No gods or kings, only power-ups

The buzz around BioShock is getting monumental, and as a videogame fan with no stock in Take 2, I couldn’t be happier about it.

It’s got the Penny Arcade guys talking about storytelling and the narrative potential of games as art using lots of italics. It’s got the normally somewhat reserved guys at Eurogamer writing a breathless 10/10 review using the most superlatives ever used in a videogame review in any medium, ever, right down to a paragraph about how fun and addictive it is to play Pipe Dream.

And I think that’s just fantastic. We’ve gotten so beaten down by mediocrity, and so jaded about games in general, that it’s just nice to see people pretty much universally going absolutely batshit crazy for a new release.

I’ve played the demo three times now. The first time through, I immediately started in with the criticisms; what I didn’t notice, though, was the significance of what I was criticizing. The opening had such a big impact on me (I don’t want to oversell it for those who haven’t played it, so just suffice to say that it’s pretty damn cool) that it set the bar past “is it fun?” all the way up to “how well does it tell its story?” And I don’t know how many years I’ve been wanting videogames to mature to the point where we can talk about them in terms of storytelling and concept, instead of just gameplay mechanics.

My friend Seppo wrote about the game’s treatment of Objectivism, and it wasn’t until I was halfway through writing a typically long-winded comment that I realized: holy crap, we’re having an argument about the meaning of a videogame! On the internet!

Nobody mentioned the length of the game, or how much it cost, or how many weapons you get, or whether it supports multiplayer, or how many levels it has. Or complained about the voice acting, or about buggy A.I., or how the models looked. We were criticizing a game for its potential message. All the time I’ve been campaigning for better storytelling in games, I always thought of the goal as being pure storytelling, and never really considered the potential to let you explore ideologies.

And yet, here I am looking forward to playing a game that deals with the one ideology that annoys and offends me more than any other besides Satanism. Because I’ll happily die without having slogged through Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead. But put it in a format where I have some degree of control, and present it as The Shining meets The Poseidon Adventure, and I’ll pay you to tell me all about it. Hell, I’d even buy a “Left Behind” game if they managed to have an opening sequence and art direction as good as the BioShock demo’s.

Okay, that’s a lie. But still: it’s a good time to be an arrogant, pseudo-intellectual videogame fan!

5 thoughts on “No gods or kings, only power-ups”

  1. Say… were you able to play Marathon 2 without feeling like you were gonna barf? I’ve very, very rarely gotten motion sick playing a game (the only game to previously nausea was Kingdom Hearts, and that was probably only due in part to the wonky camera), but after a single level of Marathon, I was just about to lose my lunch. I felt sick for for a good while afterwards, as well.

  2. Who do you think is best positioned to write a good story for a video game..Someone from the video game industry or a television or film writer?

  3. Say… were you able to play Marathon 2 without feeling like you were gonna barf?

    You mean the 360 version? Nope. It did bounce around a lot, but not enough to be disorienting. But I’ve never had a game or motion simulator make me sick before, so apparently I’m impervious to motion sickness.

    Who do you think is best positioned to write a good story for a video game..Someone from the video game industry or a television or film writer?

    In my experience, it’s programmers of banking software that write the best videogames.

    Really, I don’t know if you can draw a line like that. You have to have played enough of the type of game you’re writing for, in order to get the pacing right and to understand exactly why you need to write a dozen different versions of “I can’t go that way.” But a lot of game companies have assumed you can bring in writers from TV & movies to write dialogue for a game and you get instant quality, and it doesn’t always work. And there are plenty of writers in TV & movies that could adjust to games just fine.

    I don’t think there’s any set rules for writing for “games,” either. I like to think I get how the Sam & Max games work, but then I’ve been playing adventure games for 15 years and watching TV sitcoms for 30. I wouldn’t know where to start with a shooter, or even the CSI games, so there’d be a learning process.

  4. Having worked with some “professional writers” who were brought in on a project, I can safely say that hiring “Hollywood writers” doesn’t even get you anywhere near quality. These people were supposedly members of the WGA, which in theory is supposed to guarantee some minimum level of competence, but no such thing.

    If you’re going to be a good writer for videogames, I think you need some knowledge, and a few basic skills.

    You have to really understand the structure of games. Since games vary quite a bit in terms of how linear or nonlinear they are, you have to really be able to internalize what the structure of the game you’re working on is, then understand how to maximize the amount of writing you’ll need to do to achieve a certain level of immersiveness. And given that immersiveness is broken by improper repetition, and people can quickly recognize repeating patterns, that means you need to know how many variations of a particular line will be necessary to communicate a given idea to the player enough times without being repeated.

    More than that, you have to understand that you’re often going to be dealing with a player character who will intentionally not be doing what you want them to do, and a player whose motivations or emotional reactions you can’t necessarily dictate. So, you can’t have the player-character say something that the player wouldn’t. Or, maybe you can, but you have to do it in a way that doesn’t break the illusion that the player-character is the player.

    So, there’s all that structural stuff – that’s the part that’s hard to teach to someone who works in more traditional, linear media.

    However, you can have someone who understands the structure really well, but doesn’t have a clue how to create interesting characters. The writer has to know how to construct believable dialog, provide a consistent and believable motivation for the various characters, define their personalities in a way that makes them engaging, and then write them in a way that communicates all that to the player without beating them over the head with it.

    Simply, you need someone who’s a good writer – and someone who understands visual storytelling as well as prose – who’s familiar with videogames. It’s a rare combination, but I think it’s what you need. Alternatively, you need someone who’s really, really good at one, has potential in the other, and is willing and motivated to learn.

  5. Great post Seppo. That’s definitely the way I think. The bigger companies seem to think hiring hollywood writers is automatically going to guarantee a great story & one that works within the game. More importance needs to placed on story, and the gamers out there need to demand better storytelling in games as well.

Comments are closed.