Million Dollar Actor, Five Dollar Writer

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UT3's dialog made me physically cringe.

Makes me think of Turok: Evolution. Gyeeearrrgh, was that an awful game.

For all writing in video games is appalling I do wonder if it's possible to buy good writing. Especially when the gameplay demands several thousand mooks get slaughtered throughout the game in a variety of intereting locales.

I'm someone who can usually derive humor from poor writing, so it's not especially grating to me. I usually don't mind poor writing in gaming as long as the gameplay is good enough, and if it's exceptionally poor I just make MST3K-variety jokes as I play it.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2006 holds a place in my heart for just how poor everything is. From the incredibly stiff movements in cutscenes to some of the ridiculous dialogue/delivery, that game is perfect for riffing (if you're willing to even sit through the first half-hour that is).

Have to say Oblivion had its moments of terra-awful writing. For some odd reason though, the best parts of the two Bethesda titles I played (Oblivion, Fallout 3) were also the darkest and most morbid. Case in point: the Dark Brotherhood. There's more quality writing (and coding) in that guild than in most of the rest of the game. Runner up for decent writing would be the Arena- simple, but good. Not to mention bloody. And Fallout? The original titles were never actually that dark.

The only games remembered are the ones that break barriers (as with other mediums, like books and movies), be they based in writing or gameplay or some other element. Both Doom and the two KOTOR's are remembered, for instance, because the former introduced a fresh new element of gameplay (i.e. horror) where as the latter proved that the Star Wars franchise can, in fact, support a great storyline (this a bit tongue-in-cheek, I suppose, as Star Wars itself is the first and (arguably) the most popular space opera franchise ever).

NOBODY long remembers the sea of repetitive, cliched crap we had to wade through in order to reach a point where these barriers (some of which we didn't even know existed) could be broken.

I want to go on record as saying Super Mario Brothers on the NES had the worst writing ever! "Oh thank you Mario, but your princess is in another castle!" Dammit, if you morons know she is in another castle, tell me which one and let's skip this crap! Why must I waste time saving lookalikes instead of the real thing? Yeah, I went old school.

Borderlands had promise, and the beginning cuts were alright with a good dose of humor. As the game progressed, you saw the cuts start to suffer from a heavy case of under-writing. The humor pretty much disappeared and just showed you someone you had to shoot. What happened to the funny one-liners under the still of the boss?

It almost seems like in some games, so much of the budget is focused on the graphics and gameplay elements that when it comes time for the story, they were down to a shoestring budget. I'd like to think that most games start as a storyboard idea that follows a plot, but you've really got to wonder in some of the larger budget games. The simple DLCs or online flash games have had better stories than I've seen in major releases. It has been a dying art, fueled now by dispensing barely enough plot to give the story a ghost of a sense of comprehension as to why you are doing what you are.

And for the record, I like to watch Unskippable for the fact it makes good humor of the horrible cutscenes in games, which isn't to say that the whole game is plagued by them.

commasplice:
*Theories*

You'd be wrong. I just particularly like this one show.

A lot.

I don't watch anything else. Much like the only American TV show I watch is House M.D.

Apparently, someone has never had a peanut butter jelly sandwich on stale bread prepared by a master chef for them.
It's all about the right staleness and bread-type.
If done correctly, it gets you sortof high.

Rack:
For all writing in video games is appalling I do wonder if it's possible to buy good writing. Especially when the gameplay demands several thousand mooks get slaughtered throughout the game in a variety of intereting locales.

Of course it's possible. There are many talented, dedicated games writers out there that are frustrated beyond belief by the culture within the industry that ultimately sees plot as the final polish.

If games are going to have plots at all, they need writers who are allowed to have creative input involved from the very beginning to the very end of development. Otherwise, we end up with games like Assassin's Creed or Prototype: games that had potential, but that had, from day one, been meant only to be designed around its gameplay. They tacked a flimsy plot onto the end of it. Anyone can see that.

The industry itself needs to start respecting writers if the problem of bad writing is going to be fixed, and that doesn't just mean investing more money. It means hiring writers to have input on plot, not just to be the designated scribes. It means designers understanding that writers know much more about this stuff than they do, and standing aside to let them do the job they were hired for. If you design a game around a plot from day one, you get a level of synergy like Bioshock or Portal that is way, WAY more rewarding for the player, and that means the game can show off some brilliant writing, too.

