Video game writing, for the most part, is terrible -- but why? We spoke to Darby McDevitt, the writer for Assassin's Creed: Revelations and Ben Kosmina, behind award-winning indie title MacGuffin's Curse, to find out why.
"All your bases are belong to us." Obviously, as a sentence, it’s grammatically incorrect. As a joke, it’s short hand for a shared history -- we have something in common, we have a shared understanding. The cake is a lie. It’s a reference. We laugh, move on, more connected, among friends.
But it’s much more that that. “All your bases are belong to us” -- it’s the end result of lazy translation, but it also represents the priorities of video game development. When SEGA decided to release Toaplan’s Zero Wing in Europe, words were so low in that list of priorities they never even bothered to check if the translation made grammatical sense.
Words. It’s a strange phenomenon. In other media -- movies, television -- ideas spring from good writing, from a script, but as gamers we’ve become so used to bad writing that we celebrate it. ‘You were almost a Jill Sandwich’, ‘fill my dark soul with light’. ‘All your bases are belong to us’.
But in an age of astronomical budgets, why does this phenomenon persist? Why has video game writing continued to lag behind other areas of development? Games are breaking new ground across the board so why do their words continue to lag behind?
Main screen turn on
“Are you sitting down? Are you ready?” Asks Darby McDevitt. We’ve just asked him why video game writing is so bad. After a short burst of laughter he’s bracing us for the answer.
And as the writer of Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, we figure he might have some idea. Darby is one of the few people in the games industry that lays claim to a full time job as a ‘video game writer’. He isn’t hired on contract, towards the end of development, or at the beginning. He doesn’t phone in his script from a beach in Los Angeles. Every day he's in the office, working alongside developers in an attempt to make sure the Assassin’s Creed franchise maintains its reputation of having a higher level of writing than its competitors.
“There’s a number of reasons why video game writing is so bad,” begins Darby. “The first reason might get me in trouble with a lot of people, but I think it’s an important one: developers often hire bad writers.”
“I think that until the last decade or so, I don’t know that games demanded the resources that would keep good writers interested,” he says.
“There also has been a long tradition of feeling that writing wasn’t terribly important to games, and there are a lot cases where that would be correct. We’ve all played great video games with horrible writing and that hasn’t diminished the fun we’ve had with the game -- but a good story with bad gameplay? That’s unbearable.”
We ask Ben Kosmina the same question. As part of Brawsome, a two man team currently working on new indie title MacGuffin’s Curse, he’s acquired a reputation for sharp writing, winning best writing at this year’s Freeplay.
According to Ben, video game writing has been pushed down the priority list for too many years.
“I think that historically video game writing has generally been considered an afterthought, rather than something that has this major focus,” he claims. “It’s been something that takes a backseat to what games are generally about. The focus is usually on gameplay or art. As a result dialogue and writing is treated with less importance.”
Somebody set up us the bomb
Now a handful of big budget, ‘AAA’ games can afford to have a writer like Darby on full time -- so if that’s the case, why has video games as a medium continued to struggle? Why does it still feel like an afterthought?
“I’ve always been on the opinion, and this has grown as I’ve read more about the craft of writing,” says Darby, “that good story has to derive from its game mechanics.
“Typically writing is a way of bridging the gap between play sessions. You see a cut scene, you play for a bit, then you see a cut-scene. But in order for there to be a plausible story that we can follow, the mechanics have to in some way relate to the story.
“It would be very difficult, for instance, to imagine a shooter based on Pride and Prejudice,” he laughs, “because there’s nothing in the mechanics that naturally dovetails into the story. We’re very lucky in Assassin’s Creed to have not just mechanics like climbing, but others.
“Look at simply being able to pick up objects -- I actually think that the fact we can actually pick up bodies, just the simple fact that we can do that, has enabled us to have a couple of gameplay sequences that are poignant rather than challenging. It’s very simple, but it allows us to transition a little more seamlessly, instead of just having talking heads go at it.”
Striking the balance, however, can be difficult.
“I think that games are mature enough already, and always have been. But in order for them to be more interesting, we have to come up with mechanics that are used in novel or interesting ways,” claims Darby. “I’ve always been a big fan of how ridiculous Hideo Kojima is. He always has these insanely long cut-scenes, but what he doesn’t get enough credit for is the gameplay moments he sculpts -- you get to play the story in weird ways. Like in Snake Eater when you get to climb that long, long ladder. It’s ridiculous, yet it feels like a really nice intermission. He gets to give you this James Bond moment.”
