Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Response to the Offworld Article: Why are the stories in video games so bad?

I wanted to write a response to an(other) excellent article from Offworld about writing in games. The article discusses why video game writing is so bad. Obviously, not every game has bad writing, but we've all played a large number of games that feel lost in their own storytelling.

I love how the article points out how “writing” doesn't equate to “dialogue” or even some sort of written text. Writing, or authorship extends to the entirety of an artwork, from the box art, the opening screen, the costume design, the color scheme, all the way to the end credits. How each element of an artwork is presented to a viewer is a choice on the creators part and communicates a message to the viewer/player.

This might be a key factor that determines creators that write great games and those who don’t. Silent Hill Shattered Memories comes to mind as a perfect example. The box art is uninspired, but as soon as you turn the game on, you are a part of the story. TV “snow” prepares us for metaphorical polygon snowscapes. We see a grainy home video of a little girl expressing, “I love my Daddy.” This moment defines the game’s thesis, and connects brilliantly with the ending, and is presented to us before we even Press Start.  It's a really meaningful moment that grows in intensity based on the players advancement in the story.

(Shattered Memories overall is a great example of a well written game, one of the best I’ve played.)

The part of the article that struck me to dust off this old blog was when they mentioned theater. I make theater in Chicago and have been fascinated with the artistic connections between games and theater for years.

Video Games and theater share a key aspect that other art forms lack: gesture. The concept that every night a play will be unique. Each performance will be unique to the actor and each member of an audience will have a unique, but shared experience. This is exactly how games are designed. Each game will be played in a manner unique to the player and create a unique but shared experience with the gaming community at large. They are both art forms fixed in the present.

Good playwrights write audience experiences, they craft an event. The article points out: “Well-written games are a dialogue with the player, creating opportunities for behavior.”

I love that phrase, “creating opportunities for behavior.” This perfectly describes what great theater looks like. A good writer will craft opportunities for the actors on stage as well as opportunities for the audience. The idea of a binary division between actor and audience is simply a construct. The binary can be blurred as much as the playwright prefers.

Theater can learn from games. The game player is both actor and audience. The role of the player shifts throughout a game, and the degrees of that shift varies from game to game, and scene to scene. We watch Solid Snake confront Olga on a rainy oil tanker, soaked in the drama and pulp mysteries. But we have a say in how we see it, wiggling and zooming the camera, discovering unshaven underarms in the process. Then we directly control the fight against her, shooting (traq darts or bullets) at either her, or the shifting environment around her, crafting the battle as it happens. Winning earns us another cut scene, where we learn Snake was being recorded by a UAV. The story was watching us act out Snakes actions, while we were watching the story through our own actions. Audience and actor shift and flow into one another.

In Dragon Age Inquisition, the binary is shaved razor thin and we are both active actor and active audience during the majority of plot advancements. We not only control the fight, but the discussion before and after. We pick which lines we want to hear, not the actual line, but just the essence of one. The line itself is a surprise, and we are forced to hope our intentions are conveyed correctly. The promise of power, this hope to influence is a brilliant mechanic that replicates an actor’s objectives onstage. An actor will act in hopes to emotionally influence another actor as well as to emotionally influence the audience that is watching. The energy is sent in two directions, toward the story and toward reality. Both the story and the audience are connected, present, and necessary. Existing in the same time and place, they hold equal importance and power within the artistic event.

Games make us send our own energy into the game, and then the game sends it back at us. We are affecting ourselves, in real time, getting (hopefully) everything back that we put in. This feedback loop is rare in art, and must be respected for effective game or theater making.

The Offworld article quotes advice Will O'Neill gives in a cool piece titled Writing Compelling Game Narrative:

Read plays. They often focus on dialogue and monologues in a stylish-yet-realistic way that I think dovetails beautifully with the way that stories are typically well-told in games. To an extent, I even think theater can help you grapple with the limitations that you may face as an indie. For the sake of an audience in the distance, theater is broadly emotive in the way that your simple, non-facially-intensive character animations might also be. Sets and props are often static, simple or merely suggestive in the same way that yours probably are.

Awesome! He admits it’s a surface level examination, but I fully agree with his sentiment. I believe what he is trying to say is video game creators need to embrace an artistic style. He is recognizing that all art is metaphor, and that there is an artistic history and precedence to effectively use style in crafting event based art like video games.

