines” and refresh their memories. Following this, they give complete accounts of their deeds, using the same sentences from the first mumblings, but with the blanks filled out, which can shift the perspective from a man being freaked out by a strange Indian girl to having him rape her. SOMA does this well too, because the “audio logs” are also imprints of characters’ memories or past events, and they are spaced out enough to feel compelling each time you find them.
Also importantly, the audio logs in System Shock are emails exchanged between people just as often as they are journal entries.
Does this look like an efficient way of exchanging messages? (Bioshock tape recorder)
In any case, if your game’s tech level doesn’t allow you to dump audio logs around every corner, you can always retreat to journals in every desk. The bases and results for these are similar to recordings, but their quality of writing is typically much lower, and the reason for this is obvious: Have you ever kept a journal? Do you know anyone who’s ever kept a journal? Is it someone other than your great grandad? Video game journals are just fake on all layers – how they are written, by whom they are kept, and what info do they hold. I think Thief is the only series where logbooks sound natural, or at least I can’t think of anything else.
Finally, when it comes to not using the formula to its fullest, sometimes I get the impression that developers/writers are buried under their mounds of text to such an extent that they forget that video games are primarily a visual medium. This is all Buster Keaton and text screens again, really. Consider some of the more, let’s say, cinematic RPGs, such as The Witcher, Mass Effect or Alpha Protocol. This might not be a very popular opinion around here, but they have all it takes to deliver really quality storytelling (even if the final effect, especially in terms of ME, may vary) – voice acting, facial animations and character movements in dialogue. What takes Mike Thorton or Commander Shepard 3 seconds to headslam a guy against the wall would otherwise probably constitute an entire paragraph of text, which would also need to be crafted well enough to properly construct the scene without the visuals to accompany it. The same is true for The Witcher, particularly 2 and 3. Characters move around when talking, gesticulate, frown – it all comes together to deliver a believable and fluid scene that is also quickly finished, as it should be. Sometimes the performances are even near-theatrical. The natural flow of dialogue achieved this way also results in a much greater feeling of verisimilitude, which ties closely to the aforementioned fake journals. Combining the two points serves to support the overall problems highlighted in the previous chapter, which is to say that game writers simply keep writing about things they have no idea about. Whether because they've never bothered to do their research, or because they are trying to practice or portray things they've never really experienced firsthand, only through "creative ventures" or stuff they "heard from someone, somewhere".
"It lay there," he says wearily, a single sad salty tear rolling slowly down his bruised, bulky, bacteria-ridden countenance.
Naturally, a big problem with the above, from a developer’s perspective, is that full voicing and elaborate animations are simply expensive to do, and consequently reduce the number of dialogues or characters you can realistically provide. But considering most of what I’ve written in this entire article, can’t a limitation like this ultimately work for the better? With such constrains, you have to limit your cast and make sure that each character is properly fleshed out as a consequence, and you can’t afford to waste time and money on useless infodumps. Even still, a “full” cinematic package is not really necessary to boost your storytelling either. Consider Bloodlines – the game isn’t particularly loaded with cutscenes, and the dialogues are more or less static. But the characters are full of character, mostly thanks to two features – their distinctness (and the way interactions with them are built on this distinctness) and their facial expressions. Even without the voice acting, which can be hit and miss in Bloodlines, you could read the characters perfectly just by observing their faces. Alpha Protocol managed to do this well too – for example, when you piss off Marburg, all he does is frown and clench his jaw, without launching into a rant meant solely to signify how you’ve handled the conversation (although that is still communicated by a convenient "-x reputation" pop-up). Which leads me to my final point in this chapter.
If we are to think what could be the reason behind RPGs being so mindlessly text-heavy, I believe the answer can be related to the “roleplaying” aspect. That is to say, developers are likely convinced that text is the only way to convey choice and consequence or reactivity, especially when we couple it with the previous observation that nowadays the player is treated like a fool, and everything needs to be presented to him directly and unambiguously, out of fear that he might understand neither the choices nor the consequences unless they are explicitly stated. Needless to say, I don’t think this is the case.
Take some non-RPGs, which can’t use too much text due to their genre formulas, but which have a lot of fluid and natural reactivity. Let’s start with, for example, Dishonored. Going on a rampage in Dishonored will result in more guards appearing across the game, more signs of the plague spreading through the city, more comments from NPCs regarding your kill count, and even different level aesthetics. Dishonored doesn’t flash a huge “chaos level+++” when you kill someone, because it’s unnecessary. Same story with Star Wars: Jedi Knight. The levels in JK are populated with civilians, and it’s obvious that a Jedi knight shouldn’t be killing civilians – but you can do it, and the results are shown in various ways, such as Kyle getting more dark side power points to spend. Eventually the campaign will check your light/dark side status and branch accordingly.
