PROVO -- A lot has changed in video games over the last 30 years — largely for the better. Gameplay's more exciting, hardware's more capable, visuals are more engaging, and even controllers have improved.
But if there's one area in which games are still lacking, it's predictable story lines and amateur dialogue. You know the routine; aliens take over the world, and it's your job to take 'em out with giant mechs in expected fashion, as forced expletives plague the sometimes predictable experience.
"On a scale of 1-10, I would give the evolution of video game stories a four," says producer Peter Wanat. "We have a few great ones, but for the most part, we are not even middle of the road."
On a scale of 1-10, I would give the evolution of video game stories a four. We have a few great ones, but for the most part, we are not even middle of the road.
The once fledgling video game industry with its minuscule budgets forced early game makers to wear several different hats, including storytelling ones, even if they didn't have prior experience. "When video games began, particularly on the PC, they were made by one-, two-, and three-person teams," says game consultant N'Gai Croal, a vocal proponent against amateur game dialogue. "Very few of these people had professional writing experience."
It worked for the most part then, because games only told text-based stories, letting players fill in the creative gaps. "Back in the day all you needed was a good script and that was the game," says Wanat. But as video games became more cinematic, writing and dialogue couldn't keep up, due to the absence of legitimate storytellers.
Not all games require stories, however (e.g. puzzle games). "I think story lines are important to games, but unlike film, TV, and movies, it's far from the most important element," adds Wanat. "If you don't have gameplay than just pack it in — it doesn't matter how good the story is."
So video games don't necessarily need a plot, only enjoyment. That being the case, stories and dialogue can quickly take a back seat to gameplay should development difficulties arise.
What can be done to better the quality of story lines and dialogue then? The simple answer would be to bring a bunch of Hollywood writers into the fold. But delivering believable stories in video games is far more complex than doing so on the big screen, as interactivity and the player's ability to control cadence pose significant challenges.
"To improve the state of storytelling in video games, we need screenwriters who are well-versed in video games, and video game makers who are well-versed in writing," resolves Croal. "Writing a good script isn't easy, and I don't think most people in the industry have enough experience."
So it might be that we need a whole new generation of professionals to be raised before seeing significant change.
Further frustrating a solution is that the industry may not be in a position to afford top writing talent, this despite being a billion dollar business. "Writing for games takes a long time and doesn't pay well in comparison to other avenues for that level of talent," maintains Wanat. "And it's harder now with all the moving parts of games to pull it off."
Writing for games takes a long time and doesn't pay well in comparison to other avenues for that level of talent. And it's harder now with all the moving parts of games to pull it off.
Ultimately, though, the responsibility to ensure quality story lines, dialogue, and voice talent rests squarely on the shoulders of producers. "It's the job of producer at a publisher to say, 'No, that's not good enough,'" says Wanat. "Every time you get a bad developer-created story line, you can point to a producer at the publisher who should have put his foot down."
Croal, who has a background in off-Broadway theatre, echoes the same sentiment: "We need producers who are knowledgeable in these areas, and who can demand excellence in storytelling from their creative teams."
The same applies for top-level executives and everyone else within a given organization. Then, and only then, will we start to see considerable improvement. "As persistence works its way into console gaming, I think you will see reformation," affirms Wanat. "Games will get deeper."
In fact they already have. Take the recent Uncharted series, for example, praised for its Raiders of the Lost Ark-like story and believable voice acting. Still, for every Uncharted there are multiples of cringe-inducing games.
And nothing will change, of course, unless gamers themselves demand better dialogue and story lines when purchasing games. "For all of my criticism of the dialogue in Gears of War, it's still a runaway success," concludes Croal. "Which means in the marketplace, the developer was far more right than I was."
About the author: Blake Snow is a freelance writer, media specialist, and casual gamer from Provo. Contact information and other published works are available at his website: blakesnow.com. This article first appeared in Next-Generation.