What's Your Line?

Rhianna Pratchett

Rhianna Pratchett, game writer

The former game critic and Overlord writer talks about transitioning to the other side of the fence, the evolving process of game stories, and her dreams of becoming a mermaid.

By Anthony John Agnello • June 21, 2012

We often use vague catchall words to describe careers in gaming: developer, designer, producer. But those words don’t tell much of a story. What’s Your Line? is an interview series designed to demystify the people who make their living in games.

Rhianna Pratchett started her writing career as a journalist at outlets like PC Magazine and Minx, but in the last decade, she made the jump to writing the games themselves, with titles like Mirror’s Edge, Heavenly Sword, and the Overlord series. These days she’s a Jack Of All Writing Trades, working on original films like Vigilia and screenplay adaptations of novels like Janet Paisley’s Warrior Daughter, while she continues to work as story creator and fixer in the games industry.

The Gameological Society: What’s the process for writing a video game? How does it start?

Rhianna Pratchett: It depends on when you’re brought on. If it’s early, then you might be doing things like fleshing out existing ideas, creating a narrative structure, world-bible, character bios—and helping dovetail gameplay and narrative. All that can happen before you’ve written a word of script. If you come in later, then you may well be expected to create a narrative around existing designs and levels, which may or may not have been created with narrative in mind. It’s a completely backwards way of working. If you come in very late, then all you might be doing is polishing up an existing script as best you can. I call this being a “narrative paramedic.” It’s so common that I even had a badge made with it on for fellow game writers. I also have a “story robot” one. Yeah, those two phrases pretty much sum up what it can be like sometimes.

The Gameological Society: How did you come to writing? Was writing always the plan even when you were a kid?

Pratchett: I resisted it for a while. I wanted to be a mermaid. If my parents had managed to find a rubber tail in the depths of rural Somerset, then things could have turned out very differently.

Gameological: How did working as a journalist change between when you started at Minx and when you started working primarily as a for-hire story doctor?

We don’t have enough experienced storytellers calling the shots in the industry.

Pratchett: It’s definitely got tougher. The pay rate nose-dived—and it was never that great in the first place—and competition rose. However, people started looking for more angles and consequently, coverage of subjects like narrative design and character creation increased. There was also more introspection about the ethics of games journalism and the responsibilities writers have towards players and developers. Every time I go onsite with a developer, a tiny part of me still feels like I’m on a press trip. I keep expecting to be ushered away to a small room away from the rest of the team and get talked at for hours on end. Actually, that pretty much still happens.

Gameological: How has the process of writing video games changed since you first entered the industry?

Pratchett: Companies are using professional writers a lot more. They aren’t always using them well, but that’s all part of the learning experience. I’ve had the opportunity to work with some hugely talented developers, and have had good experiences and bad, but I’m acutely aware of how the majority of writers get treated in the industry. For every one good story from the trenches, you’ll hear more than a dozen horrific, soul-crushing stories. Sometimes it feels that we took one step forward and two steps back.

I remember reading an interview with Chuck Beaver, Dead Space’s story producer. He was hammering Gears Of War for its writing, but also admitted that Dead Space could’ve done better too. He said: “We knew so little about story back then and overruled our writers on a lot.” I kept thinking, you’re a “story producer” and yet you allowed your writers to be constantly overruled? Well that’s probably where you went wrong, then!

There isn’t a great deal of understanding about what writers actually do, how they do it, and why. At the moment, we don’t have enough experienced storytellers calling the shots in the industry. Consequently, our narrative literacy is still low. Writers are treated as typists of other people’s ideas, rather than professionals with a specific set of skills, gained over many years of living and breathing stories. In fairness, this is a two-way street, and writers themselves need to be more proactive about the best way to utilize their skills and experience. They need to be prepared to fight for the space and agency they need to do their job.

Overlord II

Overlord II

Gameological: How flexible are game makers when it comes to changing a story? Novels can change dramatically halfway through writing or even during the editing process.

Story is always the first casualty.

Pratchett: Games narrative has a very long feedback loop. It takes time to craft a story, write it, record it, animate it, and get it placed in a game. That means by the time you get feedback that something isn’t working properly, it can be too late to do anything about it. Game writing, like any other part of development, should be iterative. Writing is rewriting. Developers are only too happy to hack away at a story, cutting out scenes, characters, and some times whole levels. But this has nothing to do with being flexible about the story and everything to do with the rigors of game development. Story is always the first casualty.

Gameological: What games tell good stories?

Pratchett: I enjoyed the Thief games, Planescape Torment, The Longest Journey, the Bioshocks, Psychonauts, and, most recently, Deus Ex: Human Revolution. All of them were great at creating a narrative world, as well as a strong central storyline. That’s what makes games good storytelling, or story-experiencing, vehicles. Sorry, I know that sounds like wanky-speak, but it’s true.

Gameological: Should every game tell a story?

Pratchett: Not every game needs a story. Tetris did just fine without one. But if a game has any kind of narrative, then getting a professional to handle it should be a standard part of the process, just as professionals are used to handle all other aspects of game development. Otherwise, it’s a bit like getting your vending machine repairman to do your programming.

Gameological: How were your experiences working with Ninja Theory on Heavenly Sword, DICE on Mirror’s Edge, and Triumph on Overlord different?

Pratchett: Game projects are like relationships: There are some which leave you warm and fuzzy while others you’d like to burn from your memory. The Ninja Theory guys were very committed to storytelling, which was wonderful. Also, the company was young enough at the time to not be too bashed about by the industry. DICE was an experienced gameplay studio but much less so when it came to narrative. That meant that much of Mirror’s Edge was designed before the narrative was thought about, which made it a very challenging project. Triumph has definitely been my favorite developer to work with. They gave me a lot of space, agency and trust, and I think that came through in the Overlord games. I had a lot of fun on those projects.

Mirror's Edge

Mirror’s Edge

Gameological: It’s been years now since the Mirror’s Edge debacle, when EA cut out huge swaths of the dialogue and character work you’d done on the game. Would you work with EA again?

Pratchett: A debacle? I’d say it was more of a kerfuffle. I don’t think the narrative in Mirror’s Edge turned out the way anyone wanted. I was brought in late, which was severely limiting and then all the in-level dialogue was cut right at the end of the project, without my involvement. I also never saw any of the animations for the cutscenes, so I was as surprised as players were by the style. I chose to talk a little bit about the process, because I don’t think you ever change things by staying quiet. All I can say is that everyone learned from the experience and has gone on to do things in a better, smarter way, including myself. But somehow I doubt I’m on EA’s Christmas card list.

Gameological: Speaking of EA, there was a storm of Internet rage back in March over the way Mass Effect 3 ended, with people filing lawsuits against them for falsely advertising how personalized the story would be. Weirdly, EA and BioWare caved after the freak out and agreed to release expanded endings. What rights to a story do readers have? What responsibilities do authors have to readers?

Pratchett: It’s amazing that we have a medium where it’s even possible to do this. I don’t really think authors do have a responsibility towards readers, aside from just telling a good tale. And even that is incredibly subjective. However, when you create a world which spans three games and hundreds of hours of gameplay, then yes, you probably do have a responsibility to maintain the narrative logic of that world. Whether that responsibility should include actually altering your initial narrative vision, I don’t know. If it makes fans happy, then I guess it’s all good. But personally, from a creative standpoint, I hope it doesn’t become a trend!

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  • blue vodka lemonade

    Cher?

    I mildly enjoyed the writing in Mirror’s Edge, though I never finished it because it came from the library, and ashes to ashes, stacks to stacks and all that.

    Once in a while I entertain the idea of trying to get into writing for video games, hoping that by the time I’m out of school (which is looking like 2016, at this point) there will be a bigger niche for story-driven crap as opposed to other crap. It’s good to hear that some developers care about story and really let that part of the work do what it needs to, though much less encouraging to hear that that’s more of an exception, when it happens, than the rule.

    I actually kinda like the idea of writing a story to fit pre-designed gameplay, in the same way I’ve found I write faster and more coherently when given specific prompts or elements I need to include. It seems like it would be terribly frustrating 80% of the time, but potentially creatively freeing.

    • KidvanDanzig

      Honestly if you’re pitching yourself solely as a writer you’ll have a really rough time of it. Learn to code, become a good designer of level layout / quest progression, get into QA, anything else. And then, when you’re done presenting those skills to a prospective employer, say “oh and I’m a writer, too”. Nobody’s looking for an in-house “writer” in the style of, say, the NYT’s in-house ethicist. Most people who do the heavy lifting of the writing are going to be responsible for other things.

      When you get someone like Valve putting an economist on retainer or whatever, it’s more them showing off how big their cash-dick is than anything having to do with actual game development.

      • blue vodka lemonade

         I was actually thinking of an even stupider route than trying to Be A Game Writer, and that was to be a Real Writer and then offer “subtle hints” that I’d be interested in writing a game.

        IRL I’m probably going to teach elementary school. BUT THE DREAM-!

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          Always live the dream, buddy. But whatever you do, stay out of grad school!

        • Aaron Riccio

          Or, hey, write a video game about the perils of being a Real Writer and the difficulties in Pitching said game. Metafiction’s all the rage right now: perfect time to get that into a video game, and no, I’m not talking about Bastion-like narratives.

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

          Just remember that, contrary to our default capitalist ethos, what you do for money does not equal who you are or what your vocation in life is.

          Even if you don’t end up living “the dream” in some professional capacity as a writer for a big games company, don’t let that stop you from continuing your personal practice as a writer (if you find it fulfilling, I mean), or from exploring game narrative in that personal practice. You could even pick up Inform programming (which has reportedly become much more user-friendly recently) and join the ranks of lauded independent Interactive Fiction folks who all pretty much work on their own time. (And Emily Short seems to have turned that into a professional career, doing the lecture circuit and working as a narrative consultant on various projects). Or engage with indie developers, who seem a little less steeped in bureaucracy, and may care a bit more about narrative (unless they’re ludic purists or something). Maybe become an indie developer, and interrupt the endless parade of bespectacled white boys that seem to comprise that community.

          In any case, though, if you do become a schoolteacher, don’t view it as a consolation prize or a dream deferred. The last thing we need are more teachers who don’t actually care about being teachers (or who resent being teachers). It’s not really fair to the kids. Remember that as a creative person, your creativity can really inform your teaching practice, and your teaching can really inform your creative practice. You can frame your job as something that energizes you, not something you have to divert energy toward.

        • JudgeReinhold

          @Merve2:disqus Agreed. Unless you’re going to be a professor, which is a sweet gig. Six figures (well, if you picked the right field) and summers off. 

          Although elementary school teaching will at least get you the summers off. And six figures if you’re counting the two figures after the decimal. 

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          @JudgeReinhold:disqus: For the record, I am a grad student, so I was semi-joking. But I want to be a professor, so I’ll eventually/hopefully be living the dream!

        • JudgeReinhold

          @Merve2:disqus I already have my Master’s, so I was also semi-joking. I haven’t yet been lured into the ivory tower of academia, though. 

        • blue vodka lemonade

           @bakana42:disqus Teaching isn’t a “consolation prize,” it’s something I want to do. Writing is something I like doing, have been doing for a majority of my time alive, and will do whether or not I get dollars from it.

        • lylebot

          Professor here.  Professors who get six figures don’t get summers off, unless they’re senior and in high-paying fields like engineering.  Professors who get six figures work all summer on research (and pay their own salaries out of their research grants), and even that is low six figures for high-paying fields.  It’s a *lot* of work.  And there is a *lot* of competition.  It takes a lot of luck and a lot of hard work to make six figures being a professor.

      • http://twitter.com/kurtmschiller Kurt Schiller

        I agree insofar as we’re talking about creating an overarching story and setting, since yeah, a lot of that tends to be done by people with other roles as well. But on the other hand, companies absolutely do have in-house writers who deal in dialog, flavor text, and so on. But it’s less “Create an overarching narrative that seamless blends high adventure and fantasy!” and more “Write 30 things a vendor will say when you buy a sword.”

