All Your Base Are Belong To Us -- Or Why Is Video Game Writing So Terrible?

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.”

What happen?

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.”


Comments

    No one wants to spend money employing quality translators.

    "base" not "bases"

    Super Nerd, AWAAAAAAAYYY!!!

      Who was that masked nerd?

      No, seriously, who was it?

      I think he stole my comics!

    Love the Zero Wing quotes!

      The zero wing quotes were the worst part of the article Techa...

    Interesting read. good work Mark

    I think Rhianna Pratchett is one of the sharpest video game writers around- the script really elevates Overlord 1 & 2. That said, Mirror's Edge isn't notable for the script, though apparently it was only bolted on later.

      I remember looking into the whole thing with Mirror's Edge story a while ago. Turns out that executive meddling basically turned what Rhianna Pratchett wrote and turned it into the generic mess you saw.

      Making a point of hiring a competent writer and then not letting them be competent seems counter intuitive, but that's executive logic!

        Welcome to the life of Joss Whedon :P

    Really interesting article.

    I'm reminded of the book 'Extra Lives', Bissell said that it was a travesty that games aspired to equal (and often surpass) Hollywood movies in their action and intensity, but struggled to write a plot that would match even a B movie. Videogame dialogue might not all be as terrible as Zero Wing, but it's very often cliche-riddled and cringeworthy.

    It's probably true that writing isn't the priority, by any means, for a lot of studios - especially when the highest selling and most popular game modes are those without a strong (or arthouse) main plot, and rely more on multiplayer modes or players designing their own narratives.

    But I'd hope that the success of games like the Assassin's Creed series, and certainly Bioware's titles or something like Deus Ex or Arkham City, would help show that investing in good quality writing can pay off, and that there's an audience there for it. I've certainly loved the writing in Assassin's Creed, and even though I'm also the sort of person that talks about guards falling off rooftops onto other guards, I love that the team goes to the effort to make it a good plot experience.

    "Jill, why don't you, the master of unlocking, take this lock pick."

      Those games were meant to feel like a B movie...

    It always cracks me up when I get half-way through a really great article and start to wonder who wrote it (I have a habit of reading the author at the end, for some reason). In the end, it always seems to be that Master Serrels is the one responsible.
    Great work!

    I wrote the story for a third-person action game for PS2. The story was criticized in some reviews, in particular from IGN in the first few paragraphs. I don't believe the story was bad, but under the limits of game development, it was as good as it could be. I was given very strict rules from the Director/Producer. For one, CG was to be used to depict things that the game couldn't do in real time. Second, dialogue was to be kept at a minimum because lip sync was expensive and a waste of CG budget. Some may call these excuses, but there is a very simple practical limit - you can only have two lines of dialogue in this 2-minute FMV. What are they going to say that gives you the biggest bang for buck? In this case, gameplay always trumps, so the dialogue will probably be something related to your next objective. If I had a bit more seniority things might have been different, but as the article mentions, games dev is collaborative. Sometimes story wins, sometimes it doesn't. The guy in charge makes that decision.

    Didn't like ass creeds story too much, even though it holds your interest, it's convoluted. But hey, if this guy is the go to man for judging the whole industries quality of writing, good on him'

    I've said it before and I'll say it now: there is no video game I have ever seen whose writing is even comparable in quality to a good movie, book or TV series.

    Not Uncharted, not MGS, not Assassin's Creed, not Final Fantasy (any), not Max Payne, not Heavy Rain.

    Employing full-time writers is a good step in the right direction, but more is needed. Good writers have good editors, for example. Also, good writers aren't crippled by being denied creative control of a project (correct me if I'm wrong, but every department in a normal development studio seems to rank above the writing, even the janitorial staff)

    Good writers probably get paid more than game writers too.

      I've ranted along the same lines before. Too often I'd have someone tell me they thought the story in a game was good but when you compare it to different mediums, the story is pretty mediocre.

      It just gets a pass because the bar is set very low.

      That being said, there are a few games out there where I'd consider the writing pretty decent, in that it achieves what it sets out to do. Uncharted manages to capture the idea of playing an Indiana Jones game with someone other than Indy. The recent Batman games stay very true to the DC comics that they are based on and Red Dead Redemption managed to create a strong empathetic character who has some very strong moments.

      I might not have made sense, but for varying definitions of good, there are games that have good writing.

      I would rate Uncharted with Indiana Jones, but are both pulp fiction so its not exactly masterful writing in either case.

      It's a problem with the medium itself. The most excellent movie stories pale in comparison with good books. Is it one of narration? Is it hard to get the message across? Are games stymied by their interaction?

      Dragon Age: Origins

        It's getting there, but even David Gaider's Dragon Age books (and he wrote most of DAO) were far better and more descriptive than the actual game.

        I guess it's because games are virtually confined to dialogue (although DAO's codex entries were also fantastic), whereas novels can do fancy things with scene setting and description. Novels also don't need to factor in player choices and can have a protagonist with an internal monologue that makes sense and is consistent.

        Not even close. The problem with open-ended games like this is that the main character doesn't get any kind of controlled character arc.