All your verb are belong to us
There’s a strange paradox at work -- video game writing lags heavily behind the increasing sophistication of game mechanics, but in a strange sense the words we use are still restricted by those same mechanics.
Ultimately, as game design itself becomes more refined and subtle, the stories we tell will become increasingly deft.
“I like the idea of referring to mechanics as verbs,” explains Darby. “So many game stories have been melodramas -- because you have to come up with these big sweeping emotions if you’re going to solve every problem by shooting people in the face! In that sense all games have to be melodramas.
“With the limited number of mechanics in most games you can’t ask the player to do too many complicated things. The Uncharted games, for example, are fantastic in their realisation of set pieces but I’m always really weirded out when I go back to the game and I know I’m going to be ducking behind a box and shooting people for another 10-15 minutes.
“You can’t get too deep in the goal, because you only ever get to climb, shoot and dodge. That’s what you’re doing for 90% of the game. To be fair that’s what most games are like - ours included. In Assassin’s Creed you’re running, climbing, killing, jumping and sometimes carrying. How do you reuse these mechanics over and over again and keep it fresh?”
The simple answer is to have both design and story intertwine in the most seamless way possible. At least, that was the goal for Brawsome when the team began development of MacGuffin’s Curse.
“Obviously it’s a game so the first thing is the prototype, and that prototype generally centres around the gameplay and the mechanics,” claims Ben Kosmina. “But when you’ve decided that you’re making a story based game, you really have to make sure that the story is there.
“With MacGuffin, the gameplay and the story went hand in hand. I knew I wanted a main character who could do two different things -- that’s where our whole werewolf thing evolved from. When I make games I like to make sure there is an explanation behind stuff, which is why when you get locked behind a door in MacGuffin, you can’t open the door when you’re a wolf.
“We try and make sure the gameplay and the story work together. It may not be considered important, but these details are important to me.”
You have no chance to survive make your time
For a two man team like Brawsome, working on a smaller scale Indie project like MacGuffin’s Curse, you get the sense that controlling all aspects of production -- aligning design and narrative in tandem -- is an achievable goal. Steering a project as ponderous as Assassin’s Creed with 500 people tugging in different directions? That might be a little more difficult.
“In this industry,” admits Darby, “it’s very hard to tell where on person’s job ends and the other’s begins.
“We have a very clear hierarchy here. Decisions are made at a certain point, and when they’re very solid, they trickle down. When this game was being planned, it was being planned at the high end of the company with the brand team and the narrative team -- people like Corey May and the Executive Producers. They say they want the game to set in Constantinople, and it has to answer these questions, and so on and so forth.
“Then, as soon as that’s been solidified, they trust us to kick it down to the next level with the Creative Director, myself and others. Now it’s our turn to fill it out further. We come up with the big story beats, the big story moments and the finer details.
“And then we move that down to the mission designers. They are now responsible for different parts -- you know, like sequence 1 or sequence 2. We say here’s the mission that has to happen, here’s the story that has to happen, now write a mission design document where you propose how you’re going to make that into 15 minutes of fun.
“So it’s very strictly managed with regards to what your job is. When we go to offsite meetings, after three intense days I’d come back with these outlines and I’m able to start writing, but it really is a never-ending process.”
You’d think working within such a tightly constrained structure would be difficult for a writer like Darby but, on the contrary, he appears to actually enjoy it. It’s the kind of role that is constantly in flux, with new challenges appearing during every day of development.
“I don’t find it hard,” he says. “Typically what happens is you design a level and you make a prototype of it. It’s a 10-15 minute experience and then I write for it -- I write temp dialogue. But then something might not work, or a designer will suggest a radically different change, or he hit upon something that deviates but is incredibly fun -- that’s when it gets difficult. When you’re having to revisit areas where you feel like you’ve created a seamless experience, but the design suddenly takes over, that’s a good thing though. It’s a good thing to be challenged like that.
“I prefer the constraints. I was actually a designer for a long time too. My first major writing gig was also my first major design gig. I’ve done design and writing, so I’ve always had a good idea of what designers need from writers, and what writers need from designers.