Much as this may earn scorn from the rest of the community, I just got into Warcraft 3 (and back into World of Warcraft), and I have to say this game series has to have the worst writing I've ever seen. Due to being unemployed for a good long while, I don't have the money to go out and buy video games when they release (the Escapist has been my window into these games), so I can't comment on them (and the games I do play I like, for the most part).

Warcraft 3's plot just seemed to railroad all of the characters to their eventual ends. I don't know, maybe I'm just being unnecessarily mean, but whenever I load up these games, it's not the story that I'm playing for.

I was never happy with Oblivion's writing. It wasn't exactly horrible, and maybe the problem could have been solved with more (and better) voice actors, better consistency, and better (less uncanny) faces. I just got tired of hearing people say the same thing 400 times before they would spit out the plot-relevant rumor that I needed to do a quest.
Come to think of it , the only really horrible writing I can think of at the moment is from "Batman and Robin," a movie with some pretty well-known actors (George Clooney as Batman and the Governator as Mr. Freeze) that has a script consisting almost entirely of bad one-liners.

Frylock72:
Much as this may earn scorn from the rest of the community, I just got into Warcraft 3 (and back into World of Warcraft), and I have to say this game series has to have the worst writing I've ever seen. Due to being unemployed for a good long while, I don't have the money to go out and buy video games when they release (the Escapist has been my window into these games), so I can't comment on them (and the games I do play I like, for the most part).

Warcraft 3's plot just seemed to railroad all of the characters to their eventual ends. I don't know, maybe I'm just being unnecessarily mean, but whenever I load up these games, it's not the story that I'm playing for.

It kinda makes you wonder what the point of having a paladin's creed is if its paragons are itching to break everything it stands for at their first opportunity. I know it's Blizzard's attempt at making it darker and edgier by making paladins succumb to the 'well-intentioned extremist' trope, but they just come off as lawful stupid.

Mirrors Edge. The gameplay was interesting and bold but frustrating and unfinished, however I could look past it if I didn't detest the characters and the story.

It feels like it was written by a 12 year old Green Day fan whose biggest hates are George Bush (because of y'know war and he's STOOPID) and his parents (who home him, clothe him....) I can't actually see what's wrong with the enemies in the game. I think Yahtzee hammered it best when he said "they're evil because they have a lot of money and wear suits."

Such lazy writing... "there's no news anymore, only advertising" OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOHHHH! I actively did not enjoy playing that game largely because of the story-line.

nightwolf667:

And yes, that does mean I prefer KoTOR II to KoTOR. Call blasphemy if you wish.

Heh, you're not alone. The first KoTOR had *one* proper plot twist, the rest was pretty generic. The second one has characters whose background I actually wanted to learn. Atton Rand is still one of my all-time favourite characters, despite...well you know.

Fahrenheit's plot made me angry because they were sooo close...
The same studio made a forgotten gem called Omikron, which also had a lot of personality and atmosphere. Too bad they decided to throw in 3 games worth of plot-elements:

[spoiler Solving a murder mystery in a dystopian scifi-dimension in the body of another person isn't enough motivation - let's throw in ancient prophesies and demons from Hell! /spoiler]

Not sure I got the spoiler tags right but who cares. It's not like anyone would play the game anyway :(

Izerous:
Story line for Dungeon Siege always broke down as a horrible plot and story for me all i heard was...

1:Blah blah blah Save Us
2:Ok
1:Blah blah blah Go here to save us
2:Ok
1:Blah blah blah Oh you can't go the regular way you have to go the long way
2:Ok
1:Blah blah blah Oh you made it
1:Blah blah blah rinse/repeat

Agreed.

museli:
"Don't shoot! I'm a human!".

That made me laugh just reading it.

Tales of Symphonia. I don't understand why that game came so highly recommended; every single cutscene made me cringe. It wasn't even the type of bad writing which entertains because it's hammy and unintentionally funny, it was the breed of bad that was even worse than that. And you had to watch ten minutes of cutscenes before each boss, die, and then watch them all over again.

Unia:

Heh, you're not alone. The first KoTOR had *one* proper plot twist, the rest was pretty generic. The second one has characters whose background I actually wanted to learn. Atton Rand is still one of my all-time favourite characters, despite...well you know.

