When faced with my own mortality, I asked myself the question, how do I live forever? Since immortality obviously is not, and never will be, possible I came to a simple conclusion. I can live forever if my name is on the cover of a book. Good writing can last a long time; even thousands of years. Stories have been such an important part of my life that they have become who I am. When watching TV or movies, I can often excuse other blunders as long as there is a good story with good writing, but if the writing is any kind of bad, then I just cannot enjoy something. As more of my head space is taken up with writing, it became the one thing I think about when I play games. I often do play games for the stories, and favour single player, story driven games compared to sandbox, open world, or multiplayer games. The thing is though, writing and stories in video games usually aren’t that good. I think there are multiple key reasons and I’d like to discuss them here today.
I’d first like to say that there are many games that have great stories, and even better writing. I’ll definitely mention some throughout this article as examples and I’ll explain why and how they are so great, but I thought I should just start on some kind of a positive note since the premise of this article isn’t exactly positive.
The first question that needs an answer is why is writing in video games bad, and what exactly do I mean by that statement? I think writing in games is bad because video games and their creators haven’t found an organic way to blend gameplay and story. It’s hard to have gameplay and story happening at the same time because video games are unlike any other medium of entertainment due to it’s interactive. Having plot going on while you’re battling or going through an environment could be extremely distracting and the player could either miss part of the plot, or get distracted from the actual game aspect and either die or not get the full experience.
In my opinion, I think video games have the hardest time creating good writing in all aspects. The game developers obviously have to blend story and gameplay first, but they also have to write dialogue, work in world building to gameplay, create an actual good story to begin with, all while writing good fleshed out characters to begin with. When compared to something like books, video games stories are told through a very different lens. When reading a book, you see the events of said novel and it’s world through the main character’s eyes, or the cast of characters, either in first person or third person. When playing games, you may experience the game through a certain character’s eyes (especially if it’s a first person game) but actually, you’re experiencing the game, story, and world through your eyes, the players eyes. The character/characters you play as probably don’t respond to everything they see, hear, read, or experience, so you as the player are taking it in, while the characters are not. Books can also have narrators, to explain things like lore, things the characters might not know of realize, or comment on events where the main characters were not present. In a video game, this almost never happens and it would feel very awkward if it did. Some games do have narration, like Final Fantasy 13, but it’s all just character introspection, them talking about how they feel about certain events. As you can see, stories in video games are made and shown in very different ways when compared to other media.
There are many aspects of writing in video games that we are going to have to cover, and I think it would be best to start with two types of games, linear and non-linear games, or open world VS non open world games. I should also clarify that I’m obviously talking about games that have somewhat of a focus on a plot or narrative. Games like Super Mario Bros or Stardew Valley don’t really count. I understand that these games have story elements, but they are either vague, or you can tell that the focus is more so on gameplay and not plot. A game like Skyrim is very clearly an open world game from the get go. Once you get out of the first town, the game does give you advice as to where to go, so you can very much go wherever you please and find and do whatever you want. With non-linear games there are side-quests, which are trying to tell their own stories. Mix that in with the fact that there is a main plot trying to unfold, and things start to get confusing. Having multiple storylines can without a doubt happen, it just means that the side stories have to be good and memorable. I think the best example of this isn’t even from a video game, but Game of Thrones does this extremely well. There are multiple stories yes, but not too many so that the story get confusing. And all the stories are part of one big plot that is going on. Imagine doing the first few parts of a quest, doing 20 hours of side quests and then coming back to the main quest? You’re probably going to forget a few things in-between those two points. Now, you absolutely do not have to go off and do side quests, the whole point of an open world game is that you can play exactly as you want and do exactly as you like, so you can just plough through the main quest first and then do side-quests. But even if you try to ignore side quests in Skyrim and games like it, sometimes these quests find you. And again, you don’t have to do these quests, but the game definitely encourages you to. Is there a game with the same formula as Skyrim but somehow does it better? I do believe so and its name is The Witcher 3.