      I'm gonna throw out homeworld. That probably had the best storytelling of any game I've ever played. Probably because it was written by an actual author, which definitely shows.

      There's also some notes by the same author on a potential script for the sequel, which was far more interesting (IMO) than what eventually came out.

    Uncharted 3 now selling at Target Melbourne CBD, but at FULL price of $99.
    It will be selling tomorrow at Target at $79.

    Metal Gear is good, despite the contradictions in the script/events, but it's main dialogue problem is that Snake most of the time repeats back a keyword that was just spoken to him by another character, in a questioning voice.

      Metal Gear has simply far too much unnecessary content thrown in there. I don't mean the nice little chunks of backstory that are fun to stumble across, there is simply more detail than is necessary to tell the story so you get bogged down with information that really doesn't matter.

    while i'm sure there's an audience for interactive linear games, surely the best way forward is open world type games, where players are creating their own stories via game mechanics, especially for established IP's. You only need good writing to establish new IP's, otherwise you just need good mission designers.
    Also if your game has various game styles, you don't need to disguise your repetitive or limited gameplay by engrossing the player with story.

    e.g. A much better Batman game would have been an open world Gotham City. With arkham combat and predator, vehicle chases, gadget and vehicle customising, and coop or partner play (Robin, Nightwing assassins creed brotherhood style). Play as villains to create crime syndicates, break out of jails, and setup tower defense against Batman.

      A much different batman game you mean. I thought Arkham City was excellent because the mechanics fit together perfectly with the story- what you described would be a much tougher sell and incredibly unfocused.

    I think the best place to showcase story and writing is in comics, movies, tv. So i'd prefer games to focus on detailed and immersive gameplay mechanics.

    The arkham combat was brilliant, so i'd like them to figure out good bat vehicle gameplay.

    A Batman GTA style game would probably sell more than GTA and Arkham combined.

    Gotham City sandbox would be easy to sell. Playing as villains to setup challenges for Batman, and vice versa, there's your LBP angle right there. The elusive something for everyone, able to reuse the world, add dlc, coop etc etc.

    Video game writing has been improving over time.

    The thing the article missed is that most movie dialogue (even in big budget blockbusters- ESPECIALLY in big budget blockbusters) is pretty lousy too. The writing for a game like Uncharted 2 is easily the peer of a big budget movie. The writing for a game like Dragon Age: Origins is better than pretty much any fantasy adventure movie ever made aside from Lord of the Rings.

    When games didn't have full voice, there was a limit to the writing. There's a limit to how many walls of text you want to throw at people in an interactive and visual medium like gaming. A book can make up for the lack of voice with lengthy descriptive passages. A game can't.

    There were games with good writing in older generations (Final Fantasy Vi the most obvious example which didn't have voice; something like Command & Conquer for an older example which was able to have full voice cutscenes and had perfectly acceptable writing for a blockbuster action thing).

      Oh, and somehow I forgot to mention Deus Ex, so yeah. Deus Ex.

        Loved the writing in Deus Ex. Those emails making references to Aquinas and the city on the hill were just amazing.

    On a side note, the dialogue in Battlefied BC2 brought me an inch within facepalming. The writers did a terrible job; there were numerous "duh" moments where perhaps they thought games were all brain-dead, the characters had no real character whatsoever (irony at its best) and the jokes were just bad (or altogether nonsensical). I haven't played BF3, but I hope they fired the people who were responsible for that.

    When I was doing my BA digital art course at RMIT, we had some optional talks. This was a degree based around creating video games and I'm very glad I went.
    The main one that has always stuck in my mind was a talk about how video games could be incredibly improved by paying for a writer. He said one of the most important tools to make a great game was to hire a writer or two and give them a whiteboard. If you had a game that works and a good story, the game will turn out great.
    Also, I loved the writing in bioshock. I think games are getting there slowly.

    Yeah I'd tend to agree that the main problem is that studios are just not hiring good writers, or even worse, the designers are writing the game themselves (which can sometimes end up a happy surprise, if the designer happens to be ok at writing).

    But on top of that, if you think about it, even the games that are supposed to have really good stories and character performances are still nowhere near as good as good movie screenplays. I remember playing through Red Dead Redemption, which I thought had a really good story, "for a game", and my wife who is not a gamer would listen to the dialogue and tell me that it sounded like a really bad corny western themed porno or something. And once I stepped back and stopped only comparing it to other games, I agreed.

    I personally want to see games receive the same amount of story talent and love as movies. The industry is catching up in some ways, but seriously lagging behind in others.

      Compare the writing in RDR with the writing from the vast majority of old Westerns... it's at least equal if not better.

      People only remember the glorious classics, but the majority of movies are just as bad or worse. :-P

    Strangely enough, the writing for Half Life 2 was always a standout for me.
    Especially in episode two where you have the Vortuagants referring to you as the Freeman.
    It just fitted.

    What game is that last photo from? Could someone enlighten me?

    The last person to talk to about good writing in video games is somebody involved in the Assassins Creed series. They all have absolutely terrible dialogue. Reminds me of Grade 9 English class all over.

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