Yeah, Atton is really amazing, in fact, pretty much all the characters in KoTOR II are and they are made better by the fact that you can turn them into Jedi (light side or dark as is your preference). That was really awesome in it's own right. For me, Kreia is the best of the bunch. She's funny, she chews me out whether I'm light side or dark side and you get some of the most amusing dialogue responses. (Like if you're male and Visas Marr has joined your party, Kreia tells you not to mate with her because it will cause... "complications" and you can respond with something like "I don't plan on charging up her loading ramp!")

For all that the game is unfinished, I find myself caring about it, it's quest, and it's characters more. At least the influence system in KoTOR II made sense, as opposed to the one in *cough* Dragon Age. In KoTOR II I didn't feel like I always had to lick my character's behinds to get them to like me or that where I got or lost influence felt arbitrary, I could be snarky at them and they appreciated it more. Plus, none of them were neurotic. In comparison, with Dragon Age's characters I felt like I was walking on broken glass, like there was only one dialogue choice that was the right answer. While I do like realistic (not realism) portrayals of characters as people, I feel like Bioware's are caricatures next the ones Obisidian gives us.

Don't get me wrong Bioware fans, many of their characters are amusing. (Like Wrex and Garrus, and even Sten) But I always get the feeling that I've seen them before and the dialogue options I get to talk with them are the same, standard ones with nary a wit of cleverness or humor between them. If I'm going to make jokes in a Bioware game that has an influence system, it will always come out as an insult and I will lose points. In KoTOR II, I could joke with Atton or Mira (though she was more testy about the Mandalorians), or HK-47, or Kreia, or even Canderous all I wanted and I'd be fine. Some had better repartee than others but I always enjoyed the conversation for the sake of the conversation. I couldn't wait to get to new planets to see what new dialogue options opened up next.

Also, I didn't have to take any light side hits for being a smart ass (but not an asshole) to the Jedi Masters. Telling off Master Vrook is still the highlight of Dantooine.

Actually, getting to be a light side Jedi but not being forced to be a saint is one of the highlights of KoTOR II for me. On the same hand, getting to be dark side and not being forced to be a complete monster. Much as I love Revan, the Exile has more personality and is oh, so much wittier.

But I suppose that's the difference between good writing and bad, isn't?

Most painfully bad-written game I have played must be the story mode of F-Zero GX. Come on guys.

I agree that games should have better stories. Some makes an attempt though. I for one think Majora's Mask did a good job.

Meemaimoh:

Rack:
For all writing in video games is appalling I do wonder if it's possible to buy good writing. Especially when the gameplay demands several thousand mooks get slaughtered throughout the game in a variety of intereting locales.

Of course it's possible. There are many talented, dedicated games writers out there that are frustrated beyond belief by the culture within the industry that ultimately sees plot as the final polish.

If games are going to have plots at all, they need writers who are allowed to have creative input involved from the very beginning to the very end of development. Otherwise, we end up with games like Assassin's Creed or Prototype: games that had potential, but that had, from day one, been meant only to be designed around its gameplay. They tacked a flimsy plot onto the end of it. Anyone can see that.

The industry itself needs to start respecting writers if the problem of bad writing is going to be fixed, and that doesn't just mean investing more money. It means hiring writers to have input on plot, not just to be the designated scribes. It means designers understanding that writers know much more about this stuff than they do, and standing aside to let them do the job they were hired for. If you design a game around a plot from day one, you get a level of synergy like Bioshock or Portal that is way, WAY more rewarding for the player, and that means the game can show off some brilliant writing, too.

That's exactly the point I was pondering, sure you can get good writing in a game if the writer is involved from the very beginning and is given free reign to dictate the course of the game. But is it possible to get good writing while sticking to the mantra of "gameplay first"?

To answer the question

Two Worlds.

Fracture was stupid. The Gears of War series was riddled with plot holes.

Dark Cloud 2.

Mostly because that's what I've been playing recently. The story line never fails to make me go "Bwuh?" at every turn. I don't even want to think about the voice acting...

