With the world of video games expanding all the time, the media form’s role in art has become a topic of great importance. Proponents of the opinion that video games are an art form hold up examples of great storytelling in games, with narrative experiences such as Dear Esther and PS4 exclusive Everybody's Gone to the Rapture regarded as fine examples of video game storytelling at work. Meanwhile, critics of gaming instead stick to the role of video games as a toy, with an emphasis on reflex and action over any kind of emotional impact.
Of course, it’s not just critical importance that plays a factor in the growth of video games, either. The industry is also pulling in huge revenues, with the success of the PS4 one of Sony’s few bright points in a recent history of financial woes. Meanwhile, with the likes of Oculus and Minecraft seeing billion-dollar buyouts, the industry is no longer the weaker cousin to film and fiction. As such, certain developers have taken on external writers to work on a game’s narrative, hiring employees with an exclusive role writing a title’s story.
Since then, a number of questions have been asked about the role of video game writing. Should writers work to create a game’s narrative, even independently of an overall development team? Are external writers with a history working in other media necessarily the best storytellers within video games? Or is the role of narrative in video games overstated, when studios would be better suited to focusing on gameplay and graphics over narrative cohesion? Perhaps answers can be found by looking at games where writing has been a huge focus of the development process.
One of the most famous examples of a game with a well-known writer is the reboot of Tomb Raider. The 2013 release, which was developed by Crystal Dynamics and published by Square Enix, was written by Rhianna Pratchett, an established video game writer and daughter of the late, great Terry Pratchett. Her credits also include Mirror's Edge and Heavenly Sword, as well as credits on BioShock Infinite as an additional writer. Tasked with giving a greater gravitas to the Tomb Raider franchise, Pratchett gave the game a more serious tone than earlier releases in the series.
Although some criticized a disparity between the actions of the player and the emotional tone of the story, in general Tomb Raider was seen by many as a vast improvement on the previous games in the series. The title also proved to be a huge commercial hit. Tomb Raider has become the biggest-selling game in the franchise, leading to a much-anticipated sequel in the form of Rise of the Tomb Raider, also penned by Pratchett.
That commercial success has sometimes proved hard to come by for games with high-profile writers, however, and one particularly memorable example is that of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. The game, which was released in 2010, retold the classic novel Journey to the West as a post-apocalyptic tale, and featured motion capture performance from Andy Serkis. Enslaved was penned by cross-media writer Alex Garland, author of cult novel The Beach as well as the scripts to 28 Days Later and Sunshine.
Although Enslaved proved to be a critical darling, loved by reviewers for its rich and lush environments and touching story, the game struggled in terms of sales. Some of that comes down to a baffling choice of release date, putting Ninja Theory's new, single-player IP up against juggernauts in the pre-holiday period of October. As such, Enslaved became an underground hit, but barely dented in terms of sales and overall influence.
The failure of one other example even led to the bankruptcy of an entire publisher. Homefront, released in 2011, was an attempt by THQ and Kaos Studios to break the stranglehold that the likes of Battlefield and Call of Duty had over the first person shooter market. The game told the story of a near-future where a unified Korea had taken over the western United States, and focused on a grim group of rebels struggling to free the country from the clutches of dictatorship.
If the game’s story felt at all reminiscent of action flick Red Dawn, there’s a good reason for that. Homefront was actually written by John Milius, who created the Patrick Swayze hit, and even won an Academy Award for his work on Apocalypse Now. Unfortunately, Homefront could not quite reach the same success of either of the two movies.
Although there was some praise for the game’s story and mechanics, many criticized the title for a short single player campaign, while the game’s multiplayer failed to find an audience. As such, Homefront was a commercial failure and a disappointment. Eventually, THQ fell apart, with the rights to the franchise falling into the hands of Crytek.
Alongside these three examples, there are many other writers and writing teams based within studios. Telltale Games has proved to be one of the standout developers to turn to for compelling narrative in games. Meanwhile, the EA-owned BioWare has an impressive history of story-focused RPGs, although even the developer itself has admitted that it is one of the rare few studios that hire people with a specific writing role.
So why is writing for video games such an inexact science? Why can established writers produce subpar stories for games, or why can other games entirely overlook a specialist role being required for story creation? The nature of the media itself is the answer, as not only is a video game extremely different from other entertainment forms, but its production varies vastly as well.
While a game’s story can act as a kernel for development, or a catalyst to the rest of the production, a video game’s plot is by necessity forced onto the backburner for other essential parts of the development process. Other plot-centric forms, such as prose fiction or film, rely upon at least a core story to act as the skeleton to any kind of creation process, be it in the form of the eventual work or its original treatment. However, any plot in video games must make way for other elements that are immediately required for some of the earliest forms of development to take place, including engine, basic mechanics, perspective, and general gameplay direction.
For many, fun and compelling gameplay is the bread and butter of a video game, not the story of the game itself. Although this has started to shift through the emergence of certain independent titles, a quick look at what a gamer’s chief requirements are shows that this rule still generally exists. Players will forgo a strong narrative as long as the gameplay itself is fun enough, while a broken or dull game with a fun story will be less likely to be successful.
As such, many developers still go without a writer at all, instead taking ideas from different members of the development team during the creative process. Even in cases where a separate writer is needed, a level of pragmatism is required. As veteran game writer Darby McDevitt states, writers can often feel like the “mortar to the designers’ bricks” due to their role. A compromise is necessary, finding a way to tell a compelling story within the confines of a world created by the designers themselves. And sometimes, this can be extremely difficult to find.
The writer needs to work in conjunction with the design team throughout the writing process, from high-level story summaries through to the 111,000 lines of dialogue written for the upcoming Fallout 4. Video game scripts will also see countless rewrites, due changes in the development schedule during the ever-evolving nature of a game. Game creation moves quickly, and necessary steps from a design point of view can lead to savage rewrites of the original plot.
The best video game stories, understandably, stem from a perfect unity between a design team’s vision and a plot that works in conjunction with the game created. The role of a writer comes down to much more than just plot, setting, and dialogue, and the world of the writer should be one and the same with the world of the designer. For example, Shadow of the Colossus told a heartbreaking story through fantastic boss fights, while System Shock 2’s audio logs leave a memorable chill down a player’s spine to this day.
This synchronized approach is not easy to come by, but is apparent in a huge number of the most critically-acclaimed video game narratives. The addition of a high-profile external writer will not necessarily lead to the best and most immersive story in the long run. While those unhappy about the cancellation of Silent Hills will no doubt mourn the loss of a project that involved Hideo Kojima, Guillermo Del Toro, and manga legend Junji Ito, it's worth remembering that dream teams are never a sure thing to succeed.