The Storyteller

Something a bit different for me now. Not different in that you haven't heard it before, but different in that I don't think I've ever written about this particular point of view.

I often make a point that games don't need stories. I would modify that statement to read "not every game needs a story". As has already been mentioned in previous posts, I often have to field "game designs" from people who have done nothing more than come up with a backstory.

I would put it to you that if you have a story that absolutely needs to be told, there are better choices of media that can accomplish that task more successfully than games. Books or films, for example, are generally better vehicles for a decent story simply because there is no interaction from an outside source that could otherwise serve to derail the whole thing. I'd liken games to that person sitting next to you on the sofa during the movie who either has to ask what's going because they got up to go to the loo and missed a vital plot point develop.

Were I to pick a side in the war between game mechanics and game story, there would be no great surprise when people found out where my allegiance lay.

Games Writing - a brief history

It's fair to say that, as an industry, we haven't covered ourselves in glory when it comes to games writing. In fact, the vast majority of games stories... suck. They're frequently derivative, often misogynistic, bargain-basement tat. The reasons for this are many.

Firstly, the person writing the story was historically not qualified to do so. Story was often left up to the designer, coder, producer or anyone else on the team that happened to have a spare couple of minutes to bang out some dialogue. Nobody cared about it and it really showed.

Either that or the person writing the story would be so far up their own arse and not subject to any form of editorial constraint that the resulting morass would be a daunting mass of baffling exposition. This was normally presented as a pre-mission briefing that the player would skip or a rambling series of cutscenes that the player would skip.

Even when you got a quality writer in to do the job, chances are they'd only have a week or two to weave their magic around an already-established story as the game was about to ship. Or they'd only be brought in to look over the dialogue as the entire sequence of events was already locked down. A Narrative Paramedic (TM - Rhianna Pratchett), if you will - hardly the best use of resources.

Making a difference

I guess the reason I'm writing about this now is because of Borderlands 2. It's a good game - not spectacular, but very well done. The art style is good, the controls are plenty slick enough, the weapons feel weapon-y - everything's in place. I'm no plot expert, but if I was, I'd probably be wheeling out phrases like "Hero's journey" or using words like "McGuffin".

But how this game has prompted me to write this piece is solely down to how well the two components (game mechanics + writing) have come together to be greater than the sum of their parts. Taken individually, each component is perfectly acceptable. Together though...

A couple of examples spring to mind. One mission sees you take on a pretty standard "Kill n specificTypeOfCreatures" quest. This is pretty standard fare. What sets the Borderlands version apart is the narrative wrapped around it. Without changing the mechanics of the quest at all, the story has you killing these creatures in the name of research for a book. Each time you kill a prescribed number, the quest giver comes back to inform you that the publishers don't like that name and would like it changed to something else. He re-names the creatures and asks you to kill a bunch more to see how it feels. This happens a couple of times - essentially extending a simple piece of gameplay through the use of some (frankly hilarious) dialogue. The names they come up with are funny and the fact that the creatures get spawned with this new names each time is the sort of attention to detail that I really like to see.

She's a nutter
Another mission is another standard "Defend area from waves of enemies". This is the sort of thing that can be done very well purely from a gameplay standpoint - Starcraft and the original Call of Duty spring to mind - but Borderlands isn't in that sort of league. Enemies stream at you from a limited direction, straight through a choke point, relying only on the mix of enemies and solid gunplay, which is no bad thing, but the part that makes it memorable is the wrapping. You're defending a tea-party being hosted by a young girl / explosives expert. She's set up her toys around the table and laid a place for "The bastard that killed my parents". Once you capture this chap, he gets placed at the head of the table and the waves begin. Whilst you're merrily shooting away at the waves of enemies trying to rescue their comrade, the girl gleefully skips around the table whilst the aforementioned bastard gets repeatedly electrocuted. Survive for long enough and he's reduced to a pile of smouldering ash and the mission is complete - the cuddly-toys-strapped-to-rockets are yours.

Getting it write [sic]

I still stand by my original point - games don't need stories. But those that do need to do it properly. This means doing several things -
  • Realising that writing is a skill to be performed by professionals. Like coding, only with less punctuation. In much the same way as you wouldn't let a coder do your artwork, you shouldn't let your designer do the writing.
  • Getting the writer involved early in the process. You're having design meetings about how the game works, right? Get them in at that stage. Not only are they pretty creative people with something to offer, but it'll also give them a chance to start weaving the narrative in on the ground level, making the whole thing much more solid.
  • Give them the resources they need. Nominally, time and freedom. It's all tied to the "get them in early" thing, but you're always going to suffer if you just try tacking this stuff on at the end. Likewise, presenting with them a fait accompli and asking them to tart it up a bit just isn't going to fly these days.
Do you need a writer but don't know any? Do you want to be one and are not sure where to start? Why not seek out the Writers' Guild? There's probably a quest line there that can help you.

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