Skyrim and the Witcher often get compared due to the fact that they are role playing games with very large worlds and great gameplay. I’m not at all saying these games are the same, because they have a lot of differentiations, I’m just saying that they are often compared and they do have some similarities, especially when it comes to writing. Just like Skyrim, The Witcher 3 is an open word game where you’re encouraged to explore and do many side-quests. There’s multiple storylines going on while there is one big plot, so how exactly does this game have better writing and story? First, there are fewer side quests, so the ones you do actually complete are a bit more memorable. Just because there is more of something, doesn’t mean it is better and yes, just because there is less doesn’t mean something is better, but I do believe that the quests in The Witcher 3 are more memorable. Perhaps the biggest difference between this game is that in The Witcher 3, you play the game as Geralt of Rivia, a Witcher/monster hunter. Geralt has a personality (not a big one since Witchers are mutated humans that get their emotions taken away), he has a voice, he responds and comments, and character have relationships with Geralt because he’s a pre-established character. In Skyrim, you create your own character who doesn’t speak, only responds through text choices and can’t have any sort of a personality besides whatever they say when they respond to NPCs. The point of having customizable main characters is so you can create and be anyone you want and play them how you want, but in Skyrim you can only do the latter. You can play however you want, you just can’t be whoever you want. Having character creation can be really great for gameplay, but isn’t the best thing to have if you want an engaging and memorable story. There is also another problem that a game like Skyrim has that can really affect storytelling and that is the limitations of technology, time and resources.
I don’t want your consensus as the reader to be that I hate Skyrim, I just think it’s a good example of a great game with really subpar story telling. As far as I can tell, Skyrim has OVER 400 quests in the base game. Some of these quests are incredibly simple like chopping wood, but there are also a lot of quests that evolve further into a quest-line. There are also hundreds of characters in the game (I couldn’t find the exact number) and if you walk around any town in Skyrim, you will quickly notice that the characters all look and sound similar. There were roughly 70 voice actors used in Skyrim, and I have to say, I find that very surprising because most of the characters I encounter sound almost exactly the same. Having characters that all look and sound alike is not a good thing because you will either mix them all up, or just not remember them to begin with. I can’t even count on both hands the number of characters I can remember from this game. This is not the fault of the developers of the game however, it’s just the limitations of technology and time. No one has the time to create hundreds of unique character models for all the NPCs that give you quests, let alone populate the world of Skyrim. I find the solutions to my criticisms about the voice acting a bit puzzling though. I wonder if the person in charge of voice direction just told the voice actors that they would be doing dozens of characters but told them not to voice them differently? Or if they did do multiple voices each but one of the directors of the game just added the same voice to a lot of the NPCs? That wouldn’t make sense because then the studio wasted a ton of money on hours of work that went unused. I think what Skyrim needed was just more revision. Its size was really great for gameplay but absolutely not the case for story (I’m sure it also wasn’t easy on any part of the development team). When you’re meeting multiple characters, who look very similar, and sound very similar, chances are that you’re going to mix people up, or just not remember them to begin with and this just isn’t good for storytelling? Like I said earlier, this isn’t really the fault of the developers, just the limitation of technology and time.
It’s hard to compare the size and scale of Skyrim and The Witcher 3 (especially when Skyrim has so many caves and ruins that you explore that aren’t on the map), and it’s even harder to find exactly how many quests and NPCs there are in the Witcher 3. From what I can see, The Witcher 3 has at least 100 less quests than Skyrim and far more NPCs that you can interact with/give you quests. Now, less does not automatically mean better, but there are other reasons why The Witcher 3 has better storytelling.
Just to give a bit of perspective, I’ve played through Skyrim’s story multiple times and gone through the major side-quests even more than that. The thing about the Witcher 3 though, is that I remember a lot of the games characters, even some of the one that don’t have a lot of story relevance (and I know that there are multiple Witcher games but I’ve only played the third). Characters are memorable in this game because there is a difference between characters that give you quests and regular NPCs. The people in the game who give you quests and are a part of quests have detailed character models, voices and stories. The side characters automatically grab you because they look visually different from just random townspeople in the world. Just like Skyrim, The Witcher 3 also has a world full of different races, but the races in the Witcher 3 are handled so much better. The races of the Witcher 3 are all treated very differently, elves are treated like absolute shit, gnomes and halflings usually work as traveling actors or on farms, dwarves are very tough and usually do mercenary work, and people are usually scared of witchers. I can remember all of this from playing the game one time because the game does such a good job of portraying all of these characters and races. They look different, sound different, have different cultures, they all hangout in groups with their own races and when they are part of quests, they stick out automatically. This is good character design and that will flow into good side-quests and a good main plot because you will remember characters and get attached to them and their stories. The Witcher 3 just did more with its game/character design and it really pours into the story. There are still many thing wrong with The Witcher 3’s story, I just wanted to use it as an example of how game design can affect story and/or storylines.
