Wednesday, September 2, 2009

On Writing For Games

A few players and reviewers have commented on the fact that AI War does not have much lore, or much story to it. Some players see this as a detriment, or at the very least as a noncritical oversight that they wish I would fix. Most players don't care either way, of course, and some have even made comments to the effect that they are happy they don't have to wade through a bunch of backstory just to play the game.

Given the above, you might assume that my motivation in having such a limited amount of story (15 lines of intro on the main menu) was simply for time-saving reasons since the majority of players don't care. Or you might assume that I don't like to read or write. In fact I love to write, and I'm an avid reader, so the truth is a lot more complicated.

It comes down to what I'm trying to accomplish with the game. I really do believe that Less is More in the case of certain games. I don't want more story than what your average Zelda game gives, for instance. I very much enjoyed the story in Super Mario RPG, but I find the stories in a lot of the Paper Mario games to be too longwinded. I enjoy Final Fantasy but find most western RPGs to be too longwinded. Etc.

In so many games, there is an abundance of story that is not all that original, not all that interesting, and kind of redundant and bloated in its execution. With some good cutting (and I mean cutting over 50%), you'd arrive at something more the quality of a novel, which I think is important. I prefer reading over television, and I've been an avid writer my whole life even though I never quite made it into print, so this isn't just the opinion of someone who doesn't want to read.

As a great example of Less Is More, you have Braid. A lot of people criticize the little story bits as being unintelligible or whatever else, but I thought it was well done and poignant. And with a lot of the older NES games, where text space was limited, a very limited amount of text was able to convey so much. Zelda 2 is absolutely one of my favorite games, partly just because of the atmosphere of exploration and mystery that is there. With pages and pages of text, I think it would have been a much less compelling experience.

As an example from film, I think that in a lot of movies it is important to not show the monster. Look at all of Hitchcock's films. Less really is more in those cases, because not knowing, not seeing, is what makes it significant. I liked the M. Night movie Signs, but the worst thing in that was when they showed the aliens. Bad, bad idea. The original Star Wars movies were so much better than the later ones also partly because they were more restrained in their storytelling, and followed the "show don't tell" rule (amongst so many other things they did better, but I digress).

Looking around at other mediums, take the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. There is something called "The Noodle Incident" that Watterson never explains, though it is referred to several times. In one of his books about the strip, he talked about how that was intentional -- any prosaic thing he could come up with could never compare to the crazy half-formed ideas that immediately spring to mind in all the readers for what this "noodle incident" could possibly be.

Sometimes it is good to be explicit. Dialogue, characters, etc, are important in some games. Other times it is better to be more subtle. Show, don't tell -- this is a chief rule of good writing, but not all game writers bother to follow it. Games are a visual medium, and like with great movies, great games don't always have to have a lot of talking. The lore is right in front of you, staring you in the face. You are playing it, creating new lore as you do so. The half-formed stories in your head are vastly superior to the stories that you or I or anyone could actually put down in the game itself to make people read. When you put it on paper, it's showing the monster.

Some movies need to show the monster. Some games need to have a lot of text. But I think an important skill of a disciplined writer is to know when to write and when to hang it up. An amateur writer will always spill out pages and pages of narrative for even the slightest prompt, never pausing to think how original or interesting it really is. This is what you get in a lot of games, and I'm so against that. Ico is a game that is immensely evocative, and tells a wonderful story with hardly any dialogue at all. The latest Prince of Persia game has rafts of snappy dialogue between Elika and the Prince, but it's mostly pretty forgettable. They have some great lines in there, and if they had cut down to just those it could have been much more poignant, but as it was the Prince and Elika could ramble on for what felt like hours.

I guess I subscribe more to an older school of thought, which is not in vogue right now. Suspense movies have been supplanted by horror movies, after all, and I feel like that's a crying shame. A lot of remakes of older movies are actually inferior to the originals because they forget to show not tell.

In the end, what does this really mean? Does this mean I will look down on anyone who wants more story, or who wants to create fanfiction? Of course not. There are loads of games and stories where I want more, and where I considered writing fanfiction (or did write it). However, something I have realized through my trials and tribulations as a writer is that this very state of "wanting more" is in fact a good thing. Leaving the reader loving what was there but wanting more is where you want them -- if you satisfy every last craving for information about the universe of the story, you wind up with a lot of the more modern book series that I am not as much a fan of. It cheapens them.

Some people will disagree with that assessment, and will always clamor for more, or write fanfiction. That's cool with me. Just don't expect me to add to the official cannon for AI War beyond the minimum needed to create and maintain atmosphere. And the bulk of that atmosphere, as in the 8-bit classics of yore, is created via gameplay and gameplay alone. Will every game I code be like this? No. I intend to write some very story-heavy RPGs in the future. But I'm quite proud of how this one turned out.

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