The games industry has an inferiority complex, and it's holding us back
Some studios have a "fundamental lack of understanding" of narrative and character development, says writer for Destiny: The Taken King
Back in early 2016, award-winning writer Rhianna Pratchett expressed her frustration at the role of writers in video games, saying they were treated like "narrative paramedics."
At the time she called for studios to bring in writers at an earlier stage of development, arguing that they should be given influence from the outset.
How far the industry has come regarding this remains an unanswered question, but it would be a fairly safe bet to say "not very far." With the perceived decline of narrative-focused single player experiences, you could argue that it's less relevant in the AAA space than it has ever been, that a story is just set dressing in the 100-hour RPG or the infinite potential of an online shooter.
This is only exacerbated with the prominence of long-running franchises which see new writers brought on with each iteration. However, Destiny: The Taken King, and Black and White 2 writer Martin Korda is less convinced this presents a real issue, echoing Pratchett that the root cause of bad games writing runs deeper.
Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz at the Yorkshire Games Festival, he said: "You have trilogies of movies where each movie is written by somebody different, and they're not necessarily worse for it.
"You've got to make sure that when you're coming in you do truly understand the franchise that you're writing for, and love the franchise that you're writing for. If you go in there and you're not that bothered and it's just a writing role that will pay you, you're never going to create your greatest work."
“You hear sometimes that story is the slave to gameplay, but I don't think it should be like that”
That's not to say that the studios aren't culpable; there are plenty of bad practices common within the industry. Speaking to this, Korda immediately jumped on developers who bring in writers at the eleventh hour and ask them to build a coherent narrative from a series of disconnected levels.
"Ideally you want to be there from the very start of the process so you can talk to the designers and talk to the art department so everyone can be on the same page," says Korda. "That's so important that this happens because everything informs everything else in a game. Story informs gameplay, gameplay informs story. They're not separate entities just floating around, randomly hoping that they come together to create something cohesive. To create a cohesive experience you've got to sit around the table with other departments and understand what everybody is doing, understand the vision for the game."
Making better games should ultimately be the goal of developers. Obviously those games need to turn a profit in order for the studio to survive, but bad games rarely succeed. In order to make better and (in theory, more successful games) developers need to consider the role of writers in development.
"You hear sometimes that story is the slave to gameplay, but I don't think it should be like that," suggests Korda. "I think it should be that story and gameplay are best friends and each should inform each other to create an even more fun experience, one that really emotionally engages you."
“Sticking your first draft into a game is hardly ideal, in the same way that sticking your first level design or piece of character artwork isn't”
Creating an organic story rests at the heart of truly great game, something you cannot do if the writer is brought in after the levels have been designed, without a single thought spared to narrative.
"If you're given infinite time then perhaps you can, but what often happens is that these are last minute additions," says Korda. "So the writer comes in, is shown these levels, and is given virtually no time to write anything, let alone redraft it and rewrite it, which is such a key part of trying to write.
"Sticking your first draft into a game is hardly ideal, in the same way that sticking your first level design or piece of character artwork isn't - you wouldn't do that, you wouldn't stick that into a game. Yet with writing there is still a belief in some sections of the industry that it's just words, that it's easy. They say 'go and write a bunch of words and we'll stick them in the game.'"
This disrespect for the craft, while obviously not universal and often not even intentional, has clearly been prevalent enough in recent years. But where does it come from? Korda suggests that it's born out of an inferiority complex within the industry, and there exists this misguided notion that "it's just a game" and therefore doesn't matter, as though it somehow holds less artistic merit than other media.
"It's not just a game, it's potentially the most powerful storytelling medium in the world," Korda argues. "If we allow ourselves, if we're courageous enough and original enough to try and go out and make it that... We're not just a game, and as long as we're talking about ourselves as just being a game, we're undermining ourselves and not allowing ourselves to be everything we can be."
This presents an interesting question. Is the industry holding itself back? From an artistic perspective, it would be difficult to argue otherwise. Obviously not every game needs to be "high art" but that doesn't mean we should tolerate games that are simply bad.
“It's not just a game, it's potentially the most powerful storytelling medium in the world”
Games tell stories in unconventional ways, and this presents a substantial hurdle for writers and developers. From the environmental and tangential storytelling of From Software's Souls series, through to audio diaries and cutscenes, developers need to respect the challenges of building a strong narrative within the context of a video game, where consumers follow a story through in a way that is atypical to most modern media.
The interconnected nature of narrative, gameplay, and art makes each so intrinsically linked that to hamstring a single element is to compromise the entire game.
"It just shows a fundamental lack of understanding of what storytelling and character development is, and how that can be used to embellish gameplay and make it so much more emotionally engaging," suggests Korda.
But where are we now? While we've seen the closure of studios like Visceral, we've also witnessed the success of Ninja Theory. Many bigger AAA titles this year have let story take the backseat, but we've also seen some of the most interesting narrative experiences the medium has to offer emerging from games like Nier: Automata, Wolfenstein: The New Colossus, and Prey.
"It's definitely getting better," says Korda optimistically. "Since I started out in 2005 to now, it's improved hugely and you can see that in the quality of games and stories that we're getting now. I still think there's work to be done and improvements to be made, but I think we are definitely on the right track with this."