Let’s move away from these 2 massive RPGs and go into some different genres. I think some genres just aren’t made to tell a story and the main example of this is fighting games. Games like Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, and Super Smash Bros are very prime examples of this genre and how it confines story telling. The way a plot works in the fighting game genre is that there is a cutscene, then it goes straight to a fight, then another cutscene, and then a fight, rinse and repeat. There is an inherent problem with cutscenes because they take the control away from the player and they have to watch instead of use their controller. Is this an effective way to tell a story? Absolutely. Is this an effective way to play a game? No. It takes away the one thing that makes a game a game, control. Do I think cutscenes are bad? Hell no. I think they’re incredibly entertaining and most of my favourite games have them, but I don’t think they are the best way to tell a story in a game and I know a lot of people don’t like them. The big thing is that they take away that control, that interactivity, which is what makes a game a game. It turns the game and storytelling into more of a movie and games need to move away from movies to be better.
Predictability is never good in a story, which is exactly the problem with fighting games. You know every cutscene will just end up in a fight, and as soon as you see the two characters, you know who the two characters are, so why do you even need to watch the cutscenes? Character interaction is important, but that automatically gets thrown out the window when you know every interaction will just end in a fight. Other game genres usually have other mechanics that can work into storytelling. In RPGs there is battling, but you can walk around, talk to people, interact with characters. There are also cutscenes but not after every fight, and dialogue can happen during actual gameplay. The fighting genre just confines itself because there are no other mechanics other than the actual fighting. There are no characters to interact with, no world to explore, and just no time to have any sort of interesting way to tell a story, There is only fight, cutscene, fight, cutscene, fight, and it gets boring, predictable and it’s the reason fighting games are known not to have good stories, and why some just don’t tell stories at all.
Let’s get into something a bit more dark… like Dark Souls maybe? Well, more so the Soulsborne series, although I don’t really know what it’s called now that Sekiro has come out? Soulsborniro sounds kinda cool. ANYWAY. I haven’t played a whole a lot of the Dark Souls franchise but I’ve done a very deep dive on Bloodborne, and from what I know of both series’, they do storytelling and writing in similar fashion. These games follow the one golden rule of storytelling, show, don’t tell. If you want to find the story in Bloodborne, you have to seek it for yourself. During most of my first playthrough of the game, I had no idea what was going on or what I was doing (which should show how good the gameplay was that I was addicted to a game I didn’t understand). The best way to explain the storytelling in these games is vague and cryptic. The player has to piece together pretty much everything from things like item descriptions, environmental storytelling like where you find certain items and characters and world design, and the few immensely cryptic cut scenes. From the moment you start, the only guess as to what you are doing is to “find paleblood”, and that is it. You step out into the world, everyone and everything is trying to kill you, you have no idea where you’re going or how to get there. But why is this a good method of storytelling? Especially in video games? Because it’s interactive storytelling. It isn’t told to you, you have to find it and put it together. The player not only has to play the game to see through the story, you have to actually PLAY the game. You have to explore the world, try to get new items and find new areas, try and talk to all the NPCs and do all the side-quests. Besides the limited cutscenes in the game, everything about the story is interactive because the story has to be discovered. There are even some mysteries in the game that never get solved, which yes, is a bit frustrating, but it imitates life and just leaves some things up to interpretation. The story has gaps to let you fill in, to let you be creative and make part of your own story, once again weaving in that interactivity. Perhaps one of the best parts about Bloodborne’s storytelling is how environmental it is. Because video games are so different from other forms of entertainment, I think it’s a lot easier to get engrossed in their world. I’ve never seen anyone play Bloodborne who doesn’t say it’s a terrifyingly atmospheric game and that’s because everywhere you go, the things you see are wound into the story. There are coffins everywhere that are chained up that show that something happens to people after they die. Yharnham is absolutely filled with a stupid amount of statues, that makes it seem like any of them could come alive at any moment, or that they were once real people. Why do all the people you can talk to have strange lamps sitting outside their doors? All of these things are visual storytelling at its finest. The world makes sense with the story that is being told and I think that’s what makes a true atmospheric game.
