Should computer and video game writing be taken seriously?
After my previous babbling about Sci-Fi I thought I’d keep my nerd gene rolling and delve into the world of computer gaming. More specifically writing in computer gaming. As the title suggests I’m asking if it should be taken seriously. And as I’m the one writing this thing, I’ll also answer the question. Yes it absolutely should be taken seriously. The issue in
our society is that gaming in its entirety is not looked upon as equal to other hobbies, or indeed other forms of media. It’s considered “sad” by many, or a pursuit the should be left behind when we leave adolescence. In Germany, Nazi imagery is not permitted in games because the law considers a video game to be a toy, not a form of media alongside books and films. People will often ask if a game can be considered art. Of course it can, if beauty truly is the eye of the beholder then certainly art resided in the same place. The reality is that the kids who were gaming back in the 80s grew up with their hobby and are now the adult gamers of the present. Gaming has grown up with them as much as they grew up with gaming. In contrast the Germany situation, during Obama’s state visit to Poland in 2011 the Polish government presented him with a copy of The Witcher 2. It’s all about perception and the illusion of reality.
As with all art, not all games are equal. Neither in intent or in execution. The developers of many games never expect the writing to be taken seriously, that’s not the experience they’re intending to deliver. However some games are there to deliver a story and some games succeed.
In 1999 Planescape Torment hit the shelves, it did not sell well, largely due to its dreadful box art. It received lukewarm reviews, however over years it became one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time. It stood head and shoulder above its contemporaries in one very important area. That area was story. The game drew on some heavyweight vocal talent, from Sheena Easton to The Simpson’s Dan Castellaneta, but that was just the icing on the cake. The guts of the game were its deep story and expansive and descriptive text. Every character had a back story, every location a history and every plot line a twist or at least the odd turn. The protagonist was a hulking grey skinned mammoth of a man with a past even he had forgotten. In your journey across the game you forged the next chapter of his life, from his moral choices to his personality. At one point I recall him holding a large yellow sphere, I know how that thing looked, felt and smelled. I also know how it made the protagonist feel. I know because the writers took the time to craft it.
The 1998 adventure game Grim Fandango chronicled the story of Manny Calavera and his journey across the Land of the Dead. The game was set in Mexican folklore’s Land of the Dead with a distinctly film noir spin. The final scene sees Manny forced to say a final goodbye to his closet friend. The writing along with the excellent animation and vocal performances conjures an emotional scene rivalling that of any Hollywood movie. I still remember being moved in a way that few films or even books have managed.
To give a more recent example, the 2007 game Mass Effect is a Sci-Fi Role Playing Game that puts the player in the shoes of Commander Shepard in his (or her depending on plyer choice) quest to save the universe from an ancient and mysterious alien race. Two things always struck me about the writing in this game. Firstly the sheer complexity. Due to the interactive nature of a game, characters can die, and the story can take multiple paths depending on player choice. By the start of the games second sequel, just envisioning the number of different story permutations is difficult, let alone writing a cohesive story that takes all these into account. Secondly the level to which the player identifies with the protagonist. The game by its nature allows the player to make countless choices, from more simple conversation options to quite lefty moral decisions. This game threw something at me which no non-interactive medium ever could. Towards the story’s climax you are forced to make a command decision. Either decision will result in the almost certain death of one of two crew members. These crew members are established characters, fully realised with backstories that had been revealed through my interactions with them in the game. From a story point of view I had an emotional investment in both of them, yet I was being forced to essentially sacrifice one to save the other. It was a genuinely difficult decision. This is something that cannot be rivalled in a non-interactive medium.
All in all, games are a largely misunderstood medium in UK society at least, the patronising nature of any gaming related BBC news story brings this home on a semi regular basis. Does this mean that game writing has less value than any other type? I say no and I believe that the most well know games writer Drew Karpyshyn would agree. As I said earlier. It’s all about perception and the illusion of reality. Writing is writing and always takes skill and imagination.
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