To bring up a classic of good game writing (which may have already been brought up, but bears repeating): Chrono Trigger. A complex plot spanning millenia, in which you must move back and forth in time to gather the power, the resources, and the people you'll need to save the world from the monster that lives in its core, and in spite of all this, the story made sense. On top of that, the dialogue was pretty good, the characters were interesting (Magus, willing to be seriously evil in order to save the world; Frog, tormented by the memory of an old life he can't get back but driven by the memory of the hero he once was; Robo, the machine who gains a soul through acts of self-sacrifice; even the silent protagonist Chrono is well fleshed out, and the rest aren't so bad either), the plot twists were always a nice surprise, and the game accounted nicely for the paradoxes that time travel necessarily creates.

I also liked Majora's Mask, but that one didn't do time travel quite as well as Chrono Trigger. Not surprising, given the constraints, but it raised the issue of paradoxes and didn't properly resolve it. Still, it was cool to discover the world you were in, the mess it was in, how it got that way, and how to stop it. The scene where you catch the falling moon was a beautiful moment of triumph, and the ending left you wondering about the nature of evil spirits and why the act the way they do.

Now, on to the subject of bad writing: I say that good writing trumps no writing, but no writing trumps bad writing. If the game doesn't need a story, don't give it one. People have mentioned DOOM and Pac-Man and BeJeweled. Certain games need no exploration of motives any more than chess does. You just charge in and start playing.

On the other hand, if it does need a story, give it a good one. If you need a story to move it along, the story ought to be one of the best parts of the game. If you must tell the player why he's doing what he's doing, you'd better make sure that the player's reaction is not laughter.

Now, on the subject of cutscenes: I'm generally against them. There are good ones, but I'm of the opinion that in games, interactivity should never stop. Why show people doing cool stuff when you could be letting them play cool stuff?

hansari:
Assassins Creed 1

I mean anyone playing that game would have figured out the direction it was going after the second assassination mission.

And each time Al-mualim tried to justify it...at first you could see his point...but then...my goodness his backwards matrixy talking just went in one ear and out the other...

I wasn't even paying attention to his ramblings anymore. I sat there thinking: "Yeah, yeah keep a move on old man so I can go stab people in the face and jump off tall buildings in the next town."

Tears of Blood:

commasplice:
*Theories*

You'd be wrong. I just particularly like this one show.

A lot.

I don't watch anything else. Much like the only American TV show I watch is House M.D.

Hehe, my mistake, then. You should check out Seirei no Moribito, Evangelion, Basilisk and, uh, I dunno Last Exile? Serial Experiments Lain is worth watching, too.

commasplice:
Hehe, my mistake, then. You should check out Seirei no Moribito, Evangelion, Basilisk and, uh, I dunno Last Exile? Serial Experiments Lain is worth watching, too.

No.

Shujen:

Frylock72:
Much as this may earn scorn from the rest of the community, I just got into Warcraft 3 (and back into World of Warcraft), and I have to say this game series has to have the worst writing I've ever seen. Due to being unemployed for a good long while, I don't have the money to go out and buy video games when they release (the Escapist has been my window into these games), so I can't comment on them (and the games I do play I like, for the most part).

Warcraft 3's plot just seemed to railroad all of the characters to their eventual ends. I don't know, maybe I'm just being unnecessarily mean, but whenever I load up these games, it's not the story that I'm playing for.

It kinda makes you wonder what the point of having a paladin's creed is if its paragons are itching to break everything it stands for at their first opportunity. I know it's Blizzard's attempt at making it darker and edgier by making paladins succumb to the 'well-intentioned extremist' trope, but they just come off as lawful stupid.

A friend of mine was telling me about a Mage: the Ascension character I was going to play at some point. She was a Euthanatos that I was expecting to turn into a Nephandus. Anyway, he told me that playing like the outcome was already determined wasn't a good way to come at it, and once I saw that in action in WoW and War3, I have to agree. There was no struggle to resist the change, no chance at redemption. It wasn't even a smart or impressive bullrush into oblivion, just ... pretentious.

Edit
@ Tears of Blood above: I have to agree about Lain. I almost fell asleep watching the pilot, and I got to the second episode before I just couldn't take it anymore. Haven't seen the others.