I think overall, Bloodborne just has a structure that really compliments the medium of video games. The mysterious storytelling really works with the world of Yharnham. Every part of the world can give you story bits, and the environmental and gameplay storytelling are hard to come by in normal games. Bloodborne doesn’t have the perfect story, but I just think the interactivity really compliments itself to video games. There are still other issues with its storytelling elements but for the topic I wanted to talk about, it was fantastic.
If there is one thing to know about the video game industry, it’s that it’s very Japanese dominated. Companies like Nintendo and Sony are based in Japan and so are a lot of famous video game developers. It was because of companies like Nintendo, that the industry really took it’s first few big steps, even in the realm of telling stories in games. Like I mentioned earlier, Mario having to save the princess isn’t much a of story, but it’s still a story. The Legend of Zelda was also a great step in the right direction for stories in video games, and has become one of the most acclaimed franchises in the industry. The Japanese definitely have their own ways of writing and storytelling, but it seems over the years that these masterpieces have come few and far between and there is a big reason for this; anime.
Why would another form of entertainment affect storytelling in video games you may ask? Well as I’m sure you’re aware, anime is from Japan and is incredibly popular there, so it’s no surprise that it and video games have mixed a lot over the years. It’s more than just the atheistic and art style though, as a lot of tropes from anime have carried over into Japanese video games. It’s these things that really affect the story of these games, not necessarily the story themselves, as the Japanese are usually very creative storytellers.
I enjoy anime, I really do, but I think people just need to realize that it’s really bad as far as stories go. By far the worst thing is the characters and dialogue. There’s a reason that anime is related to a lot of yelling, over the top reactions and tropey characters, because it happens a lot. How many characters in anime and Japanese video games are there with one specific thing that sets them apart from everyone else? Like they have a really weird laugh, or think they are really strong but are actually weak, or they really like one specific thing and that’s all they talk about. These are not well written characters at all, they get annoying, absolutely no one acts like this in real life and you can predict most of their dialogue well before it is even spoken. Having well rounded and characters who can be actually liked is the basis of any good story, or else people just won’t get invested in whatever that story is. A game franchise that is perhaps one of the most guilty of this problem is Fire Emblem. If you know me, then you know I love Fire Emblem with all my heart, but the series, and especially the newer games in the series, is known for having very onenote characters. Almost every character in Fire Emblem Awakening has some kind of trope that they constantly talk about or mention and it really ruins the dialogue and a huge part of the game. I love support conversations in Fire Emblem but in Awakening, they are terrible. You know that whenever Owain is on screen, all he’s going to talk about is his stupid “sword hand”, or Inigo is just going to talk about flirting with people, or Tharja is just going to talk about how much she hates people. Real, good characters are multi-dimensional, have more than one personality trait and have an actual range of emotions. These side characters in Fire Emblem aren’t even part of the main story, but they make up a significant part of the game so you can’t ignore them.
Although it isn’t my favourite form of entertainment, I have watched my fair share of anime. Most of the time spent watching has a lot of cringing in it though because of one reason; dialogue, and the whole “reaction craze” that anime has. An example of something like this is when a character gets embarrassed and they make a huge deal about it. They start yelling and their face goes dark and maybe blood is coming out of their nose. There’s literally thousands of scenes like this in a ton of different animes and they are all terrible. The problem with stuff like this is that they happen constantly, it’s incredibly disingenuous, it always feels unneeded, and it often ruins moments that are serious and would actually be impactful. Things like this happened a lot in Yakuza (which I’ll give a brake since it’s not always a very serious game), Fire Emblem, and although not very often, Persona 5. Yes, I’m very aware that the Japanese have a different culture and different way of doing entertainment, but I’m allowed to critique it and say that it’s just not a good way to write likeable characters with good dialogue. Writing characters and stories for video games is already hard enough and I think adding these aspects that anime incorporate really just hurt the games even more overall.
