Why are the stories in video games so bad?

People often say they are enthusiastic about games because "they can tell stories", or because they enable narrative moments not possible in other media. But although there are numerous flashes of brilliance in games, this potential often feels like something they circle, but never attain.

That's because the act of writing for games and the skillset required is vastly different from what you'd think or expect, and even people who do it professionally, toiling quietly behind the scenes, often seem frustrated at how poorly-understood the work is.

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Game developers tend to underestimate the importance of having a writer around, and they are very important (speaking as a writer, of course). Lots of creators think that because their game doesn't "have a lot of dialogue" or require a lot of text, that there is no need for writing.

There's also the idea that a game is an experience for the player to have—that the player discovers his or her own narrative through the unique decisions and movements they make in its world, and that a writer's just going to impose some kind of artificial constraint, cramping the player's movement in the name of forcing them to plod through some dull linear tale.

In my experience of game developers, they often just think other things are more important: the fun, the mechanics, the performance of the software, and sometimes those are fair priorities in an industry where there's never enough time and money to be certain the game will turn out well and everyone just tries to focus on their own discipline.

Plenty of creators I've met will tell you that the player just doesn't care about the story. In some genres that's absolutely true—you just want to page through the artificial plot and melodramatic dialogue so that you can go kill more things in a new area. Maybe more players would be motivated by story instead of merely tolerant of it if the storytelling was interesting and new, and not just another inbred geek action narrative. But rarely are games influenced by things outside of games, except for a list of usual suspects. And when most people who buy a traditional-length game will never play it for long enough to finish it, why bother?

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None of these things are necessarily certain, but it often comes out that way nonetheless. The story and the gameplay are often at cross-purposes, feeling like separate entities where one gets in the way of the other at best, and they defeat one another in the worst case.

Having a writer helps, but developers often just bring writers in to help fill in dialogue around setpieces (make up a reason for everyone to have a huge zombie battle in the football arena!) not to contribute to an overall narrative design. Writers on big games have told me privately of the friction they felt between what they wanted to happen in the game and the absurd, dissonant moments of gameplay that were beloved to the developers and too late to change.

The games with "name" writers often end up even more disappointing than the unexpected independent games, and maybe that's because those writers' expectations clash with the very practical reality that lots of games writing is, as my friend Ed Stern often puts it, "thinking of a hundred ways to say Grenade!" Either way, it doesn't help make the case to bigger companies that writers matter to the medium.

To experience what it's like to be a writer on a traditional game development team, look no further than Matthew Burns' free, brilliant, searing text game The Writer Will Do Something, a must-play for anyone who struggles to understand what goes on behind the scenes and how things can go so wrong.

Writers in games are at their best when the team is small and the writer is free to be part of the design team, harmoniously creating an experience that's about something more than words. Well-written games are a dialogue with the player, creating opportunities for behavior, not scenarios in which the player follows instructions so "emotional" things can happen to them.

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Will O'Neill has written an interesting piece on writing for games, full of advice particularly geared at indies, who are free from the usual constraints big companies impose on what kind of characters and plot points "sell" and whether narrative experimentation is worth the time and money.

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.

Though I don't agree with what he says about Life is Strange, which certainly has some nice, warm and human beats, the niftiest point is that games are more like plays than anything else—experiences with theatrical pacing, performances, setpieces. More developers would benefit from reading plays, O'Neill asserts, rather than ever grasping at ill-fitting 'cinematic' vocabulary.

Press the big DISCUSS button below: What are your favorite game stories, and what made them work so well for you? What are the most egregious ones?

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