When auteurs embrace style, their work shines. Theater is the perfect realm for video game developers to look for influence in developing and enhancing their own work and style. I would argue this influence already exists and is being used in some of the most acclaimed games. Silent Hill uses many elements as Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, Kojima’s Metal Gear series consistently uses Bertolt Brecht’s alienation techniques, and Hidetaka Suehiro or SWERY games are in the same tradition as the Absurdist playwrights.

His examples of The Stanely Parable is also very Absurdist/Existentialist, Papers, Please borrows from an Expressionist aesthetic, and This War of Mine is like a tamer version of Sarah Kane’s Blasted.

All artists should have their own style, and there is never a one to one connection between one style or another. No artist should be stuck in the past and should always strive to break our current culture, but using artistic precedents can form a strong base and enhance the effectiveness of art. I believe that studying and seeing theater, above all other art forms, would help video game developers tremendously.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Daily Grinding

Lately I've been thinking a lot about why I've been so silent. It just sort of happened that all of the sudden I couldn't get any inclination to blog, to write, to do any sort of productive thought processing. When I started working in the clinic I thought that I'd have a lot of things to jot down, specifically about my education in college in regards to women's health versus working in the middle of it. Certainly I didn't know exactly what to expect when I started my job, and now I've learned that I can't have any expectation as to what any day is going to be like. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I've come across some shocking and difficult situations and I'm trying to learn how to deal with it. In the past I was able to write about it, but right now it's too soon.

And it feels stupid to write it, but I'm going to anyway. I just had no idea. Studying and learning about domestic violence in college and job training is completely different from when you actually find yourself taking the blood pressure of a woman who lies to you about the bruises on her body.

One of the best things about feminism for me has always been that it has given me a sense of hope. It has always been a revolution to me. My job and feminism intertwine and I relish that. Yet I am amazed at how far I've come down to where I only feel and notice burden--the weight of it in the lives of the women I meet, and my own that I carry with me.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

It's the New Year and damn if this blog needs an update

It's been months since I've posted. I never even considered in the past how office jobs and school fueled my internet hobby, as now when I get home I don't even want to check my email or look at my computer.

But it's a new year and I made new resolutions and I'm typing this post on a new computer. I plan, starting now, to try to update this blog at least every other week and I'm dedicating at least one night a week to the poor (yet determined!) and important Jade Reporting. I pinky swear.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007


Apologies for being away for so long. With the new job comes new stress due to a steep learning curve and I’m adjusting to an environment that is completely unlike anything I’ve been in before. Whereas I used to sit in a cubicle staring at the clock, I am now running around, arranging charts, answering phones and grabbing a quick sip of water or bite to eat when there’s a small break in the rush of patients. It’s definitely challenging, and I’m hoping to hit my stride soon.

To deal with the stress I’ve broken out my used copy of Dreamfall: The Longest Journey for the X-Box. I bought it for under 20 bucks on the suggestion of my visiting and adorable younger gamer cousin. It didn’t really bother me that I didn’t first play The Longest Journey, as I’ve started a lot of series playing sequels first.

I immediately felt that I could identify with Zoë (though not because she first appears in her underwear!). The first things that you find out about her is that she dropped out of school, broke up with her boyfriend, and moved back in with her dad. She’s lost and disillusioned, which is, I’ve found, a common emotional domain of many 20-somethings. The story of Dreamfall is excellent: it’s filled with cross-dimensional political conspiracy. While not all characters were completely developed, I noticed that there was a definite effort to give specific attitude and background to many of the NPCs—something that is usually ignored in many other games.
That doesn’t save it, however, from some huge complaints that I have. In a game that features so much diversity in its characters, I was appalled that the developers relied on some pretty insensitive and stereotypical portrayal of Chinese people. How many games do I have to play that feature a Chinese NPC wearing ancient-China style robes and hair, sporting extremely slanty eyes and speaking with a mouth full of buck teeth high-pitched and quivering English? Another aspect that confused me was how the very beginning of the game, which takes place in Tibet, features NPCs talking in their native tongue. I liked hearing an unfamiliar language. I initially thought it cool that a game that travels the world would feature different languages instead of just pretending that everyone speaks English. Yet after the first chapter in the game that completely vanished.

