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More on Game Theory

Chris Kohler has an interview with UbiSoft’s Yannis Mallat at the Wired blog. In particular, Mallat talks about wanting to create emotional investment in games. In particular, he talks about what I referred to as “parlor tricks” — ie, reliance on cinematics to give the illusion of investment.

He seems to get it, though in specifically game-design terms, rather than in story terms, talking about “building a relationship between the game and the player.”

Here’s an idea.

Hire. Good. Writers.

Or am I out of line?

54 Responses to More on Game Theory

  1. thetathx1138

    It’d help, but honestly the way games are trending it’s getting trickier and trickier. How do you incorporate a plot into a “sandbox” game that doesn’t force it onto some form of rails? Do some genres even NEED story (witness “Guitar Hero III”)? Can the designers come up with a game that will even allow the writer to come up with a decent story in the first place?

  2. tsob

    This goes back to the long standing problem in game development, where producers see no connection between writing and profits.

    Attitude in question: artists are needed; musicians are needed; business people are needed to create a game. They all have skills that required effort to acquire and that others do not have. Anyone can write.

    This is deeply WRONG, of course, but it is the attitude.

  3. tiredfairy

    My husband is a designer and one of his major peeves is the lack of narrative integrity in a lot of games. I think a lot of people underestimate the power of a good, strong, conceptually influential story.

    Some games don’t require a story element and that’s fine…but plenty do as a major part of game play and the overall experience. BioShock is a good example, as is Knights of the Old Republic. The story is integral to gameplay and without it would ruin the experience.

    The reality is, people like stories…although they don’t always know what makes a -good- story or why it matters. I think game companies are starting to slowly make that connection, though.

  4. mercuryeric

    Or am I out of line?

    Well…yeah. “I mean, obviously, anybody can write. That’s just typing. We can hire temps for that.”

    Actual quote from a senior Microsoft Game Studios executive.

    Not even kidding.


  5. thetathx1138

    This explains the majestic plot of the Halo…OK, I can’t even finish writing that with a straight face.

  6. sweetdragon

    And that’s why I love Final Fantasy XII so much.

  7. scarcrest

    Sounds like a no-brainer to me. Of course, people in positions of power are, sadly, often no-brainers.

    I’d shell out for a video game written by you … the guys from The Wire … and maybe a handful of other people and comics and in television, even though my days of gaming are long behind me.

  8. drkscrtlv

    Starcraft is my favorite game of all time, and I found it rather well-written. I played Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed and found it pretty, but didn’t find myself emotionally involved at all. The dual-layered storyline was interesting conceptually at first, but quickly bored me.

  9. jeffrey

    It’s not even just games. Movies and television are the same way, hence the strike.

    It’s ridiculous. And maddening.

  10. thetathx1138

    I just looked at your profile. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to blanket-slag your work. :-/

  11. mercuryeric

    No worries. I just script-doctored dialogue — I take no credit nor blame for the story.

  12. thetathx1138

    Well, that eases prying my foot out of my mouth. :-)

  13. mercuryeric

    Spend some time on my blog, and you’ll soon learn I have no great love of Halo, or Bungie, as they beat that out of me.

    Fortunately, I escaped Halo 2. Blech.


  14. nealbailey

    Every single game, with the exception of Blizzard games (and are they an exception? Case to case), that I play to death has to have good writing. Few do, by my assessment. I will play a game that flat-out SUCKS in mechanics if the writing is to my liking.

    The real question is not if you’re out of line, you’re not, the real question, the sad question, is if the audience at large prefers awesome mechanics to a good story, and if that’s driving the medium backwards at times, sometimes justifiably. For instance, you’re not gonna get much story out of Mario Galaxy or Rock Band, but I see lots of kids playing them… South Park made a good point about that recently, where Stan’s dad popped out a REAL guitar and played crazy licks and they snorted derisively.

    The rift already kind of forms, like people who constantly read nothing but pop-culture non-fic biographies of Paris Hilton once every three years and the folks who consume, consume, consume, tucked in there with the game snobs.