        • HobbesMkii

          “Write 30 things a vendor will say when you buy a sword” should be a Gameological contest.

        • http://www.onelinetaxcode.com/ root (1ltc)

          01) Thank you!
          02) A fine choice.
          03) I was hoping you would get that.
          04) Long and shiny – just how you like it.
          05) Good! My children can eat tonight!
          06) Don’t forget to equip it. (tutorial pop-up prompt)
          07) I hope you kill many monsters with that!
          08) Well, you asked for it. (if weaker sword is purchased)
          09) Hot off the anvil!
          10) Test the grip on that.
          11) For a few bits more I can monogram that for you.
          12) There’s a million more where that came from. Literally.
          13) Hold it from the hilt, not the blade.
          14) You’ll have to clean the blood off of it yourself.
          15) Don’t bring this to a gunfight.
          16) You like murder and I like money. We all win!
          17) Some of my better handiwork, if I say so myself.
          18) Your purchase pleases me.
          19) No scabbard? Why don’t any of you want to buy a scabbard with these?
          20) How does it feel in your hands? Good? Now try the sword.
          21) I’m glad you’ll use my craft in the name of justice. … you are fighting for justice, right?
          22) No common infantry sword for you, eh?
          23) No shoes? No shirt? I guess you have priorities.
          24) Give ‘em a short, sharp shock. Dig it?
          25) You’ll definitely assert your manhood with that!
          26) I threw in the sharpening for free.
          27) Now you’re wielding something powerful! Uh.. with the sword, yes.
          28) Normally I’d say “don’t get yourself killed”, but you always seem to resurrect. Are you mortal? 
          29) The King has ordered me to stop making phallic jokes, so I’ll just say thanks.
          30) Did you ever have the feeling of deja vu? It seems like we’ve done this before.

        • Mike Ferraro

          #06 and #08 are feature requests, and create an odd exception.  For example if we implement #08, then “buy a weaker sword” will have zero variety, he will always says the same thing.  If only #06 has a tutorial prompt, then there’s a 1/30 chance of getting the tutorial?  Or you want to make a logic exception to always show #06 first and then never again?
          Goddamn game writers.

      • mad

        I have no idea how any of you can think that engineering professors “take summers off.” I’ve been part of academia now for a decade (in engineering and the sciences, for the most part) and have yet to see a single professor take the summer off. Rather, summers are the busiest time for research given that there is no teaching (for the most part) and the professor must pay his/her own salary from grants.

        I’ll say this: it ain’t a “cushy” or easy life at all.

  • HobbesMkii

    Sweet! Rhianna Pratchett. I adored Overlord‘s story, and have been a fan since.

    She didn’t come down really hard either way on the Mass Effect thing, but she did imply it might be a bad precedent. I disagree, even as a writer (albeit an amateur). If “narrative vision” was sacrosanct from the beginning of the process to the end, that would be one thing. But she’s just given an interview about how terribly story is treated by the industry. I think if that’s the way you treat your story, then you have an obligation to change it should the community come back with a “Hey, you know that ending was crap, right?” Because with videogames, you can change it. You can’t necessarily do that with books or movies (I recognize there are “alternate endings” for many films, but those have all been shot at the time of production, so I don’t necessarily consider that the same as changing). But you can (and most developers will) patch a game. If the gameplay was busted, the developers would change it. But if the story is busted, changing that is crossing the line? Good grief.

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

      That might be true in some cases, but I don’t know if it applies to the Mass Effect games, which were designed with story in mind.

      Then again, I’m speaking as someone who has taken a pretty hard stance on the ME3 ending controversy. The bottom line is this: I paid forty bucks to see what Mass Effect 3 had to say, not what the Internet thought it should have said.

      • Staggering Stew Bum

        The internet did however come up with the (spoiler maybe?) Indoctrination Theory, which has some convincing aspects.

        And I paid eighty bucks. New games are a rip off in Australia.

      • dreadguacamole

         The outrage over the ending sucking, I don’t get. Writers fail, the ending is kind of shit; it happens. I guess it was half arsed, but then again, so was the entirety of Dragon Age 2; I’m just happy we got 95% of a great story.

         However, what I did get pissed off was at the multiplayer integration into singleplayer content, which is a terrible precedent (you don’t get to see the whole ending unless you grind our multiplayer mode -or these apps). And that went completely ignored.

        • SaoirseRonanTheAccuser

          I actually think the STORY in Dragon Age 2 was fantastic – possibly BioWare’s best (perhaps since Jade Empire) and certainly its most ambitious.  The problem was that the game just flat-out wasn’t fun to play.  The gameplay was bad, the dungeons were copy-pasted from a total of TWO templates, the city had a total of 5 locations, the encounters were meaningless – there just wasn’t any depth to it.

          But the focus of the plot was actually fascinating.  Until the last 5-10 minutes of the story, BioWare actually created a pretty damn ambitious game, focusing more on politics and trying to make this one city and its outlying areas feel like a natural whole.  But they rushed the game to get it out by a certain date, so they ended up with a game that both broke the BioWare Story Formula (TM) AND was crap to play… and, unfortunately, a lot of people conflated the two problems.

        • reason49

           I do feel like Dragon 2 was a wildly mixed bag.  Like SaoirseRonanTheAccuser, I thought the story was good.  The problem was the pacing and execution.  When the story got really interesting, it was already over.

        • dreadguacamole

           @SaoirseRonanTheAccuser:disqus: I wish I could agree with you. I want to agree with you. At several points while playing Dragon Age 2, I agreed with you wholeheartedly.
           Dragon Age 2 had some fantastic ideas in it. Limiting the locations to a city and its environs, the relatively small, personal scope of the story, its episodic nature and the tone it maintains through much of its run – everything you mention in your post – these things I love, along with many vignettes and story threads. I really respect what they were going for, and it often felt like they were getting away with murder in this time of bloated blockbuster-wannabes.
           There’s a problem, though: Due to deadlines, lack of resources, the authors’ limitations, whatever, the whole thing completely falls apart in the third act (as opposed to Mass Effect 3, which only really falls apart in the last scene for me). The whole experience is revealed to be a hollow, fumbling mess, most choices meaningless and their results arbitrary, and the writing goes downhill – all of this before the ending itself, which I’d argue is much worse and more insulting than the one on Mass Effect 3.

           I was ready to forgive a ton of narrative problems with the game (and it has *tons*, all the way throughout) – but I felt the game had no overall vision, no satisfying sense of itself, if that makes sense.

           TL;DR – Maybe half-assed is not the right term, but making the game in under a year, with most resources dedicated to Mass Effect and The Old Republic – DA2 always felt to me like it was a game driven by its writers taking advantage of the reduced supervision, who either bit off more than they could chew on or weren’t supported properly by the business side of things. In the end, whatever it was, I found the resulting story to be an unsatisfying mess that didn’t even remotely live up to its potential. And then there’s its gameplay, which, as you say, is almost inexcusably bad.

           Anyhow- I kind of feel bad hating on something that got a few things so very, very right, so I’m glad you liked it enough to defend it!

        • HobbesMkii

           @SaoirseRonanTheAccuser:disqus I half-agree. I thought the story was pretty good–until the end, where your options for choosing sides don’t really make a whole lot of sense, if you haven’t spent the whole game always agreeing with just one of the two major factions. Then you’re sort of like “well, my Hawke wouldn’t have made that choice…”

        • SaoirseRonanTheAccuser

          Oh, I agree: the ending is very, very seriously flawed, and the random, unnecessary push for a big Boss fight completely destroyed any narrative momentum or novelty it had had.  That said, I don’t think the whole third act is flawed, just the last half of it.

          I do actually agree that it didn’t have a really coherent sense of itself – the three ‘ages’ you play through feel like three smaller games that were tacked together.  A good ending would have cemented them all, thematically, and given the world a larger feel.  A bad ending (like what we got) just caused things to fall apart.  I still hold that it was 75% there – and that 75% was more narratively ambitious than the vast majority of games I’ve played in the last year or two – but the 25% that wasn’t there really drags things down and, yes, makes it feel hollow.  There’s a reason I’ve replayed DA: Origins five or six times all the way through, and only sporadically revisited DA2.

          The gameplay is its biggest problem, but not its only problem.  However, I feel about it the same way I do about Mirror’s Edge – disappointed that one or two relatively simple-to-fix problems ultimately drag down an innovative, neat game and really frighten developers off doing the Same Old Thing over and over and over again.  I’d rather have 10 ambitious failures than 10 more Halo/Gears of War/Call of Duty clones/sequels/reboots.

          It’s not a good game, by any means, but it is a game that suggests something different and potentially interesting – and something that can be improved upon.

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          @dreadguacamole:disqus: I can confirm from personal experience that you don’t need the multiplayer or the Facebook/iOS apps to get the “best” ending in the ME3 single-player. I will admit, though, that doing so is difficult (i.e. you can only screw up three or four side quests max throughout the entire trilogy).

          @SaoirseRonanTheAccuser:disqus: “It’s not a good game, by any means, but it is a game that suggests
          something different and potentially interesting – and something that can be improved upon.”

          That’s exactly why I want to see a sequel to L.A. Noire.

        • Captain_Internet

          My main problem is that the more Mass Effect you’ve played, the more problems you’re going to have with the ending. 

          If you’ve just played the third game, it’s just a bit rubbish. If you’ve played all three, and you’ve played the DLC, and you’ve done everything you can to be the best and nicest Shepard you can be, parts of it go from ‘a bit rubbish’ to ‘complete bullshit seemingly designed to make you unhappy’. 

          And good luck explaining why that is to the Internet in general.

        • Fluka

          @Merve2:disqus  I think there’s been a ton of confusion over what qualifies as the “best” ending.  (Spoilers naturally.)  If you call being able to choose any of the final three options the “best ending,” then it can be done with absolutely no MP and far from a perfect 3-game run.  I didn’t once touch the MP, and pretty much ignored its existence, and I easily got to that place, as did my husband (despite screwing up the Geth-Quarian peace the first time).  On the other hand, you *will* likely need MP or a perfect game or one of the iOS apps if you call the “best ending” a very tiny cutscene with a hint of Shepard breathing, which you *still* only get if you choose one of three options (genocide!).  No indoctrination theory plz.
          Given that the MP is pretty much otherwise unnecessary, and many people seem to have enjoyed the whole business quite a bit, the objection seems more philosophical and abstract than anything else.  Which I can also see as being valid, since it sets a precedent for *actually* inseparable MP content in the future.  Which, speaking as someone who hates human beings, is scary.  But it didn’t impact my love of the game.

        • Fluka

          @SaoirseRonanTheAccuser:disqus I’m one of those people who recognizes there are major flaws with Dragon Age 2 (largely due to its likely being quite rushed) and yet still wholeheartedly enjoyed it, mostly due to the characters and the story/location’s departure from the usual fantasy Epic Quest template.  Hell, we’ve had all these conversations about how the representation of women in games sucks this past week.  I can at least always point back to Aveline as a character which actually gets things right (seriously, these things make a huge difference).  I loved DA:O, but DA2 felt a lot more *interesting* than the first game, even with the reused fight settings, the oddly spawning enemies, and the somewhat questionable ending (though, like ME3, I very much like the idea that the player sometimes has to choose between several capital-P Problematic options).  My fear is that with all of the internet hate machine backlash towards BioWare recently, many of the good things from DA2 and ME3 are going to get tossed out in the next games…  Games, books, movies, etc. are a lot more fun if you give them room to fail and piss people off in interesting ways.

        • dreadguacamole

           @Merve2:disqus Playing all three games without “fucking” any sidequest up… excuse me if I don’t think that cuts it : )

          @Fluka:disqus It’s definitely a principle-based stance. The fact that it’s mostly inconsequential and that it affects a shoddily made ending doesn’t alter the fact that it feels like Bioware are testing the waters for a business practice I seriously hope never takes off.