“With writing, the kind of game you are writing for is always important. Assassin’s Creed has always struck me as an interesting middle ground between static mechanics with one-off moments and systemic gameplay like screwing around with guards.”
You know what you doing?
Systemic gameplay -- it’s important. In some ways the stories we share, with our friends or online, tend to be the ones that occur outside of what we’d usually term traditional narrative. The time we first took down a chopper in GTA IV, or the sculpture we built in Minecraft. Very rarely do gamers find themselves discussing the redemption of Niko Bellic or the twist and turns of Assassin’s Creed’s labyrinth plot.
In a sense these stories are secondary -- and it’s Darby’s job to make sure both have space to breathe.
“Very few people walk away from a game and say -- ‘did you see that amazing cut-scene?’” He admits. “It’s always, ‘so I pushed this guard, and his body fell off the roof and it landed on another guard, and he started chasing me’. You know, it’s these emergent stories we tell that that can be most important.
"Often I do feel as though I’m writing a standard Hollywood action movie, but I still have to allow space for these emergent stories to create themselves. In Assassin’s Creed we oscillate between those moments. We say here’s a definitive character moment that I’m going to tell you, but then we’ll end it and leave you in a playground to solve it your way. Then we bottleneck you back. It opens and closes.
“We know the beats, but how you get between those beats -- hopefully that’s up to you. And that’s the biggest challenge.”
According to Darby, that inbetween space is what makes games unique as a narrative. It’s a relationship, and an engaged active audience, creates a unique dichotomy.
“Games have always been good at letting players be creative,” says Darby. “People always ask the question are games art. I believe that gamers are artists. We are artists here at Ubisoft, but you are also artists.”
Ben, from Brawsome believes that avoiding a disconnect between what you do in-game and what is shown in cut-scenes is important. In a sense you lose authorship over the character the minute a game enters a cut-scene -- so maintaining consistency is paramount.
“It can be difficult,” admits Ben, “because with an avatar, often you have the chance to invent yourself, to have the avatar be you. Then with writing it’s set in stone and it stops being ‘yours’.
“It reminds me of the inkplot test from Fallout - you may see something completely different, but there’s no dialogue option for that. You can provide as many options as you want, but you’ll never completely satisfy everyone. Ultimately the player doesn’t have much control over the writing itself.”
Writing has become a stronger priority in games, particularly during this generation, we wonder if Darby expects this trend to continue.
“I think as the games industry gets bigger the role of the writer will splinter, just like it did in Indie films versus Hollywood films,” he claims. “With Indie films you get the writer director, like David Lynch. Guys that believe that writing and directing are inextricable from one another. Then you have the Hollywood format, sometimes Directors don’t want to be involved in writing -- they just want a script to work from
“I think the same thing will happen in games where the slightly more auteur inclined people -- although I hesitate to use that word since games are such a collaborative medium -- but I think the writer/designer will emerge, because really it’s already there.
“I’m thinking of people like Fumito Ueda. He’s all things -- a designer, an animator, a writer -- but his writing is different. He crafts these environmental mood driven moments -- but that’s still writing. He’s crafting a story.”
He believes that way Ubisoft handles writing duties, with Assassin’s Creed in particular, could end up being a solid prototypical model for the future of writing in video games.
“I think that with AAA titles like Assassin’s Creed, the role of the writer will stay similar to what I’m doing right now,” claims Darby, “which is the writer being involved in the writing and the design.
“On the Indie side of things you’ll probably see more of the guys like Jonathan Blow, where he is a writer/designer. The writing in Braid is a bit purple, but it’s still his vision and it’s all the more interesting because it’s so visual. And it fits with the mood so well to the extent that you probably couldn’t see that game being written by anyone else. “
Again, gameplay is key -- and it all comes down to that dichotomy. Mechanics are integral to the stories we can tell. Will they become so intertwined that you can’t separate the two? That’s the impossible dream.
“What people are hoping to head towards is a combination of story and mechanics where you can’t pull them apart,” says Darby. “And I hope there are a lot of moments in Assassin’s Creed where we’ve done that. What I want to see is people evolve mechanics in such a way that writers have a better and broader opportunity to be inspired.
“When people are willing to invest in mechanics that are fun, then put an interesting spin on those mechanics, that’s when stories will get different.
“Maybe not necessarily better, but different.”