There was a lot of good in Dreamfall: specially the complex story, the game’s focus on women characters, and it’s genuine diversity. While playing the game, I kept comparing it to Indigo Prophecy, and found Dreamfall much more satisfying. However, there was a lot lacking too. Despite two of the main characters being women, the game didn’t lack sexism. Despite the game’s push towards multiculturalism, it had racist elements and was specifically grounded in white privilege. While these aspects really did turn me off to the game in a lot of ways, I have to admit that I’m hooked. I ordered The Longest Journey (soon to come in the mail) and am awaiting the next installment(s) of the series. I’m anxious to continue the narrative and see if it’s shortcomings continue or are improved upon.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


The job search is over. I'm officially gainfully employed, with health benefits and everything. My official title is that of a reproductive health assistant, which means I do a little bit of a lot of things at a women's health clinic.

I feel lucky to get the position and damn lucky to have to opportunity to work a feminist job, doing something I'm passionate about, for a company with a mission statement I agree with.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Some of the Same

Yesterday my brother let me come over to do some (free!) laundry. So in the midst of suds and folding I checked out a couple of demos on his 360.

Beautiful Katamari was first. I really like the controller for the 360 and think it’s a vast improvement over both controller models for the original Xbox. But in the context of Katamari, it was a bit awkward to play on a controller where the analog sticks aren’t side by side. I realize I’m being picky—it’s something I’m sure most people won’t have any problems with.

It was also disappointing to see that in Katamari’s third console incarnation that the camera is still wonky. And even though the graphics are bit brighter and a bit shinier, Beautiful Katamari is the same game as the first two. I don’t think online capabilities will do much in revolutionizing the formula either. It’s sure to be some fun, but there’s no way I’d shell out sixty bucks to play a game I essentially already own.

The demo I was truly excited to play was Eternal Sonata. This is the game I’d own a 360 for. Made by Tri-Crescendo (one of the two companies behind the Baten Kaitos games), I expect a ton out of it and its original premise of Chopin having delirious deathbed dreams. It. Is. Gorgeous. The visuals are dreamy and colorful. The music swirls and bends. The battles are fast-paced and genuinely fun. You only have a specific amount of time for your turn, so it’s similar to the Baten Kaitos series except it doesn’t feature cards. (People interested in the game probably already know about the light/dark features of battles as well.)

Yet I was crushed by what I gleaned from the gender roles of Eternal Sonata. The demo features no story, but it’s easy to tell what the prescribed roles are for the three characters that you control. The leader of the group is Allegretto, a pretty boy with a sword. We then have Polka, our cute and weak heroine who heals and whacks foes with an umbrella. Finally, there’s Beat, an eager and adorable young boy with an oversized gun. I love me my JRPGs and am not surprised with the common gender clichés that are often presented. But seriously, I’d like to see more. That said, I don’t know if there will be other characters that might push the gender envelope, but as of this moment, I’m doubting it.

After playing the Eternal Sonata demo, I’m left having to make a compromise that I always have to make. I know that when I do get a 360 down the line, I’ll most likely pick this game up. It has so much else going for it that I know I’ll enjoy, but I’m going to have to end up pushing the gender issues present in the game to the back of my mind. This has happened before with games that I’ve particularly enjoyed--Dragon Quest 8 and Tales of Symphonia, I’m looking at you.

While it’s true that I’m fully capable of enjoying a game despite problematic gender presentations, I’m tired of having to make so many compromises. And I know that I’m not alone—other gamers that are queer, identify as female and aren’t white often have to make the same type of aggravating decision when it comes to choosing a game to play.

Friday, September 07, 2007


Scrolling through my RSS Feeds I come across some potentially upsetting news:
Warner Bros. Pictures has acquired the film rights to the anime classic Robotech, with Tobey Maguire producing through his Maguire Entertainment.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the actor is considering the lead role in the futuristic tale of giant robots and alien invaders. The studio plans on the sci-fi epic becoming a tentpole franchise.
Warner Brothers? Tobey Maguire? Tobey Maguire as Rick?  And I can just see Minmei being cast as not-Chinese.  This screams bad idea.

And in non-nerd news, I quit my temp job this week.  Here's to some self-dignity, an empty wallet, and a stack of resumes.