          @Captain_Internet:disqus But having played previous Mass Effects always had an adverse effect on playing the sequels. If you haven’t played Mass Effect 1, 2 would seem like the best story ever; if you did play the first one, and imported your character, then you’re wondering why the hell you’re working with Cerberus when you not only saw their atrocities first-hand, but potentially had a whole background where they engineered your major trauma that defines what you are.
           It gets patched over with a few disgruntled quips… great.

      • JudgeReinhold

        I haven’t played Mass Effect at all yet, although I own ME2. Why is the ending so disappointing? I don’t give a shit about spoilers, I might never get to play the game anyway. 

        I am amused that internet outrage caused them to redo endings, because that certainly didn’t happen with Lost. Poor Lindeloff can’t get through a single interview anymore without having to justify that thing. 

        • SaoirseRonanTheAccuser

          Spoilers

          The ending was disappointing because it was almost nonexistent – basically, you get to the very end, and you are given three choices.  Walk into the green light, walk into the red light or walk into the blue light.  One destroys the Reapers and the Mass Relays, stranding the whole Galaxy on Earth.  One makes organic and synthetic organisms merge and destroys the Mass Relays, stranding the whole galaxy on Earth.  One… I don’t even remember what it does, but it destroys the Mass Relays, stranding everyone on Earth. 

          The endings are all the same, include the same characters doing the same things, but they have different colored lights destroying the Mass Relays, and that’s mostly the only difference.

        • JudgeReinhold

          @SaoirseRonanTheAccuser:disqus Sounds like the game I play with babies: Pick which hand the object is in. Spoiler alert: It’s always in the hand the baby picks, because smile. 

        • http://profiles.google.com/scaught69 Disco Stu

          For me, I didn’t mind the ending of Mass Effect 3.  UNTIL, I saw all of the endings on Youtube and realized they were all pretty much the same.  So the anger is mainly because for all the decision making you made through the course of 3 games, you sure didn’t have any effect on how the thing was going to end.  Also, it ripped through the ending in about 2 minutes. So you couldn’t savor what all of that was leading up to.

      • AmaltheaElanor

         Amen!

        I’ve read comments that people dislike the endings because they didn’t like the lack of variety, and the fact that it’s not directly informed by any decisions made about the games.  But here’s the thing: I haven’t played a single BioWare game in which that was the case.  In ME1, you always fight Saren (once or twice, depending) and Sovereign is destroyed – that’s it.  In ME2, it’s not like there’s a decision to make regarding the Human Reaper that’s influenced by decisions made about the game.  Yes, squadmates can die, but I would argue that’s the climax, and not the ending.  (Much the same way that the battle on Earth in ME3 is the climax, while the conversation with StarChild is what people have a problem with).

        Even DA:O – you always kills the Archdemon; that’s it.  The only difference is *how*.  Which was, imo, the case in ME3; the game ending always results in ending the cycle of the Reapers – the only difference is how.

        Of course, this comes from someone who liked the ending to ME3, so you can take it for whatever it’s worth.

        I do kind of wish Casey Hudson hadn’t said that there would be 16 different endings, because while technically true, it is a bit misleading.

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          To be clear, I’m not actually a fan of the ME3 ending. Some of it was good, some of it was bad, and for me, it averaged out to “meh” (but not rage-worthy by any means). I will say, though, that the ending doesn’t invalidate the choices you made throughout the game unless you intentionally choose an ending that invalidates your choices.

          That being said, if people want to hate on the ending, that’s their prerogative. Heck, I don’t even really have a problem with people (politely) requesting BioWare for an expanded ending. What I do take issue with, however, is the Retake Mass Effect’s implied claim to ownership of the game’s narrative as well as what was in effect their hijacking of Child’s Play for their own purposes. I try to be as civil as possible in these comment threads, but I quiver with rage any time I think of angry gamers exploiting a charity for emotional blackmail.

    • KidvanDanzig


      However, when you create a world which spans three games and hundreds of hours of gameplay, then yes, you probably do have a responsibility to maintain the narrative logic of that world.”

      That seems like a pretty well-finessed condemnation of the ME3 ending.

      • HobbesMkii

        I agree with that, but I do think it comes with a caveat of “but ME3 is a special case.” And I would argue that that doesn’t necessarily preclude my argument of “fix the story if it’s broken.” There are very few videogames I would award a broken story sticker to. There are lots of videogames with terrible stories, but there are also lots of videogames with terrible gameplay. You can’t patch suck.

        • Aaron Riccio

          I can’t imagine that ME3′s ending is worse than FFXIII-2′s: if we’re talking about an obligation from the developer, then how about the decency to stop creating games that end on a To Be Continued note? I want to play something with a beginning, middle, and end; if you can come up with an extension of that *after* the fact, great. But enough with the bullshit “trilogy” system, especially for games like GoW or Halo that all feel the same (to me).

        • HobbesMkii

          @google-19efbd0104cbaffa5782aef5b7104019:disqus I think you could impose that restriction on videogames if you could get movies, books, seasons of television, comic books runs, etc. to agree to that as well.

      • Pgoodso

        I think I just had an apostrophe…

        I think that “maintaing the narrative logic of that world” was the problem with that ending more than anything. The narrative of the games was never really about the Reapers or AI, though they were the impetus of the narrative. It was about you bringing together the galaxy in your particular style of diplomacy and/or assholishness, interspersed with relationships you cared about. The ending of ME3 wasn’t really about you or your choices, it was BARELY about who and what the Reapers were, and it became about the ultimate results of interaction between organic and artificial life, a subtheme that ran throughout the games but was never really at the forefront.

        • HobbesMkii

          I think you mean “epiphany.” Although, I guess you are technically having an apostrophe, being as no one is actually physically present for your address.

        • Pgoodso

          @HobbesMkii:disqus It’s like lightning has struck my brai…

          It’s from HOOK, dammit!

          I’m old and remember lines from mediocre movies.

        • HobbesMkii

           Yeah, I totally don’t remember that movie. Looked it up on IMDB, though. I came eerily close to perfectly nailing that line.

        • mss2

          @Pgoodso:disqus Exactly this.  In addition, the way the game resolves that important, but not central subtheme has the effect of cutting off all those other plot and thematic elements at the knees.

          If the resolution had focused on organics/synthetics but left it possible to imagine the other things going forward from where you left them, that would be one thing.  But given how things are left, all Shepard’s previous accomplishments (and the context in which they were achieved) are kind of broken one way or another.

          (Even for the one that’s specifically about that conflict, the result is either to undo your resolution, or else marginalize it in favor of a much bigger and more universal transformation.

        • http://twitter.com/Evad_Dalrymp David Dalrymple

          The old person’s remarks will be stricken from the record.

    • http://twitter.com/Evad_Dalrymp David Dalrymple

      We talk about the “Mass Effect” ending affair as if it’s unique to video games. It’s not. There is precedent in film and literature. After focus groups hated the original ending to “Pretty in Pink”, John Hughes wrote a new one. Michael Moorcock substantially tweaked a rape scene in his novel “Gloriana” after it caused a bit of a stir. As since we’re talking about Pratchetts, Terry has occasionally updated his novels as well. 

      Stories are a living tree. They grow in the telling. Sometimes that growth stops before they are released to the public; sometimes they continue to grow (or at least ripen) after they undergo public scrutiny. 

      • HobbesMkii

        I once asked a writer how one knew something was done and ready for publication. 

        “You’ll never feel that,” she told me. “You’ll just reach a point where you don’t feel like working on it anymore and you’ll submit it. But four years later you’ll pull it out and change it.”

      • Pgoodso

        That’s true, and Pratchett even says it herself in how that’s actually good: “Writing is rewriting.” Hell, that’s actually the process through which many theatrical shows come to the stage: workshopping. AND the changes to the show not only can come from people within the production (the director, the writer, the actors, designers, dramaturgs, etc.) but also audience suggestions and even feelings about what they just saw after readings and mini-productions of the work in progress. Who is to say it’s bad whether the impetus for rewriting in video games comes from the writer, the producer, or the audience? If the audience not only tells you “the ending is bad”, but ends up telling you “You’re not telling me the story you set out to tell in a way that’s meaningful for most of the audience”, and give you meaningful feedback, why wouldn’t you change things except out of pride? Maybe the ME3 ending debacle is less an example of “writing by popular vote”, and perhaps an example of a collaborative writing system more akin to theater than film.

        Maybe QA in games should grow to include an initial audience, and not just internal testers, and maybe it should get involved earlier than beta, early enough in the process that fundamental design changes are worthwhile. I actually think developers like Blizzard has done this with several games, at least where gameplay, sound and graphics were concerned; fundamentally rework a project from the ground up (and even totally scrap a project) when they feel it’s not working the way it should (if ONLY they’d do that for their stories).

    • frogandbanjo

      The reason the Mass Effect 3 debacle is so extreme is because the ending was terrible both from a literary standpoint and from a gameplay standpoint. They pulled the rug out from under the player-as-participant as much as they pulled it out from under the player-as-audience. Video games have a unique ability to double-fuck their audiences like that, and so I’m not sure any discussion of “artistic integrity” is complete if you focus solely on the story, which is what a lot people did. Bioware certainly did, for what I can only conclude are self-serving reasons. My personal opinion is that the ending was so bad and disjointed that it deserved to be torn apart simply on its own merits. But even if I were to accept the “artistic integrity” argument for story alone, I wouldn’t accept it for most video games where the player’s decisions are integrated heavily into the narrative.

      I was a little taken aback by the apparent contradiction in her statements. “Writing is rewriting.” But uh… once it’s released to a paying audience, clearly they’re never going to have any valuable insights or legitimate criticisms that maybe should have been articulated and addressed prior to publishing – and maybe would have, if not for rushed development and corporate politics and groupthink and sycophancy and game developers sacrificing story before anything else?

      I think AAA video game developers are, interestingly enough, running up against a phenomenon that writers have been struggling with for a long time, mostly unsuccessfully. When Blizzard sells a game to 10 million people, the law of averages alone will net them hundreds, if not thousands, of passionate, vocal customers who absolutely understand their games better than they do, and are at the very least better QA than their own QA team, if not flat-out better “big picture” designers (and maybe even better spreadsheet jockeys and coders) than the people who poured their lives into making the game in the first place.

      That must be fucking terrifying and surreal – and corporate culture and IP laws certainly don’t encourage any kind of transparent, honest communication or collaboration between Owner/Creators and Licensee/Consumers.

      It’s a damn shame seeing video game companies, for the most part, following in the footsteps of other artists. They erect arrogant, spin-heavy, logically fallacious barriers to preserve the illusion that they are where they are and doing what they do because they’re the best, and no mere consumer can possibly know better than them. Meanwhile, authors’ works change radically at the hands of editors before getting published, but let’s not talk about those changes, because they are Totally Different for some reason. Artistic integrity, bitches.

  • PugsMalone

    I wish that the interviewer had asked her what she thinks of David Cage.

    • HobbesMkii

       You mean the man behind the music in…*checks Wiki* …Cheese Cat-Astrophe starring Speedy Gonzales?

  • Limeade Youth

    Tetris was fine without a narrative, and yet they still made Tetris Worlds. I’m still not exactly sure how I was saving those little minos or why I could give them a mohawk.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Nicholas-McCormick/100002514580308 Nicholas McCormick

    Is it weird that I totally disagree? She says story ist he first casualty, I say that I see too many games where everything else is compromised for the story. She says the industry needs more storytelling, I think the industry needs more story-playing.

    I dunno. It seems backwards to move back towards TELLING.

    • HobbesMkii

       It’s not weird if you tell us what games you’re playing where that happens.

      • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

        Not to speak for @facebook-100002514580308:disqus, but I can see the phenomenon he describes in games that are too heavily reliant on cutscenes and/or setpieces that take away or severely restrict player control. When this happens, it can feel as if the game is just lobbing chunks of story at you while you play through the shooty bits in between.