    I see it going like books, maybe? Specializations? But either way, in an ever-broadening market, writing will have its say, I hope.

    Either way, I have some nice little game pitches tucked away for the day when the medium expands, as I believe it will. I always wanted to write a Choose Your Own Adventure as a kid, and video games are that taken to the adult level and given teeth.

  15. voiceofisaac

    Many of the games that are considered classic these days are given that rating because of the writing specifically. I’ll put forth “Star Control II” as a specific example. Great ideas, great dialogue, great flow of events (which was modular enough to give the player a lot of freedom, especially for that time period in game design)… it all clicked.

    Same game with crap writers would’ve been lost to the bowels of obscurity.

  16. thetathx1138

    Lucky you. Speaking as a gamer, I’m still confused as to why some gamers view it as the digital Christ.

  17. jjgalahad

    Using a writer to improve upon or create a story? You’re a madman, Rucka. A madman!

  18. electricvinyl

    Ditto =/

    I don’t see the big deal about Halo

  19. anuisance2you

    This is what jumped to my head pretty quickly. Then upon some thought, I figured a writer could help the experience out still. Sure, there are games that are “open environment” but ultimately require you to follow a semblance of a plot to get to the “winning” of the game (I’m thinking FF VII) and then there are games that are much more open ended like Oblivion, where you can choose how much of a story to participate in. You can either spend all of your time running around killing anything you run in to, or you can take part in a quest. Both of those types could really benefit a competent narrative, but the trick is to get it off those rails like you say. A task for someone who is competent in both plot advancement and gaming I think….

    The lame attempt at a plot in GH 3 says to me they should either abandon it altogether (Just play the songs damnit!) or get someone to write something for them. It’s annoying.

  20. parakkum

    The times I’ve played any of the Halo games, I enjoyed the fact that I have fundamentally no idea what the story is. I’m going in that direction and killing stuff. It’s like Doom, but prettier.

  21. thetathx1138

    I definitely agree a good writer is needed, if for no other reason than to find fresh soil under the well-trodden ground. The problem, I think, is that the game industry keeps associating “narrative” with “art”, and so far, that’s not working out too well.

  22. hdefined

    Greg, have you ever played the Metal Gear series? It’s right up your alley – espionage fiction. It’s extremely popular and beloved because of the story and characters, but the games are pretty amazing too.

  23. jared465

    I agree with you m’man.

    Honestly I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been playing a game and after some ungainly cut scene or lame plot twist I’ve said to myself,”What if Azzarello had wrote that scene,” or Huston, Rucka, Lansdale or whoever. Just someone who knows how to write – cause its pretty obvious that the vast majority industry can’t write for s—.

    Its funny that Mallet is in that article, too. I’ve played some of Assasins Creed and the dialogue and voice acting are just plain terrible.

  24. hdefined

    You’re kidding, right? Or did you mean FFX and the II was a typo? 12′s story was the weakest of any FF game I’ve played. The characters, with the exception of Balthier, were as dull as cardboard, and the plot was a mess. The voice acting was great, as were the graphics, but it sure didn’t make up for the most forgetable plot in the series.

  25. hdefined

    “The real question is not if you’re out of line, you’re not, the real question, the sad question, is if the audience at large prefers awesome mechanics to a good story, and if that’s driving the medium backwards at times, sometimes justifiably”

    But perhaps you forget that these are, first and foremost, GAMES. Some of the most beloved of all time remain the original Mario, Tetris, and Pacman. They’re not about story, they’re about playing a game and having fun. Story can be added to give a game depth, as can music, beautiful graphics, voice acting, extras, mini games, movie cutscenes, and so on, but a game is a game is a game.

  26. hdefined

    But it depends on what the game is trying to achieve, doesn’t it?

    Would a writer like Greg (just as an example) but suited to rewrite the script for Katamari Damacy? Should the story in Katamary Damacy make any sense – something that justifies and makes sensible a game about rolling up everything into a giant ball? Or what about Guitar Hero, does that really need a story? Or games like Advance Wars, Pikmin, Smash Bros, and Picross, where the emphasis is almost entirely on gameplay?