It can work well in RPGs too. I’ve already mentioned Alpha Protocol, but it bears repeating. There are plenty of variables and features in the game that will change according to your choices, and many of them are not very obvious – some you won’t even notice unless you play the game one more time. I also have to name Betrayal at Krondor once again. Although the game is devoid of story branching, the player has a lot of freedom to tackle his quests, and the way they unfold, or how difficult they will be, will depend on the player’s choice of approach through the open world. In the beginning, your objective is to get to Krondor – you start in the west and the shortest route leads south, but that is the route where the most assassins are posted, because it’s obvious that the characters will take it. However, you can instead go north and take a detour across the entire land to evade the assassins and enter Krondor from the east. While perhaps not C&C in the most acknowledged sense of the expression, it does present a legitimate choice (do I risk taking the long route around?) with organic consequences (getting clobbered to a lesser or bigger degree).
In this section, I will put a couple smaller issues that are also relevant to the matter at hand, but which don’t warrant separate big chapters.
a) Bad attempts at emotional engagement
It is hard to make the player jump into the game and give a damn about what is going on, that’s for sure, especially if it’s story-driven to the point that you can’t ignore the narrative and just focus on the gameplay proper. However, in recent times we have witnessed an increase in “emotional engagement”, which just bombards the player with all kinds of stimuli that are oftentimes so hamfisted that they end up comical instead of engaging.
Most of it, I think, can be observed in RPG companion characters. Each follower must have a Deep Story to share, unravelling it throughout the game, with multiple twists and turns, ambiguities, etc, and you are almost always forced to listen to it all to unlock new abilities for them. After a while, it gets tiresome, particularly since these companion stories are all constructed from similar building blocks, and so they tend to be very samey.
Compare that, for example, to Gothic. The Gothic band of bros – Diego, Milten, Gorn, etc – don’t follow you around everywhere, yakking all the time, as they are busy with their own agenda. Instead, they are recurring characters that always appear in important times and places, constantly reinforcing their value. Thanks to that, the player can eventually form a legitimate bond with them, to the point that you can have a real headache trying to decide which ones to take with you on the ship heading to the final chapter in Gothic 2.
Similar things can be said of protagonists. “Blank slates” are all the rage these days, but it feels like sometimes the developers forget that even a blank slate needs motivation. The Nameless One in PS:T is a good blank slate – his memories are completely wiped, and the player can shape him the way he wants, but TNO also comes with his own forgotten baggage and history, which cannot be ignored, and which return all the time to drive the narrative home and give the player something to pursue.
Finally, there is the matter of “serious business” and how it ruins the fun for everyone. Sometimes, developers will attempt to strive to a kind of constipated seriousness that doesn’t benefit them at all, and which begs for some comic relief. It gets even worse when a team known for its comical approach suddenly decides to turn serious. Best example: Larian and Divinity: Original Sin. In Divinity 2, Larian was probably at its peak when it comes to tongue in cheek RPG (and not only RPG) parody – to the point that the game sometimes felt like Sierra’s King’s Quest series in terms of absurd humour. DOS, on the other hand, decided to be a bit more serious, and its story and writing ended up so dry and uninteresting that it made you wonder if it really was the same Larian. For some ungodly reason, they even kept increasing the seriousness in the Enhanced Edition by, for example, changing the voice actor of the most iconic character in the game – the Cyseal cheese vendor – to someone completely forgettable and inoffensive.
b) No respect for video game history
It has been said that we are dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants. If a similar sentence had to be attributed to game developers, we would probably end up with something about throwing the giants under the bus. The magnitude of disrespect towards older design methods and considerations is perplexing, but that’s nothing new. Everyone knows that turn-based combat is an outdated concept stemming from insufficient technology. But the problem applies to narrative design just as well, with everyone thinking that his game’s story will be all new and ground-breaking. Take, for example, the Kickstarter campaign for the System Shock remake by Nightdive Studios:
I don’t know about you, but I’d say that Looking Glass Studios, the people behind System Shock 1, were perhaps the finest developers we’d ever had, and not just when it comes to gameplay, but also in terms of story design. For all my appreciation of Chris Avellone, the thought that Nightdive would consider themselves worthy to “upgrade” LGS’s work is not only near-offensive to me, but also a clear indicator of their arrogance. System Shock’s story is fine as it is. If you want to add some content to it, be my guest, but the moment you decide to “shape and direct” the “existing narrative”, you can stop keeping up the pretence and just say outright that you give no damn about LGS’s legacy.
