On the 1st of February, the Writers Guild of America awarded Neil Druckmann the ‘Outstanding Achievement in Writing for Video Games’ over the weekend for his work on Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us. This was met with general approval from the video game community, and it seems that there is a push towards better writing in video games. However, there are some that would still argue that the narrative of a video game is not the primary purpose of a game; rather the mechanics and the graphics and mindless fun are the primary objectives of a video game. This viewpoint is entirely right; but it is not right in the right way.
One of my favourite ways to demonstrate the power of video-game writing for narrative is this: one of the major defences of the sandbox game Grand Theft Auto for its lacking of a written narrative is that the focus of the game is rather on gameplay than on story. Yet, if GTA had exemplar writing, the same fans that defend it for being plotless would praise it further. Good writing in a game can change it from good to great, and can redeem a game with subpar gameplay by making it part of a better story – see the entire Point and Click Adventure genre – as long as it engages the player.
And immersion is arguably the greatest asset the video game medium has to engage the player. Unlike a book or film, the player actively controls the protagonist, and engrosses them within the world. If a character is badly written can destroy an otherwise perfect world. In the 2013 edition of Tomb Raider, the torment Lara goes through when she is forced to kill a person for her own survival is very well written, but immediately afterwards she is killing aggressors without a second throught. This failure of writing is the easiest way for a video game to commit the cardinal sin: kicking the player out of the experience.
Bioshock Infinite came under this criticism recently because it fell to ‘ludonarrative dissonance’; a phrase which is used when the mechanics of a game does not fit with the world that has been established. The attempt of protagonist Booker Dewitt to escape from the otherwise peaceful floating city of Columbia by massacring waves of citizens simply did not match. And while I could not possibly claim that Bioshock Infinite was badly written, the highlighting of such a minor writing issue shows how important writing is in the video game.
Good writing is not just related to the dialogue of the NPCs or the main characters; the narrative of the video game is written through the gameplay, script and soundtrack (not to mention aspects of difficulty curves and level design). If the developer chooses a theme or an idea, and focuses all these elements towards conveying that to their audience, then that makes good writing – and that begets a good game.
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