    If a game attempts to have a deeper story, yes, it ought to be written well. But not every game needs a well-written story, or any story at all.

  27. admin

    We’re talking about a specific sub-genre of games, for my purposes at least, as I detailed in the Very Large Rambling Post On Mass Effect, and I think that’s what Jared’s specifically referring to — story-driven games, rather than objective-driven games (for my purposes here, objective-driven being Katamari to Tempest to Pac-Man to, potentially “borderline” story games like Rolling Thunder, etc.). I don’t think anyone disagrees that good gameplay is a plus, that good game design is a delight, and that games seeking to supply only those things and then succeed in doing them well are a short-coming.

  28. admin

    I played MGS, and I frankly didn’t much care for it, though it may be the anime/manga influence, which, for some reason that I’ve never been able to articulate, turns me off. I know several people who LOVE the MG games, but they’ve just never clicked for me.

  29. sweetdragon

    How is “small kingdom seeks to overthrow evil empire” a mess? When you boil it down to that, it’s pretty much Final Fantasy II and VI but prettier.

    And how is Fran cardboard?

    I do agree that FFX has a beautiful story with excellent character development and attention to detail, but Tidus is distractedly annoying and then there’s that whole thing with his backstory that I won’t post on the off chance that someone hasn’t played it yet. I adore X, but contrary to what Tidus repeatedly says, it’s much more Yuna’s story and I wish they would have gotten into that more than just from his perspective.

    I’m not counting X-2. That was just wrong.

  30. hdefined

    If you only played the first MGS, I could understand that impression, as all the “action” in the story pretty much happened through conversation over the codec. MGS2 is a mindfreak, but give MGS3 a try sometime – it’s much more straightforward and conventional, as far as this series goes, and explores themes of loyalty to comrades and country.

  31. hdefined

    “How is “small kingdom seeks to overthrow evil empire” a mess? When you boil it down to that, it’s pretty much Final Fantasy II and VI but prettier.”

    Because the plot pretty much WAS boiled down, rather than explored in such detail the way Spira was in FFX. Granted, XII shouldn’t have to be like FFX, but it was a startlingly shallow story compared with what we’ve come to expect from the series.

    “And how is Fran cardboard?”

    Aside from being exiled from her race, she barely exhibited a hint of a personality other than “cold and stoic.” I loved her accent, but she had about as much personality as Khimari.

    “Tidus is distractedly annoying”

    I think that comes down to the voice acting more than the script. Not that the script was necessarily amazing, but the voice actor for Wakka did a great job making the character complex and believable, and the Tidus voice actor simply wasn’t as convincing.

    “I’m not counting X-2. That was just wrong.”

    Why? Did you play it? I really enjoyed that game. It was able to poke fun at the mythos while developing all the intricacies of Spira that had been established in the first game. It wasn’t as good as FFX, but it was good in its own right.

  32. hdefined

    I don’t think anyone would disagree that a story-driven game needs to be well-written (see the Xenosaga series, ugh). But it gets confusing when you look at series like Devil May Cry and Castlevania, which are primarily action games but spend a good amount of time on story and dialogue, which are both usually horrendous and uninspired. Sure, they could be better, but with the limited focus placed on them, would a winning Castlevania story be all that memorable when 90% of the experience is fighting monsters and bosses? What I’m saying is, is it worth putting more effort into the writing of games wthat feature a significant amount of story which only makes up a small percentage of the game?

    But then, I fondly remember the story of Ninja Gaiden 2 from the NES. But then, that was one of the first series to feature cutscenes, and the music was outstanding.

  33. nealbailey

    I’m loathe to pigeon-hole it that much. For instance, a book is a game if you decide to read every other page. You’re trying to figure out the puzzle. But that’s still… questionable.

    I’d say it’s in both classes, but neither mutually exclusive.

  34. hdefined

    We’re not at the point yet where games are all avant garde and don’t need to even offer an interactive or traditional gaming experience. We’re getting there, but not yet. These are for the most part commercial products that seek first and foremost to be entertaining. Tetris doesn’t need a story.