The same can be said of all the other remakes, spiritual successors and reboots, when the people responsible for them will try to feed you nonsense about features that you shouldn’t expect to see again, because they “would just not work in this day and age”. If you ask me, if something did work fine at least once before, odds are it can be recreated and work just as well once more. But, again, this would take effort and humility, which are so hard to come by.
c) Lack of communication between writers and others
Since big games by big studios are typically cut up and sent to various in-studio departments (or even outsourced to subcontractors), it can be hard for all the people aboard to coordinate their efforts. Internal logic and coherence can suffer tremendously from this because it leads to situations where everyone does his job without thinking about the rest of the personnel.
In writing, this can be observed primarily in redundant texts that repeat what is communicated through other means. Obsidian’s recent works are particularly guilty of this – like the villain of PoE being described as a robed, bearded man, even though you can see his character model in the game, his portrait in the dialogue window, and then a sketch of him in a text adventure screen. Another poignant example comes from Tyranny:
The above screen has two issues. One is the description of the character folding her arms, when the avatar on the left does exactly that upon reaching this node. Second is the ugly repetition of “Renata – Renata”, when it would look much better to just begin the sentence with “she”. Both are indicators of poor craftsmanship resulting from lack of communication – the writer was doing the dialogue outside the game interface, so he/she might have not known whether the picture would even accompany the dialogue and was unable to spot the name repetition. If only someone in the know had informed the poor writer about these things.
Similar problems come up often in “infodump” dialogues, regarding player and character knowledge discrepancies. A character from Kingdom_X should know everything about the king and law enforcement of Kingdom_X, even if the player does not. Having the character ask questions about these, however, makes him look like an ignoramus, so the writer will need to be flexible in order for the dialogue to make sense. It is, once again, a problem mainly to be found in PoE.
What is left to say? The writing in RPGs just isn’t very good. For plenty of reasons, too, and ones which are not likely to go away anytime soon. Removing these problems would require nothing short of a revolution – abolishing current models, taking a step back, reconsidering things, and hiring more competent people. But that is easier said than done when we talk about a huge industry circulating billions of dollars. The fixes would require lots of risk, lots of planning, lots of introspection and lots of skill. The “more competent people” part might arguably be the hardest because hardly anyone with real writing talent is going to waste his time and effort on the rotten environment that is the video games industry. Furthermore, if the prophesised Kickstarter Revolution™ did not accomplish this, I fear nothing ever will.
So, you might ask, what’s even the point of this article? A few things led me to write it – getting fed up with the fixation on “lore”, reading writers talk about things they obviously have no idea about, playing bad games that try to be pompous and fail. But primarily it was the hypocrisy. From my observations, the discussion of writing in RPGs usually follows the same one track: “the writing in this game is so good, it’s like a book!” -> “no, it’s actually pretty bad” -> “well, duh, it’s game writing, all of it is bad by default, so shut up and stop making stupid comparisons to books and shit!” So, what is it then? Is it all bad, or can it also be good, and thus subject to evaluation?
And if it’s all bad, then how come all the hacks in this business keep churning out purple prose like there’s no tomorrow and continue getting away with it? No, how come they are being lauded for it? How come they achieve quasi-rock star status on the basis of their terrible writing, and how come they keep coming back with more terrible writing, instead of being assigned the very responsible assignment made just for them, which is Junior Burger Flipper at McDonald’s?
The obvious answer is that lots of people also happen to eat at McDonald’s and you don’t really see them complain. However, you won’t find any famous chefs singing the praises of that fine establishment, which stands in direct contrast with the so-called video game journalists and experts who are always the first in line to commend any Bioware game for being some kind of a revolutionary display of storytelling mastery. The reason for this is also fairly obvious because those journalists are often of the same rotten pseudo-academic breed as the writers themselves – and that’s without even mentioning the fat paychecks and benefits that gaming media get from publishers for dancing to their tunes and giving straight 10/10s to every mediocre product that hits the market.
It’s like the whole video game world is made up of incompetents, narcissists, sell-outs and conmen.
You may now proceed with the tl;dr comments.