I think you're giving the writers something of a raw shake here. There are lot of talented writers working for major studios, but I think more often than not, they're not given any real control over the flow or structure of the game. Your 'chef/pb&J' analogy was on in a way you probably didn't intend: why hire someone who specializes in crafting a story, and then tell them to constrain themselves to...dialog trees. Or cutscenes, between hour-long sprees of carnage.

It's a bit like asking a screen-writer to write a script for a movie, bearing in mind that he'll only be able to use the lower 1/8 of the screen, and every major character has to be either a blue or red dot, and for every two minutes of film there will be a half-hour light show interlude, set to acid raver techno music.

...wait, that actually sounds kind of awesome.

But my point remains valid!

Best writing? Off the top of my head: Ninja Gaiden. While I happen to think FFIV, VI and Chrono Trigger were amazing stories that made you care about the characters (and Dissidia did such an amazing job of making all these characters really accessible, such that characters I previously disliked - Squall, Tidus, Cloud - I actually empathized with deeply), Ninja Gaiden is still so powerful. It had real world locations and factions: References to the CIA and so forth. The XBox games are great, but they really fail to replicate the majesty of those simple cutscenes. As a little kid, the only reason to play through bone-gnawingly hard levels was to uncover the next chapter. With such little time to tell the story and such primitive means, they created truly magnificent arcs. Terranigma also deserves special mention for being one of the most soul-crushingly depressing stories ever written. Mother 3 similarly kicked you in the balls and never stopped. Breath of Fire 2 had a pretty chilling twist.

Worst writing that made me visibly angry? I rarely continue to play bad games, but Secret of the Stars (Tecmo Super RPG) is a candidate: Badly translated, almost no dialogue, totally forgettable. Morrowind's dialogue is actually pretty overblown: The game itself is great fun, but most of the characters are interchangable and the world feels fairly bland. Ditto for Oblivion: I could care less about any of the motivations handed me. Halo is almost entirely uninteresting to me from a storyline perspective, but that's not the same as bad. Shaq Fu had insultingly bad premises, but it wasn't actually terribly written and had some tongue-in-cheek about it. Resident Evil games are always laughable. Mortal Kombat has its inane moments. While the first Metal Gear Solid was a great spy story, Metal Gear Solid 2 was basically the creator mocking the audience, which is arrogant and also stupid. I hate Diablo, Diablo II and World of Warcraft so much, but they are all brilliantly written. Tekken has some mind-numbingly bad storylines ("What, you mean I'm actually a memmber of the only other clan on the planet that uses lightning punches?") It's really difficult to find a game that can even be said to have a story that is actually bad.

Two things immediately come to mind, neither of which are all that immense. I tend to just -not- play games with terrible stories, as I always wait until they come down in price (thus by then hear which games are AWESOMES and which suck) and I almost always play a game with my primary interest being the story.

Oddly one of the things that really miffs me is not a whole game, but an instance. In WoW. A game which, though cliche, is usually decent (at least the lore and characters are). The instance in question being The Caverns of Time: The Culling of Strathholme. It's like some totally random person wrote it. Arthas' dialog is all horrible. The paths you take make so little sense, and it has so very little to do with the original in War3 which, granted, was Arthas running around knocking over buildings with his HAMMER...but still, I think they could have translated it into the MMO so much better. And at the end, Arthas stands there with 5 other heroes behind him and tells Mal'Ganis that "It's just you...and me." Right. Just you? Go for it. I'll smack him once and then wait for the lootz. Oh wait, YOU CAN'T DO IT BY YOURSELF BECAUSE YOUR A WHINY PANSY.

The other complaint is just misc games on the iphone. Particularly 'rpg' games on the iphone, which put so much effort into looks, numbers and a expansive worlds, but fall flat on their faces with these stories that came from an 8 year old. Zenonia is a prime example. There's a free version. If you ever consider making a game, use this one as an example of why, no matter how good you think your story is, you should HIRE A GOD DAMN WRITER OR EDITOR. Totally serious, some of the character names are: Vague, Lady Charity, Lord Virulent, Vicious, and...to top it all off, your character? Spikey haired kid named, 'Regret'. Uuuughhhh. And that's just names. It goes downhill from there.

Such interesting comments. I'm guessing I wasn't the only one that read 'Master Chief' instead of 'master chef' in the article's description.

Terrible writing: Sudeki comes to mind, though there were a few scenes that got my approval almost ironically.

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