  35. hdefined

    Moreover, games that are panned or reviewed poorly are always done so because the game either isn’t fun or is buggy mechanically. If story was more important, people wouldn’t complain that cameras are glitchy (the first Kingdom Hearts), that the button combinations are juvenile (Indigo Prophecy), that the controls and goals aren’t intuitive (Killer 7), or that the games are just boring and uninspired (90% of the Grand Theft Auto clones).

  36. brannonb

    Hire. Good. Writers.
    Or am I out of line?

    Only a little.

    It’s not only a matter of hiring good writers. It’s also important to hire the right kind of writers.

    Game company managers/execs have heard that what gamers want is “great stories and characters.” Everyone in their focus groups says so.

    Companies like Bioware and Blizzard have created really viable writing models with fantastic economic payoffs. You have to get the right people, you have to bring them in house, and you have to put a Lead Writer in a position equal to the Programming, Art, and Design leads, so that your story doesn’t get created by committee.

    I can think of three reasons off the top of my head why game companies are not willing to do this.

    First there’s the money. Another lead, and extra team members whose contribution is “writing,” which seems nebulous to management. Doesn’t everyone write? As Trautmann pointed out, the attitude is still sometimes: “That’s just typing. We can hire temps for that.”

    Second is the issue of creative power. Everybody thinks they should have a say in the story and the characters, especially management. Finally everyone has to go along with their vision of the story. I would go as far as to say that the reason many of these guys claw their way up to Lead is because they desperately want to be in charge of the story, and that’s the only way to get creative control in this industry. Giving up that control of the story to someone else, even someone more qualified, is hard for them.

    Third, there’s my pet peeve: Hollywood. Many game companies would rather bring in a high profile writer, or take the chance to hobnob with someone famous, than get a writer who can come in and actually meet the needs of the game. Most often these TV/Film folks are short-term consultants who deliver a small amount of material and cost a lot. That’s not to disparage the skill of the writers; it’s simply that the TV and film model (come in, write a treatment or a draft, get paid) does not fit the needs of a video game (write and iterate a half-million words over 2-3 years).

    And I guess that seems like enough to say in a comment. Maybe I should have taken this to my own blog :-)

  37. brannonb

    Writing is the difference between ten-thousand shitty action films, and Die Hard or Lethal Weapon. Spending 90% of the time shooting stuff doesn’t make the writing less important. When it’s there, it makes a huge difference.

    Writing can also improve any game experience. Look at Portal, which is a puzzle game that needs nothing more than instructional text to fulfill its purpose, yet is elevated to an outstanding level of experience because it has such excellent writing.

  38. hdefined

    Portal’s writing is great, but you can’t deny that the gameplay is unlike anything else anyone’s ever produced, and I think that’s got a bit of an edge.

    “Spending 90% of the time shooting stuff doesn’t make the writing less important. When it’s there, it makes a huge difference.”

    I agree, and I totally disagree.

    Good writing is always, always welcome.

    But why do so many people buy and play Halo repeatedly? I hate to tell you, but they’re not buying it for the story and single-player game.

    Writing means NOTHING if your game doesn’t interest people enough to buy them and thrill them enough to keep them coming back.

  39. hdefined

    Let me try that last line again:

    Writing means NOTHING if your game doesn’t interest people enough to buy IT and thrill them enough to keep them coming back.

    I mean, did the 8 and 16-bit eras of gaming thrive based on strong writing in gaming? Is that why there’ve been 30 different Mega Man games, 20 different Castlevanias, and endless Mario spin-offs – because of the writing? You’d be fooling yourself to think so.

  40. brannonb

    But why do so many people buy and play Halo repeatedly? I hate to tell you, but they’re not buying it for the story and single-player game.

    While that is not entirely untrue, I do feel (admittedly perhaps out of hubris), that the game would not have been as successful if it had been multi-player only. Or to put it another way, “You should have seen the dialog before we did the rewrites.”

  41. hdefined

    How about this one: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic has seen sales and reviews similar to those of Lego Star Wars II (I’m going with that because, of the two, it’s the better and more popular, like Knights 1 is to Knights 2). Knights has 50 or so hours of dialogue, and Lego II has no dialogue.