Perhaps one of the greatest enemies of storytelling in video game is franchising, or continuation in video games. This usually happens when a game with a story sells incredibly well, and then the devs decide to try and make a franchise out of it but try and keep the story. So no matter how many sequels there are, they will keep the franchise and the story going; stories that clearly were made with the intention of them ending. Examples of this is Halo, Gears of War, Resident Evil, and Assassin’s Creed. There is an in depth story being told in all of these games that has been going on for how many games now? I’ve lost track of how many Assassin’s Creed games there are. I fully understand that entertainment and video games is about making money, and what’s popular sells, but as soon as that is the case, story gets chucked out the window. Stories are suppose to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and most of these franchises don’t even have a middle let alone an end. You can literally see the moment in Assassin’s Creed where they realized they were writing themselves into a corner and they knew they had to get rid of the overall plot. And that moment is when they killed off Desmond Miles, the main protagonist of the series. It was so abrupt and poorly explained and just terrible, and I can literally see the board room meeting where the writers were told to axe his story. The Assassin’s Creed franchise actually had a plot that seemed like it was going somewhere and was going to end, but why would Ubisoft just end their most popular franchise when it can go on forever and make millions? If you have played any of the recent Assassin’s Creed games then you know that there is nothing really connecting the game plot-wise and anything they have added is pretty basic when it comes to storytelling.
Some games even try to carry on their plots while still trying to be a franchise, like Resident Evil. Resident Evil doesn’t really do anything new when it comes to story, it was basically just the first video game centred around the zombie apocalypse that got popular. The problem came in Resident Evil 2, when they decided to add Claire Redfield, the sister of Chris Redfield from the first game, to connect both games and there start to be more of an overarching plot. The series planned to end after that game, but due to its huge sales, they kept making more. Some game series are without a doubt made to last forever; Call of Duty, Final Fantasy, The Legend of Zelda. But these franchises craft their stories in a way that fit this formula. Resident Evil absolutely does not. One of the series’ big problems is that they are constantly bringing characters back, that have absolutely no motivations or reasons to constantly put themselves in danger, characters that visibly age and a story that is seemingly never going to end. What is the point of having characters that have no motivations, where you’re never going to see their stories, or the overall story resolve in any way, because the writers come up with really terrible way to keep the games going? At what point is there going to stop being a new “virus” that turns people into zombies in the Resident Evil world? Even in Resident Evil 7, the story was completely disconnected from the usual character of the series and it was very contained, and then Chris Redfield just pop up out of nowhere at the end and saves the main character. It’s disjointed, there‘s no explanation and it’s just sloppy writing. The developers should have done single, self-contained stories in every game just like Final Fantasy does, if they wanted to have this kind of franchise with this kind of story. There is absolutely no end in sight with these games and I don’t understand why it doesn’t upset more people. I get that they don’t want their favourite franchises to end, but when I get invested in a story, I want that story to end some day. I want the peace of mind knowing that there isn’t going to be a reboot or some sort of spin-off like with the Halo series and that the story is 100 percent done. Usually when games or movies or television shows continue just for the sake of continuing, you can automatically tell the quality of the story suffers. This is really the bane of writing and storytelling in video games, and I fear there really isn’t any way to fight against it, try as I might.
The truth is that the video game platform just doesn’t lend itself well to good storytelling and writing. A lot of it has to do with technical limitations and the fact that the developers are also trying to make a game that is fun to actually play. Also, sometimes just the genre of the game, or the fact that the developers are more interested in keeping a franchise going, really affects the quality of writing. I honestly hope that you don’t get the wrong idea, and think that all video game stories are bad or that I hate video game stories in general, it’s just that as a writer myself, I have realized that the general quality of most video game writing is not good. As the industry grows and technology gets better, I do believe that stories in video games will get better, they certainly have since the infant days of Nintendo, I just think the main issue will always be money, which is a real crime. Franchises are the true enemy of storytelling, because what’s the point of having a game centred around telling stories if the series never ends? If video game stories help you escape for a little while, good. I hope you get to explore to your heart’s content as you fall in love with its world and characters. I think that’s the real beauty of gaming, and I just want more of it.