        • HobbesMkii

           I always think of that as story afterthought, though. Like:

          Game Producer: Oops! We forgot to have any of this action drive the plot forward! What are we gonna do?!

          Game Writer: Well, I’ve got some story bits I wrote that weren’t included that could be put in there.

          Game Producer: Great! Let’s throw that into an unskippable cutscene where two or three principal characters are just talking to each other.

          Game Writer: That’s not what I meant–

          Game Producer: I don’t take notes from work for hire people.

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          The sad thing, @HobbesMkii:disqus, is that I can just as easily see what you describe being the case.

          If you have a lot of free time on your hands, you can sift through some of the tales on The Trenches. There are anecdotes similar to both what you and @facebook-100002514580308:disqus are talking about. In fact, it’s kind of sad how many stories there are about huge chunks of game getting cut out or hastily slapped together. 

        • myrandomnickname

          The one I came across recently that did that was “Eternal Sonata”. The first third of the games is riddled with movie like cutscenes, often one right after another, the same near the end. Unfortunately, the story is pretty basic, and near the end it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. 

          It’s like in a bad movie where they feel the need to dump in voice-overs to explain what’s going on, rather than actually putting it into the movie, usually a sign of an incoherent or un-necessarily complicated plot. (I was recently stuck on a bus ride where they were playing “Scorpion King 3″ that started off that way.)

        • stakkalee

          @Merve2:disqus Thanks for that link to The Trenches – very interesting ‘timewaster.’

      • KidvanDanzig

        A lot of games do tend to be overplotted these days. Most of them are hard to recall because they’re so forgettable, but something like the Kane & Lynch series is probably a good example. The problem is really how publishers and developers have decided that turning games, specifically shooters, into interactive film is the apotheosis of the medium. Games can’t just be plain bad, they have to be garish, leaden, and seemingly endless.

        Remember how Reservoir Dogs / Pulp Fiction, which arguably changed the way violence was viewed and used in mainstream American film, spawned a massive industry of aggressively nihilistic straight-to-video knockoffs? Half-Life did something similar with plot. Before it, Id ruled the roost, making well-crafted but unadorned meat-and-potatoes FPS’s. 5 years later, every goddamned shooter had to have a protagonist with a name and a voice and a motivation that you were supposed to care about and root for, and a cast of cardboard characters mourning dead wives we’d never seen, etc.

        tl;dr Gears of War. Gears of War fucking sucks and is the worst

        • dreadguacamole

            I agree with you in principle, in that games are afraid to have too little narrative these days. I’d argue that’s just one of the issues, though; Gears of War’s problem isn’t that it’s too narrative-driven, it’s that the narrative is shit.
           With better quality of writing and better integration with both the gameplay mechanics, it wouldn’t be nearly as obvious.

           I’d say that modern CoD-likes are the worst when balancing story against gameplay: “No, you can’t shoot the bad guy now, we’re in a cutscene!” “No, you can’t move forward until your friend gets here” “Look at all the awesome stuff that happens while you can’t control your character!”

        • SaoirseRonanTheAccuser

          I will support just about anyone shitting on Gears of War.

          Because Gears of War is a terrible game with a terrible story and terrible characters, and it baffles me that such trifling little nonsense could become as popular and influential as it has.

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kevin-Johnson/501651 Kevin Johnson

          God, Gears of War. I still can’t grasp how people were harking on the narrative after GoW3 came out. It was such a bizarre period. It was in the middle of the “Games are Art” issue, so it made the whole claim even sadder.

        • ToddG

          I agree that Gears is a pretty terrible narrative, but not that it’s a terrible game.

        • Mookalakai

           I think Gears of War should have had a much better story than it does, especially after Gears 2, when it’s revealed the Locust are only fighting the humans because they are being driven out by the Lambent. That would be really interesting in Gears 3 if they had actually investigated how the Locust weren’t a horribly evil race of disgusting monsters, but just a subterranean race of albinos also fighting for survival. Of course they pretty much ignore that angle, and focus all of the story telling on Dom’s lame ass, and the Locust remain as just a nondescript shooting gallery with their Queen being outrageously evil for some reason. Also, Gears 3 needed more Cole Train.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Nicholas-McCormick/100002514580308 Nicholas McCormick

        Mass Effect, or any other corridor shooter where you stop at bottlenecks for fights and boring cutscenes.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Nicholas-McCormick/100002514580308 Nicholas McCormick

         To elaborate on what I mean, it’s not just about the volume of narrative, but about the way that it’s conveyed. Look at pretty much any major title with a narrative singleplayer experience. Especially big flash AAA tentpole titles. Think of how they convey narrative. They /tell/ it, which puts a lot of emphasis on the narrative and on the specific narrative that the writer wants to convey. Often they tell it in a way that’s totally disconnected from the experience of playing, think GTA4, or they emphasize it over having strong core gameplay period, like in the Mass Effect games.

        The problem is that the writer’s narrative will never be the actual story of the game. The actual story of the game is the player’s experience of it. It’s like the guys at Fractional say: the narrative includes all the gameplay that goes up to the cutscene, or the dialogue, or the big flash setpiece.

        The solution is less narrative, not more. One of the most satisfying game narratives out there is Portal because the story is short, doesn’t break up the flow of play, and is strong in its own right. One of the other best ones is New Vegas, which doesn’t really have a story so much as a bunch of episodic chunks you can build your own story out of. They work because they’re not games that tell stories, but games that have elements of narrative in them. The writer isn’t calling the shots.

        • HobbesMkii

          I think Portal’s story is strong because it’s not really “in-depth” from the get-go (although, it does have depth, which is different). Mass Effect (and other BioWare games) has to waste a lot of time establishing context for its giant world. In fact, BioWare has too much context for the actually story, so they have to pack it into an in-game encyclopedia. Portal allows you to pick up context as you go along. You can play it as a strict puzzler with a dark comedic computer administrator, or you can watch and listen closely and gleam details about the world and the story’s context.

          But I sort of disagree about New Vegas. RPGs published by Bethesda basically have ancillary main stories: you don’t ever have to do the main quest to get enjoyment out of the game. But should you choose to do so, you will get their equivalent of a “cut-scene,” which is you in a conversation with one person who will spout off an obscene amount of dialogue. It’s just you have the option to not endure it.

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          At the risk of going way off-topic, I’ve never understood the complaint that the Mass Effect series has weak gameplay. Maybe I just need to play more third-person shooters.

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Nicholas-McCormick/100002514580308 Nicholas McCormick

           @HobbesMkii:disqus
          That’s the thing though. In portal the story is ornamental at worst and based on inference at best. Every plot-heavy game, including bioware games, feels the need to stop the gameplay every once in a while to drop a bunch of story on you, and that bunch of story generally lacks any real choice.

          As for Vegas, I dunno. Because so much of the story happens outside of exposition dumps, and because the actual quests are designed to be very open, I think it gives you the most freedom of any real story heavy game.

          @Merve2:disqus
          Compare it to like, any other AAA Third Person shooter. The shooting’s janky and the encounter design is always super obvious and artificial. Compare, just in terms of cover, positioning, etc, any ME2 level with the Milwaukee Junction plant in DXHR.

          Level design as a whole is a pretty big weakness there.ME is probably the worst offender in terms of following a line and stopping at bottlenecks for story or combat.

          Normally this wouldn’t be a big issue. RPGs in general tend to get a pass on weak mechanics or encounter design provided they do what an RPG is supposed to, IE provide Reactivity, Choice and Consequence, SSMA, Character Customization, and all that good stuff. But with ME that’s all bungled pretty badly and all you get are aesthetic changes.

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          @facebook-100002514580308:disqus: The shooting in the ME series has always felt tight to me, but that might be my relatively lack of experience with TPSs talking. I’ll grant, though, that the cover design in ME2 was pretty damn obvious and contrived at times, but I wouldn’t apply that same complaint to ME3 single-player (or even ME1 for that matter).

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Nicholas-McCormick/100002514580308 Nicholas McCormick

           @Merve2:disqus Played it on PC. That’s part of why it feels kind of janky, IMO. The games were built on the 360 and then ported (hence the totally heinous, badly optimized third party ME1 port.

        • blue vodka lemonade

           I liked the PC port of ME1, though it took about an hour to learn all the buttons. Probably would have been more frustrated if I played it on a higher difficulty (as a rule, I play games on the easiest setting and only turn it up if it’s just unbearably dull,) but on Casual everything seemed tight and smooth.

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Nicholas-McCormick/100002514580308 Nicholas McCormick

           @green_gin_rickey:disqus The complaint isn’t so much the controls as things like mouse smoothing, response time, that sort of thing.  And in the case of ME1, it was probably the worst optimized RPG this side of Neverwinter Nights 2.

          These are things that definitely don’t have to be problems in PC Ports, and I know that not every PC Port can be on par with, say, Human Revolution in terms of UI/FOV/Graphical tuning, But even if you compare it on its native environment, consoles, to other console games with third person shooting (I’m thinking Uncharted, GoW, RDR, etc) It just doesn’t come out well. And that’s not even getting into the trouble with how that game deals with its narrative and its very primitive way of addressing story-play.

        • blue vodka lemonade

           I’m someone who had no problems at all with, say, the PC ports of Silent Hill games which are somewhat notorious for having terrible controls. Clunkiness I can get past, but not difficult-to-understand-and-execute mechanics. Like, I don’t mind if my character moves like a tank. I do mind if there are 30 different keys with different functions, and then another set of context-specific functions for each of those keys.

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Nicholas-McCormick/100002514580308 Nicholas McCormick

           @green_gin_rickey:disqus It’s not about clunkiness or mechanics, when I talk about the bad port of ME1 I am literally talking about optimization and playing well with windows. The literal mechanical functions of being a good port. On that count ME1 failed miserably and IIRC It benchmarks worse than ME2 on the same hardware because it’s so badly optimized.

          As for mechanics and stuff… Tank Controls work for a survival horror game. Bad mouse acceleration, bad encounter design, etc do not work for any game. I would be more inclined to let ME off the book if it functioned well as an RPG but, well, when a single game (Alpha Protocol) is a better RPG than the entire ME Trilogy, but with comparably bad mechanics ME doesn’t come out looking great.

    • Nick Powell

      You’re absolutely right. This is a supposed expert on the medium (or, at least, this site is treating her like some kind of expert), who has no actual respect for the medium.

      She THINKS she does, because she has respect for aspects of the medium … which are borrowed from other media.

      • HobbesMkii

         Well, she does write videogames, and she does make a living at it, and she has done it more than once. I’m not sure what you think qualifies someone as an expert on videogame writing, but that does it for me, because, as I understand it, they’re not currently handing out Ph.D.s in videogame criticism.

        • http://twitter.com/Eucrid Daryl Doyle

           I had a lecturer who was doing her Phd in something very similar.

      • Mike Ferraro

        And that’s exactly the type of writers who mysteriously find their writing thrown away. They wrote a bunch of great character stuff, but the game designers recognize that it has nothing to do with the player’s journey; it’s an obstacle to the game’s enjoyment as much as the writer loves that it explains the motivation of that character whose name you forgot.

      • Mysterons

         I think you’re missing the point she was making, which is: if a game has a narrative element, they should treat that narrative with the same level of quality and professionalism that they do with every other creative and technical component.

        It’s irrelevant whether or not narrative games borrow from other media.  If it’s there, it should be held to the same standards as any other kind of writing.  In any case, story is hardly the only element that’s been borrowed.  Lighting, sound design, mise en scene, voice acting, musical scores… these have all been borrowed from film.  Just as film borrowed its standard narrative structure (and let’s face it, a huge percentage of its actual stories) from literature.  The rules for good storytelling remain the same across all forms of media.

        Games are an interesting media though, because unlike film and literature, they don’t actually require a narrative element.  Plenty of non-narrative games exist that are totally awesome and fun to play.  All types of games are equally valid forms of the media.  Some people prefer one kind of game over another, and that’s totally fine.  Everyone has their thing, you know?