    Still think story makes that much difference?

  42. brannonb

    Still think story makes that much difference?

    I do. LEGO Star Wars has an enormous amount of writing in it, even with no dialog. Have you never been moved or entertained by a portion of a film that had no dialog? That scene still had to be written.

    So did Lego Star Wars.

    That’s not to say that the quality of writing doesn’t have a far greater effect on a game like KotOR than a game like LEGO SW. However, I do not agree that the quality of the writing “makes no difference” in LEGO SW.

    But like I said, I’m biased in favor of making a living.

  43. admin

    I am looking forward to actually meeting you in person one day. speaks of you in glowing terms (which, y’know, for him is a big deal).

    Item #3 on your list…I’ve experienced that second-hand, I suppose, and yeah, it’s pretty depressing. I think it’s as much an issue of the medium struggling for legitimacy (you see the exact damn thing in comics, after all) and the self-loathing that comes from being in a “bastardized” or “unrecognized” art form as it is the, pardon my French, eternal urge to star fuck.

    Item #2 is another one I absolutely agree with, and therein lies the problem. To paraphrase Harlan Ellison, not everyone can write, even though just about everyone seems to think they can. More and more I’m seeing fundamental storytelling mistakes, mistakes that, honestly, could be easily avoided if producers simply brought in a story editor or someone to consult. It’s depressing as hell to me.

    As I’ve said before, my interest in this is fairly narrow — I recognize good scripting as much as good writing, but I’m still chasing that holy grail; I want an interactive RPG experience that is moving and, yes, cathartic. I believe that it can be done, and that the technology and even the will exists, right now, to do it; what I think is missing is the marriage between those who understand how to build a good game, and those who understand what is required to make a story work.

    And, uh…link to your blog, please, here, y’know, so everyone can see it.

  44. sweetdragon

  45. jared465

    no disagreement here!

  46. hdefined

    Not quite as “retarded” or rude as resorting to insulting someone you disagree with, but it does help illustrate your choice between discussion and mudslinging.

  47. hdefined

    True, it had writing of a different sort, but I think there’s a clear difference in the amount of writing and effort that went into one versus the other. And yet gamers have been satisfied by both experiences regardless.

    Okay, got a couple more examples:

    The Earthworm Jim series on the 16-bit days. Loved the humor, enjoyed the games. I rented Earthworm Jim 64 when it came out. There was much more writing, as it was a larger game, and I found it pretty funny, almost consistent with the earlier titles – but the game was bland and a chore to play and I stopped halfway.

    Second example: In an above discussion, I agreed with someone else that FFX had a great story. However, I felt that the dialogue and characters of FFX-2 were stronger (more playful and thus took more liberties) while consistently building on themes, locations, and situations established in the first game – but this game has been panned by a large crowd simply for deviating far from expectations. Whereas FF fans are drawn primarily by the stories and characters, so many have been unwilling to give this game a chance.

  48. alexg119

    This is in poor taste.

  49. insektmute

    Good writing for something as large in scale as a video game takes time that most developers just don’t have. They have to deliver weekly/monthly milestone builds to the publisher just to keep themselves in business. Toss in that they’ve given the rights to the IP over to that publisher, and any effort to stand up for themselves could easily see their company fired in favor of one that works cheaper, faster, and without complaint.

    Just look at Knights of the Old Republic II. Better writers would’ve probably just meant that even more parts of the story were cut.

  50. insektmute

    Seconded. As far as I’m concerned, MGS3 is probably the best of the bunch and the anime bits are pretty much absent. There’s a bit of a 60′s Bond vibe to some parts of it too, but it’s charming and rarely to the point of pastiche.

  51. mercuryeric


  52. zachary_cole

    You know what game has a wonderful story? “Indigo Prophecy”.

  53. hdefined

    I liked it better when it was called “The Matrix.”

  54. jjgalahad

    Hey, Greg, I thought you might be interested in this a fascinating article on the writer of Bioshock‘s in-game application of Ayn Rand’s philosophies.

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