With Video Game Writing, The Devil Lives In The Details

In DmC, the new reboot of Capcom's Devil May Cry series, hero character Dante is the offspring of an angel mother and demon father. He looks human but is of another breed altogether, a species of celestial rarity called nephilim who are incredibly powerful.

They're wild cards, nephilim are, and their bloodlines gives them the strength to elevate or subjugate the plain ol' mortals who don't know they exist.

The verboten relationship responsible for Dante's existence reminds me of the way that writing copulates with video game design. What we typically think of as sharp wordsmithing can ruin a video game. Too in love with vocabulary and chatter? You'll bore a player to tears. And on the opposite end of the spectrum, brevity may be the soul of wit, but a game that's too stingy with explication won't make anybody care about what's going on.

So what kind of writing works best in video games? The kind that you notice only peripherally, that pricks the fringes of your consciousness when you're ploughing down bad guys.

DmC has flashes of it. Demonic antagonists after real-world elites who control debt and manipulate the media. Good guys who ape hacktivist organisations like WikiLeaks. Those elements provide evidence of authored intent. It feels like there's a guiding hand there, one that's trying to differentiate itself from other game stories by connecting to reality outside of a console. That's good.

Where developer Ninja Theory's efforts in DmC feels more undisciplined is in the dialogue and affect of its characters. They're almost all poses and not people. Dante's surly brand of dismissiveness tells players a little bit about where he comes from but doesn't really endear him to the audience. He's a jerk who is only slightly less of one by the end of the game. And the villains don't do much more than chew scenery and spit obscenities. Some sequences tease you with moments where the bad guys might become more than one-dimensional personalities but none of them deliver.

Ultimately, the best things about DmC are the unwritten things. The things that happen because of your reflexes and responses in the moment. Combat is where you write the script, where you determine how cool Dante is. None of the scripted moments — even this one — can rival the thrill of getting a SSS rating. DmC's action is heavenly, which makes the game's writing feel like it comes from the netherworld. And that gap just highlights the continuing tension between player interaction and written narrative in big-budget video games. Fusing the two together gives you a powerful entity but that mixture is a tricky one to get right.

Another smaller game with a hellborn character is chock full of words, but goes in a different, more fulfilling direction than DmC. Argument Championplayable for free in web browsers and made by Big Blue Boo Labs — casts you as a up-and-coming politician who must verbally trounce opponents. You win rounds by making the audience like your topic of choice more than that of your opponent. The trick here is to connect phrases to another quickly with as few moves as possible.

In Argument Champion, the gameplay itself is a sort of writing and vice versa. You brew up a little saga every time you try to connect random words like "count" to, say, "house". There's no thread of logic or motivation in the rhetorical battles but the tension generated by clicking through each cloud of words as you try to finish an argument feels great. The writing in Argument Champion isn't much more than a series of templates but those repeated set-up and outcome text kept me far more rapt than anything in DmC.

Argument Champion wins out as far as ambition too. DmC wears its aspirations on its sleeve, shouting out its big ideas about civil disobedience and class warfare at rock-concert volume. But the dissonance between what you do and what you listen to/read adds a lot of noise. In Argument Champion, what you do and what you read are the same thing and leaving lots of room for the game to be interpreted as a sly commentary on shaping opinions.

At the end of the day, Argument Champion and DmC are built around different sets of ideas and deliver vastly divergent experiences. But, as the ideas of how to deliver interactive narrative in video games continue to evolve, the two titles stand as a stark contrast as to how game-makers can make the players themselves feel like the authors of their own sagas.


Comments

    DMC is awesome. This game reboot made me like Devil May Cry! and AMEN to the "heavenly" action/battle/combos!

    I hate the idea that everyone thinks they even know good writing when they experience it. People are too judgmental and ignorant to even consider the idea that maybe they just didn't like something because it wasn't down their alley. We had an army of idiots last year talking about Mass Effect's story lacking a "thematic" conclusion which basically just meant they were taught that if you follow procedure you "win". But when "win" was different than they thought, fingers were pointed immediately at someone else over their expectations. I can't help but worry that gamers more so than any other medium have an increasing amount of power into the development of stories. Game writing is interesting and all but we're treating the art of writing like it's some binary thing with right and wrong answers. At least try and stop people believing they know everything about a subject so they can enjoy the wonder of a great story to be liked or disliked without petitions involved.

      But there are objective qualities to writing, and more accurately, to how you show or tell a story.

      If a movie(or a game) has to explain everything to the viewer, through the use of exposition, then it's safe to say that it's either poorly written, or poorly directed(look at Avatar:The Last Airbender(the movie) for a perfect example of that). And in the case of DmC, while moment to moment dialogue may be witty(I know I've certainly laughed at lines, and even the strangely flat way that Dante delivers them), it is very heavy handed with its message, and never really attempts subtlety or nuance through its writing. In that sense, yes, it's poorly written. There's nothing objectively wrong with something written so that the lowest common denominator can understand it, it's just not good writing.

        +1 I hate the idea that only people who go out and write their own successful books/movies etc have a right to call something out as good or poor writing. It's utterly fallacious thinking, you don't need to make amazing wine to know when a bottle is off, you need not physically assemble your car to know that it isn't working properly. As with DmC, Mass Effect 3 was objectively poorly written, without re opening the veritable warehouse of where it went wrong, to pick at random, deus ex machina is generally something to be avoided in good writing, when deus ex machina is not only the tool by which your story reaches its conclusion, but it is the actual conclusion, there's a problem.

        No writing isn't binary, but different tastes and objectively good and bad writing aren't mutually exclusive, again, fallacious thinking. You can have objectively bad writing and [also] have well written stories some people like and others despise. To use my analogy, I might prefer a cab sav to a Pinot Noir, while my partner prefers the latter, but we can both tell when a either of those is objectively bad. To use your analogy, there are a variety of right answers yes, but there's also a wrong one.

    I so knew DMC would be put down this category but I disagree wholeheartedly. Our connection with Dante isn't just established through dialogue but our actions as that hero allows us to like him. And more often than not he acts decent with big heart no matter how much of a poser he is. Initially I was like 'oh shit he is going to be an utter dickhead and I will be expected to like this character' but he has been awesome imo. And, yes, it is opinion based. In a loong while have I been this impressed by the direction of a game. It is an action game, so I didn't expect the dialogue to be of the quality of an RPG or an Adventure game. It delivers what it must and allows enough connection with the lead imo.

    Didn't read this article but I totally disagree with Dante's word bubble. For instance, I can't stop reading Powers by Bendis and I think all the characters are jerks.

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