        Now, do I wish that rpgs were more genuinely interactive?  Yes.  I’d love it if I could literally build my own story as I went along.  I often feel limited by the imposed restrictions in those games when I play them.  But there’s only so much freedom a narrative game can give the player, realistically.  The technology just isn’t at a point where players can be allowed to craft their own meaningful narratives outside the lines of the pre-established story arc.  Some day, maybe.

        In the meantime, I actually enjoy watching a story unfold in a game – if it’s a good story.  That really makes all the difference.

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

           ”Games are an interesting media though, because unlike film and
          literature, they don’t actually require a narrative element.  Plenty of
          non-narrative games exist that are totally awesome and fun to play.”

          Incidentally, though, film and text don’t require narrative, either. In every medium there’s a tension between form and content, and works that coalesce around each pole. You can have formalist stuff like Tetris, experimental film, certain poetic forms, or abstract expressionist painting on one end, and very content-driven stuff like history painting, narrative film, etc. (Maybe a better model would be something like Scott McCloud’s 3 poles of abstraction, realism, and symbolism, though he’s dealing mainly with visual aesthetics in that model…)

          What is definitely true about what you said, though, is that games, like music, are an artform where abstraction is embraced by the public at large. No one treats Tetris with the same “my kid could paint that” dismissal that the average gallery-visitor responds to much formalist artwork. Everybody and their mother (perhaps especially their mother) owns Tetris in some form, whereas very few individuals would bother to own a DVD of Stan Brakhage films.

          There’s something about games, that haptic, interactive quality, that makes a narrative thread as inessential as, say, lyrics in music.

        • The_Misanthrope

           You make a pretty good point about RPGs and interactives.  You could say that Skyrim comes close, but the personal narrative it tells seems to be “the story about the guy who was weak and then got powerful”.  I would argue that a mission/quest-based storyline isn’t quite the optimal solution, either, as it tends to compartmentalize the story (it’s still better than cutscenes, but what isn’t?).  Granted, the main quest-lines tends to tell an overarching story, but the other quest/ questlines are either dull or tell all their story and forget about it (this is a generalization, so unless I’m way off the mark, don’t line up your counter-examples).

            I think the solution might be just to break quests up into smaller, non-continuous bits, so you might not have the full scope of the narrative right away, but you have an inkling something is happening.  Oh, and have more stuff that has consequence in the game-world outside the usual morality/faction shenanigans.

        • Mysterons

          You are completely correct, @bakana42:disqus .  I had a half-asleep moment there.  Serves me right for trying to be coherent at 5am.  (Although I would argue that a lot of experimental film has an implied narrative.  It’s difficult to create a piece of media without communicating something.  But now I’m getting off-topic.)

          I think what I really meant to say was that non-narrative games are accepted as mainstream.  (Whereas formalist film, as an example, definitely isn’t.)  Basically, what you said.

        • Zachary Moore

           @The_Misanthrope:disqus “Oh, and have more stuff that has consequence in the game-world outside the usual morality/faction shenanigans.”

          I remember when I first played Fallout 3, it totally blew my mind that I had the option of blowing up Megaton. I’d never played a game where you could affect the world of the game so drastically, outside of required story-mission stuff. Games need more of that.

        • blue vodka lemonade

           @The_Misanthrope:disqus I played Oblivion the same way I used to play The Sims 2, where I imagines a greater backstory and motivation for my character(s). I let my imagination provide context for the things I did, like starting off with the Thieves’ Guild and becoming the Grey Fox, only to “go bad” and be an assassin; then repenting, following the Pilgrim’s Way and joining the Knights of the Nine, and then devoting “myself” to studying magic and doing good deeds. A series of quests, done in a particular order and with me, the player, thinking about certain things while playing, became a personally satisfying arc for my character.

      • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

        I saw this as more of a Gamasutra-like interview.  I mean, Tetsuya Nomura’s thoughts on storywriting are relevant even though Kingdom Hearts’ story is the worst in big budget gaming.

        If they’re interested in the art of it, they’ll invite Emily Short or the like to dish on their unique processes.

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

      I imagine you could find find representatives of any of the creative aspects of game-making who share a similar sentiment with Pratchett.

      She said that “Writers are treated as typists of other people’s ideas.” I’ve known artists who felt very similarly, that they were just the draftsmen of other people’s ideas. And there are probably game designers who feel like they’re forced to implement design principles decided on by the businesspeople upstairs (“It needs an open-world component. Those are big now.” “Fit your game into this outline of the plot to the new Spider-Man movie,” etc.).

      Basically, while I wouldn’t agree that storytelling is the first casualty in industry-produced games, genuine artistry of any stripe typically seems to be. It seems to be a problem more of the system itself than of a specific hierarchy of artistic priorities. There are exceptions to this, of course, just as how occasionally a Hollywood tentpole film can be genuinely amazing.

      • Effigy_Power

         I think that about hits the nail on the head.
        Artistry in videogames falls victim to catering to the broadest possible audience, just as any other artform seemingly must follow that mantra.
        As long as lots of money is on the line it will always be hard to convince the movers and shakers of the industry to risk alienating some of the prime target-groups (kids, basically) and try something insanely different. While there certainly are examples of completely new ideas working, I am pretty sure the accountants of EA and Blizzard and so on are a lot more focused on the ones that didn’t.
        The simple truth that this is no different in video-games than it is in films, TV, books or music for the most part is a sad reminder that gaming is indeed part of the main-stream now. With all the benefits of large production-values and potentially great support systems, we have to contend with the fact that dollar-signs speak louder than awards for revolutionary artistry.

      • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

        Honest question related to your last point: since the video game world is the only industry stupid enough to model itself on the American film industry voluntarily, are we ignoring the role of business in art?

        Blockbuster studios: unsustainable, run mostly by businessmen who can’t hack it elsewhere.
        Mid-level studios: eaten alive this generation.
        independents and small studios: voluntarily give up business control of more influential products for the sake of their independence

        Other art forms in the United States had their vicious businessmen, yes, but ones with good taste.  Highly influential record labels, “art studio” subsidiaries like Focus Features, courageous leaders like the Adult Swim and FX people, proper curators or editors in the high art forms; video games have none of this and aren’t even trying to develop that ecosystem.

        All of her sentences are passive.  “_ hires me and I do what I can.”  “I change things by not staying quiet after the decision is irrevocable.”  It’s fine for US to complain about what THIS BUSINESS needs.  We can only vote with dollars.  Why isn’t she (or someone) starting a collaboration like United Artists?  I get why the brilliant and unemployed Japanese developers can’t, given their country’s atrocious government and the cost of space in urban environments, and I get why the same in Europe can’t, given their fiscal meltdown, but isn’t the industry always claiming that it rakes in more revenue than film?  Do something with it.

        • Destroy Him My Robots

          Maybe something about artists not being big enough draws in an industry where most of the recognition goes to the brand, then to the team, and only rarely if ever to an individual (despite Hawkins’ best efforts). I mean, did people who enjoyed RE4 check for God Hand or RE5? Did Capcom’s stock fall when it was revealed that the Clover personnel left?

          But more importantly and the real reason I’m replying: “THIS BUSINESS”

          You set off my “Triple H speech” alarm there.

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

          Pratchett: “You and I are writers, Anthony.  That’s what we do.  I.  Write.  And I want to write.  For.  Yoooou.”

          Too bad Andrew Sarris is gone.  He’d have something to say.  Even though writers at big studios have roughly the same role as games industry writers by the time of conception, they’re definitely more present at inception.  I doubt writer-designer auteurs will ever take over the industry, but I think that’s a reasonable goal for them to reach.  Have the producer, writer, and designer do the pitch.

    • http://twitter.com/Eucrid Daryl Doyle

       @facebook-100002514580308:disqus I agree completely. I’m so fed up of having my playing experience interrupted by a terrible cut scene or 5 minutes of annoying dialogue. Make it quick and make it interactive. If you can’t manage that keep it for a different medium.

      • blue vodka lemonade

         That’s what made Mass Effect work better for me than it probably should have. Knowing that any given dialogue scene would give me some options that could actually effect things in the game made me pay attention, and none of them dragged on too long.

        It wasn’t like the dialogue system was especially innovative, but it had more opportunities for interaction, with shorter non-interactive spans between, than I’m used to from playing some over-written games like The Longest Journey.

  • Nick Powell

    Virtually everything. Mass Effect, BioShock, every Final Fantasy, every FPS (even supposedly austere Black), every RTS, every RPG … 

    (There’s a pretty simple test, does any bit of a game’s story affect ANYTHING you do in that game?)

    • Aaron Riccio

      If your gameplay is like nothing else out there, then sure, I don’t really need a story (though I wouldn’t complain if it were a good one). But when you’re one of a dozen FPS’s — every MONTH, it seems like — you need something that sets you apart. Ironically, all these stories end up being more or less the same hard-ass Die Hard-like narratives, and thereby become even more indistinguishable. 

      But look at Lollipop Chainsaw, since we were all discussing it earlier this week: the one thing that critics seem to like about it IS the silly story: an homage that saves lackluster gameplay.

    • blue vodka lemonade

       Ay, uh, what’s this a reply to?

  • Mike Ferraro

    Most of my experience has been watching professional writers completely fail at writing for games. Writers think in McKee terms of drama = conflict = character. But drama in a game is the player’s own conflict with the gameplay mechanics. That feeling of discovery, struggle, and success gives games their potency. How many victory dances or smashed controllers have been caused by movies?

    It’s possible, but very difficult, to hit both sides of the drama.

    One problem is matching the player’s arc to his character’s. There’s not a lot of different ways to do that, which is why games tend to start you as a rookie or amnesiac. The alternative is you get a complete disconnect between the player as a gleeful mass-murderer and cutscenes where his character is an affable good guy or depressed drunk who can’t do anything right.

    The other problem is it’s rare that one person is skilled at both writing good scenes for players and writing good scenes for characters, and can fit them together. So you wind up with writers on one side who don’t even understand the player’s drama exists, and game designers on the other side who can’t write character conflict better than “then the guy who was your friend betrays you!”

    In my estimation, good game writing is primarily world building, with the structure focused not on character arcs, but on the player’s arc: lead him through the discovery of your world as his narrative while you teach him the mechanics of gameplay, giving him the ups and downs of feeling powerful and clever. Then apply the character drama as gravy, helping to create the tone along with the artwork and music.

    • Raging Bear

      When I was recommending Dark Souls to my brother, he asked if it had a good story, and I nearly said “yes, it’s excellent” reflexively, although I unfairly stopped myself (I said it’s more “atmosphere” than “story,” which is still kind of true), simply because it actually has virtually none of the usual video game story trappings whatsoever. It’s just that playing it feels like being involved in a more powerful story than in most games for the exact reasons you describe in that last paragraph.

      • The_Misanthrope

         Yeah, it certainly seems to be a valid type of narrative, one that really only games can tell.  I think why people are hesitant to say that Dark Souls has a narrative is that it is never spelled out for the player.  Even the characters you talk to are either cryptic or unreliable or both; Do you really trust that the female undead vendor has a lot of accurate information about the game-world, sitting behind those wrought-iron bars?  But an elliptical, unresolved story with a marked, no-nothing hollow at the center of it is still a story.  It’s just not the type of story we expect in this genre.

        (Full disclosure:  I have yet to finish Dark Souls yet.  War Journal Day 10, 2nd tour:  Stuck in the Painted World of Ariamis)

        I would actually say that this type of narrative is best suited to video games and that developers should look more to it, rather than just sticking the story in late in the process or writing it in a separate (not in frequent contact with the programmers) department.  They should look to make everything in the world, gameplay, and character feed into that story.  If you do it right, there should be less need for lengthy exposition dumps.

      • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

        Sports games have this trouble, too.  I  prefer narrative over play as storytelling, but Baseball Stars 2 and NHL 2013 are just as concentrated for storytelling as Camelot’s Mario sports games, for sure.  Dungeon crawling works the same way, as does the opposite extreme.  Animal Forest/Crossing, Opoona, and Farm Story/Harvest Moon are rich tapestries.

