I admit that I love playing RPG’s. They are my favourite type of game (probably because they don’t really require me to be able to aim or react quickly, they just require patience and time to level up the character so that they can aim and react quickly). Recently I’ve noticed a trend in reviews for computer games that has interested me. No longer is it just about whether the game is playable or fun the reviewers spend equal amounts of time criticising the narrative structure and the character motive for wanting to complete a level. Admittedly, games have always tried to pretend there was some higher purpose to playing other than completing levels and racking up points (even Mario Bros filled in a lame story about a kidnapped Princess who, just as you reached her, was kidnapped again to make you keep playing), but it seems that the reviewers are now actively critiquing the sophistication of the story telling that is going on. The main issues seem to be:
- protagonists that stumble into the action for no apparent reason and then take on the hero role, again for no apparent reason
- villains that are villainous for no reason other than to create a conflict
- protagonists that are so incredibly dumb they make you ashamed to be controlling them
- stories that are so complex and removed from game play they require cut scene after cut scene just to fill all the gaps in the story
- side characters that are so poorly developed that they all have the same face and say the same stupid three lines everytime you pass them.
Now, if the point of playing games is to tell stories then yes, all of the above probably need to be addressed. However, most gamers just want to get to the end. That is the point. As long as there is fun to be had, mindless characters and lack of motive isn’t a real deterrent. Worthless dialogue and intruding cut scenes on the other hand will make most players at least throw something at the screen, if not stop playing.
That said, I think there are lessons to be learnt about writing from playing these types of games. I know I”ve learnt a lot about what I should not do as a writer from playing through many, many games.
- From Final Fantasy – Just because you have an ensemble cast does not mean you have to describe the back story of every single character in full and complete detail using flashbacks. Yes, if you want the reader to care about the character you have to tell them something, but the reader is not going to appreciate 5-10 backstories particularly if it has little to do with the main plot.
- From Final Fantasy (no I’m not picking on it) – If the amazing, climatic battle sequence is less interesting then the three battle sequences before it, the ending is going to leave a sour taste in the mouth of the person reading the story, no matter how good it is as a climax.
- From Oblivion – If your character needs to find something and someone in a village knows where it is, do not have your protagonist speak to every single person in the village before finding that someone. Listening to twenty variations of “I don’t know” and “why don’t you ask” can get very tiring.
- From Super Mario – Have an actual, believable goal. Collecting mushrooms to grow may have worked in Alice in Wonderland but it doesn’t make for much of a goal and why are we collecting coins when they don’t really achieve anything, it isn’t as if he ever spends them. Why is the plumber responsible for saving the Princess? Shouldn’t she have guards?
- From Monkey Island – Your characters will need to develop skills. However, dumping them on a path in the forest for several chapters, waiting to run into randoms who may or may not teach them something useful about sword fighting does not make for compelling reading (or playing either I might point out).
- From Beyond Good and Evil – Greed is a powerful motivator but it gets to a point where your character needs more motive than money to continue doing something dangerous and if she has already expressed a severe lack of concern for the situation it makes no sense for her to risk her life for money she no longer needs.
I should actually do a post on the good things video games can teach us about writing at some point but in the meantime, if you have any tips for writing that you gained while playing video games, please share them.
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