        That said, Todd Zuniga, Actual Literary Figure, amazing person, and hilarious former host of The Sports Anomaly/4th String podcasts is apparently writing the story mode for the next Madden football game.  So, what do I know?

    • Mike Ferraro

      Not to say that’s the only way to have good writing. But the obvious examples of the approach are Bioshock and Portal.

      You can obviously still have good writing in something very narrative-driven like Uncharted. The audience can care about the characters’ relationships even without any control of them. It makes a game better if the player cares about finding out how the story will end. But note that the vast majority of players never complete their games.

      The real answer to why most game writing is bad is the same as why porn writing is bad. What is the audience there for? What is your talent base good at? The answer isn’t “character development”.

  • Staggering Stew Bum

    Wait, people sued EA over the Mass Effect 3 ending? That’s the dumbest shit I’ve ever heard. 

    Presumably when the Reapers attempt to preserve humanity in Reaper form they’ll exercise a bit of quality control and cull these dipshits.

    • Aaron Riccio

      Well, I sued EA over Mass Effect 3, but that’s because I warmed up the CD in the microwave and then burned myself while trying to insert it back into the ol’ XBOX. There’s no warning label anywhere warning me not to do that, and man, that’s just plain irresponsible of them.

      • HobbesMkii

        Also, if you smash the CD to pieces, those pieces make really poor croutons for salad. Even though you’d think it’d be a pleasant blending of synthetics and organics. Just FYI. 

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

           http://www.theonion.com/articles/fun-toy-banned-because-of-three-stupid-dead-kids,290/

        • Effigy_Power

           That should go along well with my lawsuit against the makers of Dragon Age letter-openers, which did not clearly state that I may come to harm when slicing my arm off with it.

          {Steaming hot McD’s coffee set the precedent… apparently we are all slow kids with water-wings.}

        • HobbesMkii

           @Effigy_Power:disqus I’ve got to say, as stupid as the the Hot McDonald’s Coffee sounds, that woman was seriously injured and deserved every cent of the money. She was hospitalized with third-degree burns and had to get skin grafts (and she was 79).

        • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

          I always feel so bad for that lady when people make fun of her for being severely burned through no real fault of her own. Coffee doesn’t need to melt skin or whatever. :(

        • Effigy_Power

          Maybe I am being heartless here, but I don’t think that anyone with the slightest access to physics (i.e. fire) requires a lesson in “hot things are hot”.
          I found the whole notion that a company is responsible for teaching someone (an adult, especially) not to touch the stove pretty insane.
          We are flooded with these messages removing our individual responsibility everywhere at this point, which seems to me like a nightmarish vision in which corporate lawyers get to dictate how much we are able to grasp.
          I’d prefer a bit more personal responsibility to the alternative, which would be having “Warning: Using this carelessly may result in children” tattooed on people’s genitalia at birth.

          PS: Also I am not trying to harp on one solitary old lady who got badly burned, but a nation of lawyers who treat us as though we are retarded racoons with blindfolds on.

        • HilariousNPC

          Effigy: You’re not only being heartless, you’re not understanding the situation. It’s not that she spilled coffee on herself, it’s that McDonald’s was serving the coffee at a temperature that was too damn high. (Much like the rent.)

          Had she gone into Burger King or Starbucks or Subway and ordered a cuppa joe and promptly dropped it into her lap, she would have had an unpleasant experience. Since it was McDonald’s, she had to go to the hospital for skin grafts.

        • Effigy_Power

           I think you misunderstand my answer, which is probably due to my wording.
          I am sick of legal lines protecting company’s by assuming we are brainless vermin, not people being less careful than they should be, but acting as though they are acting in our best interest. (Once again, this isn’t about this case specifically, it’s in general).
          “Object may be sharp” is not printed on something because the company is afraid that we might hurt ourselves on their dangerous product, it’s there because legal departments think we are avaricious money-grabbers as well as dumb. They do however love to dress it up in a much more benevolent way.
          Thought I ought to clear that up, I may not have made that as obvious as it should have been.

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

      Nobody sued. A bunch of people filed complaints with the FTC and the BBB. Even some of the staunchest Retakers ridiculed them.

      • HobbesMkii

         And both those organizations threw the complaints out/ruled against them, as I understand it.

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          Nobody from the FTC ever commented on the issue, as far as I know. Someone from the BBB made a blog post in favour of the Retakers, but I don’t think they ever made an official ruling. In any case, BBB rulings are in no way binding.

        • HobbesMkii

          @Merve2:disqus I got it confused with the UK Ad Agency, who said it wasn’t false advertising. My bad.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Homer.Dired Hans Visser

    Game writing still feels like an art in its infancy, in that so many times the story isn’t quite sure what it wants to do, and is there simply because something has to be. It has to give the illusion of choice, link together non-narrative aspects (i.e., fights) that are still the selling point, and appeal to an audience that is way less sophisticated than it sees itself. These aren’t movies, these aren’t books, so when they try to be they story part feels divorced from the play, which makes the story feel tacked on. And then the story tries to be actually integrated, ultimately, it feels so basic and simplistic, with sub-sub-sub-Joseph Campbell arcs, preteen revenge plots and “I must rule the world!” stuff that would make the most hackneyed comic-book writer pause. I believe things’ll get better, but slowly, and the herdlike attitude of current gamers will likely slow rather than speed the improvements.

    • http://twitter.com/Evad_Dalrymp David Dalrymple

      I think video game stories have matured. Mainstream video games, however, are still dominated by genre stories. What the video game industry needs is a high profile alternative to the G4 and SpikeTV mentality. Creators need some meaningful recognition of their accomplishments, which will engage the public and make them start to consider what constitutes great storytelling in videogames. There is lots of thoughtful criticism of videogames on an artistic/thematic/story level, but it needs to move off of the internet message boards and onto the podium. 

      • http://www.facebook.com/Homer.Dired Hans Visser

        I dunno; I keep coming back to Mass Effect. For the first two, where the BIG SECRETS needed to remain so, the value was a halfway (more or less, depending on your needs) decent 3P shooter in a big, sprawling, lots-of-stuff-in-it sci-fi universe. But in the 3rd one, the big bad guys have to be exposed (and, as usual, become neutered and kinda stupid), the Terrible Secret of Space revealed (also stupid and full of massive logic holes) just for a payoff that of course never comes. People bitch because their previous actions didn’t predetermine which stupid ending they got, but imho it misses the point.

        Games shouldn’t try to be novels – the necessary illusion of free will won’t allow greatness, and usually bars goodness. Maybe episodic TV (to me, when ME was collections of scenes with callbacks here and there – like a non-serialized TV show – is when it really worked, while when it went big it always fumbled) works better. I know that Dragon Age 2 was crucified for exactly this reason – being a collection of short stories instead of one cliched epic – but I’m betting it’s a far richer field to plant than trying to make epic movies you can pretend to interact with.

        • mss2

          I’ve thought for a while that the Reapers worked better as backstory and looming threat than as direct antagonist.  ME1 had them an arbitrarily long distance away in intergalactic space and needing a relay to get here.  Leaving that way makes them important (and allows for future plots in which they’re trying another shortcut, as and when you need an apocalyptic threat) while letting the focus be on the sprawling space opera world and its characters and conflicts.

          Does the trilogy structure really work for this kind of space epic?  Even for its modern prototype, Return of the Jedi is generally regarded as the weakest installment.  (Considering the prequels as an entirely separate thing.)  Possibly we need more standalones for if you’ve got a tight story already planned out, and open-ended series for if you don’t.

    • Zachary Moore

       Honestly, I think someone who knows computers and whatnot needs to invent some sort of easy to use game-creating software, sort of like an iMovie/Final Cut for video games. In the film industry, every time barriers to entry are lifted, you get a flood of new and interesting films that completely change the industry.

      Right now, the biggest barrier against any regular Joe making his own video game is that you have to understand computer programming, which means that games are almost solely made by computer people, who are rarely very artistically minded.

      • HobbesMkii

         Ironically, the barrier to entry into videogames has only increased as time has gone on. The only real outlet for personal creativity is in mods.

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

           Maybe for AAA games, but between visual tools like Gamemaker, which output executables, or like Stencyl, which output to Flash or mobiles, there are plenty of easy-to-use tools for amateurs to make games.

          And there are tools out there for independent creative types who might only have limited programming knowledge (but at least some programming knowledge) and aren’t really “programmers” – Actionscript libraries like Flixel for making pixel-based Flash games, or tools/environments like Unity which (reportedly, I’ve never played with it) make 3D game design fairly intuitive and with a low bar for entry.

          I think the pretty huge explosion of amateur, indie, and art games on the Internet and through various online marketplaces indicate that the bar for entry has been lowered. Especially on consoles, which were once the extremely closed-off walled gardens where only major devs & publishers who could afford licenses, devkits, and production costs, but now have really opened up to a broader range of experiences from creators of various degrees of artistic or technical skill.

        • HobbesMkii

           @bakana42:disqus I’m just think in terms of @google-dad81b5bddd5512057304af81c4db7a7:disqus’s original comparison to film. There are lots of movies that are shot on pretty thin budgets that have a look and feel that obscures that fact and makes them seem as slick as a studio film. You can’t achieve the polish of a major development studio for games if you’re just a handful of people in a basement somewhere.

        • blue vodka lemonade

           That’s something I thought about a lot while playing L.A. Noire, and when reading about Heavy Rain. In film, possibly the easiest kind of movie to make in terms of tech involved is an indie walk-and-talk, or a simple CSI-style thriller. You point a camera at a human and get a human-looking performance. On the other hand, making the game equivalent–a game where there’s not a lot of ‘splosions, and there is a lot of talking or doing mundane activities–requires far more tech and technical expertise.

  • Effigy_Power

    I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Rhianna Pratchett for writing a great female lead character for Mirror’s Edge that I can actually look up to without getting an achievement for looking at her panties.
    That’s a pretty good thing.

    • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

      Plus Mirror’s Edge is a fucking awesome game. Not that that really has to do with writing, though I did enjoy the story. I’m all about dystopias and shit. And yeah, Faith is great too. 

      • Effigy_Power

         It was one of the few games that gave me a sense that who I am playing is a person, not a floating camera and two disembodied hands.
        There used to be an old survival game with dinosaurs, in which the health-bar was a tattoo on the lead-characters hefty bosom, glad we’re away from that.
        Faith has all the sex-appeal someone in her function could possibly need, jumps around without 38DD’s knocking her headphones off and is adequately protected against nasty scrapes. It was pretty much a dream come true.
        And yes, the game was also pretty awesome.

        • dreadguacamole

           Oh, god. Getting Intruder flashbacks… need to… pile… these crates… must enter a code into the keypad… using analog mouse controls…

           (Sobs uncontrollably and curls into fetal position, dies smothered by his own virtual boobs)

    • Zachary Moore

       Mirror’s Edge is a perfect example of a game with too much plot. I want to parkour around on rooftops, not watch an E-Surance commercial explain how there’s some sort of evil conspiracy whatever.

      All that game needed for plot was “You are here, and you need to get over there. Don’t get killed by the bad guys.”

      Agreed on the Strong Female Lead, though. Mirror’s Edge usually gets forgotten when people make lists of those things.

      • blue vodka lemonade

         I never got to finish Mirror’s Edge because it came from the library and they only let you have a game for six days or something like that, but really appreciated that the central relationship of the story was one between sisters, both of whom had developed personalities and motivations, neither being sexpots or damsels-in-distress.

  • JokersNuts

    I haven’t played the game in question, but gamers filing lawsuits because they were unhappy about an ending strikes me as being completely ridiculous and embarrising. 

    • dreadguacamole

        On the other hand, maybe they should have thought it over before including every living US resident’s social security number and credit card information in their final cutscene.

    • Captain_Internet

      On the face of it, yes. The trouble is the word ‘ending’ as opposed to ‘endings’. Before release there was talk of a great many different endings that fully took into account your personal route through the game. In the end there was arguably just one, coloured three different ways.

      Thus, the complaint was over false advertising… but it was certainly motivated by just how much the ending sucked for a lot of people.

      • dreadguacamole

         Hmm. I thought the personal story wrapped up just fine, when you chatted and met all your friends in london before the final assault. And there was plenty response there to the different paths you took through the game.
         What they botched, and badly, is the main story finale. I wouldn’t have minded that much (bad endings are dime a dozen) if it wasn’t such an obvious half-assed, we-ran-out-of-time thing.

        • Captain_Internet

          Yeah, I’m with you on that. I wasn’t in it for multiple, super-specific endings and a vast epilogue detailing where every character ended up and what they called their children. 

          I was just after something that wasn’t a load toss.

    • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

      And also totally in line with what I see from gamers on most comment boards. Entitled beyond belief.

      • Captain_Internet

        Well, if they’re entitled to something, surely they should have it? 

    • Effigy_Power

       I think I have arrived somewhat in the middle of the issue.
      Of course there are gamers who are massively entitled in that they believe that following something fandom-wise also guarantees them any amount of influence over content.
      That is obviously wrong.
      On the same page however are constant apologetics who race to the defense of things to spite said entitled brats, but then often defend things that are hardly defensible.

      The ME3 ending was a letdown of Molyneuxian proportions. That is not saying that it made the very awesome thrill-ride before that any less awesome, but it is acknowledging that something that was dangled in front of us like a shiny coin ended up having some dog-poo on it. Every Fable was a great game, it just wasn’t what we wanted it to be/were promised it would be.
      That’s, in my opinion, all there is to it. It was a stanky ending to something great, but I think in the end I’ll take that over a game that is a clusterfuck all throughout and has a decent ending, because chances are I won’t play all the way through.
      It wasn’t what people expected, partially to unrealistic expectations, partially due to ungrounded promises, but there it is. The world will keep turning, the sun will keep rising, other games will come and in a few years nobody is going to remember ME3 anyways, especially once some godawful MMO-rendition has utterly destroyed the entire scenario for us anyways.

      The internet is very prone to divide people into two opposing camps, something that rings with the general partisanship-attitude lately. (I am glad the GS is staying away from such black and white perspectives). Games either suck completely or are the best thing since multiple screaming orgasms. People who try to stay on the “Meh” side are usually insulted as ‘ball-less’ (which in my case rings quite true) or called out to be someone from the respective opposing side of the commenter. I think it’s great that we can be “Meh” about things, because it means that we have not yet succumbed to extremes.
      Schroedinger’s cat dead or alive? Who cares, it’s a pretty box it’s in.

      PS: To move even further from the point, I think what’s to blame for the dip in writing quality is the dragging out of content that American TV/Movies/Games are very prone to. I am sure LOST would have been better if it had ended earlier, so would ME… Series are too long, movies have too many sequels and the whole “What you did 18 titles ago is now suddenly important” angle of gaming is in my opinion a fun idea, but when overused… toxic. I don’t want to go back several games to change a tiny aspect of now, especially when it ends up not mattering anyways.

      • JokersNuts

        Was it advertised that this game was going to have unlimited endings for all the possible player choices or was that just something that was talked about in Interviews?
        I only ask because you mentioned LOST and I distinctly remember writers and others involved with the show assuring viewers that the cast was not dead and the island was not some kind of purgatory.  So much for that. 

        • Effigy_Power

           Not as such, I think. The wording was that every single decision will affect the ending, which it didn’t. Of course you could take it in such a way that it means that every single decision affects the last game, not the ending per se, but that’s semantics.
          Sparing or killing the Rachni Queen should have made a bigger difference, for example. It didn’t and the choice was all but cosmetic.

  • Penis Van Lesbian

    Is no one going to comment on what an attractive and intelligent lady she seems to be?

    That aside, anyone got any good links for some more detail on the Mirror’s Edge thing – I played that game and rather liked it, so I feel a certain amount of interest in the background…

    • dreadguacamole

        She is an awesome lady. I’ve been aware of her ever since reading the short story she wrote on the manual for Beyond Divinity (which was kind of meh, to be honest, but I loved the idea of it.)
       She’s always fun to read, in-game or in interviews.

    • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

      Um, i guess wikipedia? 
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirror's_Edge#Synopsis

      I’d love to have a better link, but I can’t think of any that I’ve read about that game in particular. Sorry.

      I really enjoyed hearing about the writer’s perspective on everything from this interview. Very interesting, and it did line up with my expectations of how they would be treated by the companies.

      • Penis Van Lesbian

        Yeh, I tried that, but it didn’t seem to have a huge amount about the problems, and I got the impression from the interview that there was more detail out there…

    • Effigy_Power

       I was gonna, thinking that men would find it inappropriate and be scared to be called a chauvinist.
      As an empowered homosexual with nothing but X-chromosomes and therefore built-in immunity from such notions I can proudly add to @tomandlu:disqus’s statement that she is indeed very hot both in the face-department and due to her big, sexy brain.

      • http://www.facebook.com/gareth.hughes.1253 Gareth Hughes

         You seen her in the ‘Thief’ costume? She looks stunning in it.

        I may come back later with something more intelligent to say that’s relevant to the article but I have to go to band practice and am in a rush.

      • Electric Dragon

        If I ever met her I’m afraid I’d be way too gushy about her father’s work to say anything sensible about hers.

        • Effigy_Power

           I didn’t even know her father is Terry Pratchett… I don’t have much connection to the background world of gaming, I fear.
          But yeah, in that case I’d be far too busy talking about how awesome Granny Weatherwax is.

      • Penis Van Lesbian

        Attractive lady and now lesbians, and yet the comments remain restrained and tasteful… I think this gaming website is broken.

        • Effigy_Power

           I am still waiting for it all to explode in one giant “Lesbian Spank Inferno”…

  • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

    Ah, the old video game narrative discussion. I hold a couple of (in my experience) very unpopular opinions about the subject.

    1) There’s no universal trick or magic bullet for making video game narrative work. Some games play like interactive films. Some games allow the player to sculpt the story through his or her choices. Some games feature only a bare-bones story. What works depends on the specific games in question, and creators should be free to use whatever tools they have at their disposal. Calls for fewer/more cutscenes, setpieces, etc. are ultimately detrimental to the medium.

    2) Video game stories are, on the whole, not much better or worse than the stories of other media. Most video game stories aren’t very good in the same way that most television shows or most movies aren’t very good. The reason there’s so much navel-gazing about video game narrative is because gaming is still a “niche” hobby with a “gamer community.” It’s natural for this so-called community to reflect upon ways that their medium can be improved. As the medium ages and gains more mainstream acceptance, this self-reflection will become even more of a niche activity, and the word “gamer” to refer to someone who plays video games will become about as descriptive as the word “viewer” for someone who watches television or the word “listener” for someone who enjoys music. But just as there are “superviewers” and “music enthusiasts” who participate in the critical conversations about their respective media, so-called “core gamers” will participate in the critical conversations about video games. Moreover, as is the case with other media, the conversations about games will evolve as well, beyond subjects as broad and simplistic as “Video Game Narrative Is Broken and Here’s How to Fix It.”

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

      The main issue: other art forms are responsive to critics in some capacity.  Good storytellers can survive in video games, but I see no evidence that creative ones can.  We don’t even have proper archivists, much less influential critics.  Unlike other forms, video games will ONLY have existed when critics didn’t (really) matter.

      • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

        Video games are more like movies than television in that critics evaluate the “final” product. It’s difficult for critics to have an impact on something that can’t be significantly changed once it’s out there. (Unlike movies, though, video games can be patched.) However, developers often incorporate feedback from critics and players about earlier entries in a franchise into subsequent ones.

        That being said, your larger point about influential critics is very well-made. I can name a bunch of influential TV or movie critics (and I barely watch any movies), but the only influential game critic I can think of at the moment is Adam Sessler, and to be frank, he’s more “prominent” than he is “influential.” (No disrespect to Sessler; he’s done some great work.) I guess Jim Sterling might also qualify, but his influence is mainly in the sphere of making consumers aware of video game industry business practices. Come to think of it, Tom Chick, Ben Croshaw, and James Portnow might also be considered influential, but that perception of mine is probably coloured by the fact that I read a lot of gaming news/criticism, and I must admit that they cater mainly to ultra-niche audiences. In any case, I don’t think any of these people individually have a significant impact on what developers do; developers are more concerned with the all-important Metacritic score, as well as the general critical consensus emerging from the “community” of critics and players. Maybe this is the approach that best suits video games; I’m not making a value judgment here. I do think, though, that some critics will gain influence as the medium ages, but time might prove me wrong on that.

        You’re also correct to point out that there aren’t any proper video game archivists. There are no digital libraries to preserve games, and as we move towards new modes of storage and distribution, the task of archiving will become even more difficult. Already, we’re hearing stories about how the original Prince of Persia source code was thought lost (creator Jordan Mechner was later able to dig it up) or how nobody can confirm the North American release date of the original Super Mario Bros. Until some sort of National (or ideally, International) Software Library is established, the number of these stories is only going to multiply.

        • Effigy_Power

           The shocking example of how many movies from the 20′s and before are missing and how many TV-series from much more recently have been lost to the ages (MST3K’s pilot episode anyone?) should be a clear sign that something like an archive is needed.
          At this point, considering how easy it is to store digital information, the non-existence can only be attributed to laziness or disinterest, not technical difficulty or monetary concern.

        • http://www.onelinetaxcode.com/ root (1ltc)

          There is a frightening amount of Japanese games for which the source code is lost. I doubt the games developed in other countries have fared particularly better.

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

           A strange little appendix to this whole issue is how much better the illegal (or grey-market) archivers and distributors of this stuff have been than actual commercial or goverment entities that are ostensibly responsible for archiving culture. You can easily find a torrent with every SNES/Super Famicom game from every region, and emulate them on pretty much any hardware that has a screen and buttons that has been made in the last 10-15 years. And these types of archives are more decentered and persistent than, say, the meager “archives” available (for the time being) through Nintendo’s Virtual Console.

          Archiving of PC games is spottier, maybe because of the variety of platforms, and the sheer number of developers and distributors of every size making programs for more open systems. But even then, illegal abandonware websites (notably Underdogs in the late 90s) had extremely deep (if still very incomplete) catalogs of older games, and fan projects like ScummVM were making old adventure games compatible with contemporary OSes ages before LucasArts gave a crap (and they ended up using ScummVM as a wrapper for their non-updated ports anyway, I believe).

          I don’t know if it’s a good thing, a bad thing, or just a sign of the times, but it’s a bit strange that it seems interactive media’s legacy is largely in the hands of software pirates.

      • Zachary Moore

         There is literally no good video game criticism. Every review is just “I liked it okay, now let me explain all the stuff you can do.” The only game review that I can think of who actually engages with video games in a thoughtful and interesting way is Yahtzee Crowshaw.

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          Well, it depends on what you’re looking for. If I want the lowdown on the basics of the game, I can read the latest IGN review or watch the latest Destructoid video review. If I want a more thoughtful analysis, I can turn to some of the names I mentioned upthread, particularly Tom Chick, Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, and Jim Sterling. (Although, to be frank, I frequently disagree with Croshaw.) If I want a load of pretentious wank, I go to Kill Screen.

          There’s a lot of games criticism out there, some of it thoughtful, most of it not (but still valuable insofar at it evaluates game mechanics and/or gameplay structure). Over time, I think we’re going to see more of this “thoughtful” criticism, but the medium is still young. People haven’t been taking games criticism seriously for all that long.

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

          Because I am a terrible person, I deeply love Tim Rogers at Action Button.  His Bangaio Spirits, Outrun 1, and Inazuma/Lightning 11 1: Restoring The Bondreviews are flawless.

          I actively dislike Gamasutra/Critical Distance’s weekly round-up, but you might find some that you like in there.  It’s alternative, at least, even though it rarely focuses on more interesting games.

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

          @Merve2:disqus I’m deeply dissatisfied with Kill Screen after having high hopes for it (Scroll is more history, as it should be, and Exp. just got cancelled because of Mathew Kumar’s new job).  That’s my impression of it, too, but I admit I’ve been an occasional reader.

          So, I went to the website, clicked on the 1st thing that interested me (a Gravity Daze review), and saw Dream Diary get namedropped.  Positive direction!  Instead, the review is: “The tone is nice, but there is action in my adventure game.  This bastard ’action-adventure’ mutant pains me to see.  Also, I do not understand what magical realism is.”  http://killscreendaily.com/articles/reviews/gravity-rush-novel  This is why I’m so thankful for Teti’s work here.

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          @GhaleonQ:disqus: My assessment of Kill Screen is based on a few articles I’ve read here and there, so I may be way off-base. But I still think Kirk Hamilton’s L.A. Noire review for the site was hilariously pretentious.

          As for Action Button, Google lists it as a malware site for some reason. I’ll check it out if it ever gets de-listed.

    • Penis Van Lesbian

      Since reading this article, I’ve thought a little about which video games had narratives that appealed to me, and if there was anything they had in common.

      Personally, I find FPS almost immune to ‘good’ narratives, and the only exception I can think of is Portal. Basically, the narrative just serves as a map/mission delivery system, and it’s job is just to be as unobtrusive as possible while giving the level designers enough excuses to give the player some justification for whatever scenario is thrown at them. The main exception that I can think of (and it’s an exception in every way) is Portal.

      Modern ‘platform’ games seem less immune, although the best examples are generally light-hearted. I found, for instance, that Jak and Daxter was an enjoyable story to play.

      But the thing I keep running into is that the games with the best narratives are all pretty weird in their way – Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Journey – the stories are all deliberately vague, but were very clearly as important to the game makers as the game play IMHO.

      That said, there’s a whole slew of RPGs and sandbox games that I’ve never got around to playing, and those seem like genres where narrative coherence is both critical and hard to maintain, given that you can’t fully control what the player is going to do.

      • blue vodka lemonade

         I liked the story, and its integration, well enough in Half-Life 2. It wasn’t particularly great or original, but it was told well, was unobtrusive, and gave enough context to the action to be at least a little meaningful.

        Nearly every comment here is also making me realize just how few FPS games I’ve played. I think I might be in the single-digits.

  • The_Misanthrope

     My 2 cents, wherein I will pretend that the interviewee actually reads these comments (anyone else can chime in if they have an answer or something to add):

    Isn’t the bigger problem with narrative in video games not just that they don’t respect narrative (the reverse can also be true), but that they often keep the writers separate from the actual programmers, musicians, etc. or bring them in late to the process.   I have not actually played any of the games talked about working on (I have played the demo for Mirror’s Edge and I did like how it weaved the tutorial with the story), so forgive me if I don’t know what I’m talking about.

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

      No, that’s definitely common for blockbuster games: premise, nothing, plot.  It’s like a commercial superhero comic having the art drawn 1st and then handing it to a writer saying, “Now, make this coherent!”  Even writer-as-part-time-consultant would work better.

      • SaoirseRonanTheAccuser

        That’s actually in large part how Keith Giffen wrote some of his Ambush Bug stories, though those were supposed to be satires, rather than completely coherent stories in and of themselves.

      • The_Misanthrope

         That is pretty much Stan Lee and his two most reliable artists used to do things in the early days of Marvel:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marvel_Method

        But, yeah, it was pretty much borne out of necessity.

      • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

        Yep, I remember hearing those stories on podcasts,  @SaoirseRonanTheAccuser:disqus @The_Misanthrope:disqus .  Luckily, like video games, American superhero comics have now evolved into a creator-driven medium.  …*weeps*  DC Universe Presents #0, everyone!

    • dreadguacamole

        I’m fairly sure she would agree with you; she’s often called for more integration between writers and the rest of the teams, and decried the practice of calling in writers at the last possible moment of game development.
       (god, I’m making her sound like something out of a nerd version of The Constant Gardener, aren’t I?)

    • Effigy_Power

       I agree, but I am not sure that this is a distinctly video-game problem. @GhaleonQ:disqus’s comic example is quite close to the reality of how mass-market graphic novels often arise and I would bet my left ovary that the process in TV or Film is very similar.

      • blue vodka lemonade

         Now I want a show developed where the director/cinematographer/whatever put together an episode where everyone just silently mouths nonsense words, and then hands it to writers to make a narrative out of the scenes.

  • Travis Stewart

    Seeing as there’s been a lot of discussion about the player’s narrative in games here, I’d like to ask a question: Have there been any player-stories which aren’t just “I started out weak and became strong”? I know a guy who loves that (he’s even taken to calling it “the rise to power”), but I have been dissatisfied with it for some time now.

    • SaoirseRonanTheAccuser

      One of my favorite things about Shadow of the Colossus is that you start out fighting giants with a horse, a bow and a sword… and you end the game fighting even bigger, harder giants with a horse, a bow and a sword.  And, actually, they eventually take away your horse.  So, that seems to defy conventional video game narrative pretty heavily.

      • Travis Stewart

        I guess that’s true. I was hoping for something with a player-story that wasn’t directly about being “strong” or “strong enough” (which SotC is still about, to the point that the player is strong enough to triumph even when weakened), but I didn’t really convey that.

        And now I want to play Shadow of the Colossus again. At least there are worse cravings.

        EDIT: Actually, I’m going to modify the “true” part, since there are plenty of games where the player was strong enough from the outset. I mean, it isn’t like the protagonists of Call of Duty level up their accuracy or anything.

        SotC is a player-story which isn’t just “I started out weak and became strong” (so it does answer my question) but it doesn’t convey conventional video game narrative (which mean that I asked the wrong question).

      • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

         Even in that spare, austere narrative frame (which, I incidentally think is really successful), there is the basic progression @google-51e69d88a29e1efd2d880564090ed43c:disqus  described. Defeating each Colossus increases the width of your stamina meter, making you stronger and affording you longer “grip” periods to use when combating the colossi. You still essentially “level up” over the course of the game to help you defeat increasingly challenging boss monsters. It’s amazingly implemented, but still more a pared down exemplar than a counter-example.

    • dreadguacamole

       What about graphic adventures? I mean, you could say you start monkey island weak and become… um, slightly more worldly, but I’d hold out that that falls more into character development than any sort of character power progression.

      • Travis Stewart

        We could use the same reasoning applied to Shadows of the Colossus above, both in my reply (the player begins “strong enough”, with the rest of the game devoted to testing and demonstrating that strength, continuing the focus on power) and Girard’s (overcoming obstacles rewards the player with the means to resolve future problems).

    • blue vodka lemonade

       Well, most horror games aren’t like that. In, say, the Silent Hill series, you do get slightly better weapons as the game progresses, but your story has little-to-nothing to do with your fighting abilities or personal skills. The same could be said of most adventure games.

      Or, really, any game that starts with a competent protagonist: in Max Payne 1 and 2, you already are good with guns and have all the abilities you’ll have at the end. The problems you deal with as part of the plot are about getting yourself out of a bad situation, or revenge, or whatever, but it’s not about becoming empowered or any kind of self-improvement.

  • Al_Swearengens_Suspenders

    My only question…where the hell is our Mirror’s Edge sequel? There’s so many fantastic core gameplay elements there, I truly felt it would be another of this generations “solid first effort, fantastic second effort” series, like Uncharted and Assassin’s Creed.

  • Brainstrain91

    I want to be this woman when I grow up. Well, maybe not literally. But maybe literally. Maybe.

  • HilariousNPC

    I’m very disappointed that you went to her to ask why videogame stories are bad. She seems to be in this isolated bubble of reality where everyone thinks everything she does is awesome and original, where in actuality she’s one of the worst game writers around.

    Take for example, her mess that was Heavenly Sword:

    The game starts out with the same patently awful “Plot Hole Creates Core Conflict” storywriting that collapses most games into a morass of crap.

    Nariko’s village is assaulted by the main bad guy on the first level. Main bad guy captures her father. Nariko grabs a cursed blade that her family’s village is supposed to protect. Seriously, it’s the one thing they’re supposed to do. Bad guy confronts Nariko and shows that he has her father as a hostage, and threatens to kill him if Nariko doesn’t hand over the blade. Nariko reacts to this by…doing the one thing her village was told they must not ever do, and accepts the sword’s curse…and then runs away.

    The sword doesn’t grant magical powers of retreat in exchange for the wielder’s life, it offers attack power. So why is she powering up to run away, when the bad guy’s specifically told her that he’ll kill her father on the spot without the sword? (The bad guy, in true crappily written video game fashion, doesn’t kill her father, but is still supposed to be the most evilly evil man to ever live.)

    Then there was all that hilarious cluelessness as part of the lead-up to Mirror’s Edge where she thought she had created a truly unique character because she was *gasp* a female anti-hero.

    Rhianna Pratchett is trotting out the same hackneyed writing, the same generic character tropes, only she’s doing it with an air of pomposity secretly hoping that nobody notices that she’s in no position to judge anyone’s writing. I’m sad that you fell for her act, Gameological Society.

    • Travis Stewart

      So… Someone who writes typical stories because that’s what the industry wants can’t complain that the industry wants her to write typical stories?

      • HilariousNPC

        No, it’s more that someone who writes schlock can’t then go and write books and take speaking engagements about how they’re masters of game storywriting and how you should follow their examples.

        Also, it’s very easy to claim that you’re “forced” to write bad, but when every example of her writing is bad, I find it hard to believe that she could be anything but. You honestly think that it’s more likely she was told to put a plot hole into her own work as opposed to her not realizing that she put one in?

        • Travis Stewart

          Personally, I don’t know how she markets herself. This is only the second interview with her that I’ve read, and both times she across (to me, at least) as an industry writer concerned that her profession is not treated well, not as someone trying to portray herself as the best writer ever to exist in the universe. And, considering the amount of great thinkers who were rubbish at implementing their ideas, I’m not about to dismiss someone with sensible suggestions just because their products aren’t great.

          As to the second part of your post, yeah, of the two scenarios you offered, it’s more likely that she just didn’t realize there was a plot hole. There are other scenarios beyond those you proposed (remember the fun of cut content in KotOR 2?), but the origins of a plot hole in a specific game has nothing to do with the author’s ability to fairly criticize the way writers are used in the business.

        • dreadguacamole

          a) Plot holes in gaming are ubiquitous. Take Uncharted 2, a game that’s gotten tons of love for its writing. It was written by Amy Hennig, who is awesome, and does some of the best character work in gaming. It’s also a series of plot holes held together by the thinnest possible thread of unlikely coincidences and cliches; And don’t get me started on its sequel.
           Another example: I consider Chris Avellone to be one of the best game writers out there. Torment, Fallout 2, Knights of the Old Republic 2, Mask of the betrayer… and Alpha Protocol. Now, I’m an Alpha Protocol apologist, but the kindest things I’ll say about its writing is that there’s lots of it, it’s uncannily reactive, and that it’s often (intentionally) funny. 

           Games are very tricky to write for in the first place, and the attitude companies take towards writing doesn’t really help. If a game seems well written, has good characterization (and Heavenly Sword had some *wonderful* character moments, mainly between the bad guy and his son) and is ok on a moment-to-moment basis, I’ll think it’s likelier that design and business considerations caused the plot holes, rather than the authors being shit.

          b) the Heavenly Sword thing is just one example, and you don’t know the circumstances for that. Maybe she got called in after that bit was established? Or it made sense in a previous design revision?   This author has proved she can crank out good stuff with the Overlord games and (to a much lesser degree, IMO) Mirror’s Edge – at least give her the benefit of doubt! 
           And if you didn’t like those, did they just rub you wrong or did you really think they weren’t well crafted?

        • HilariousNPC

          Dread: Neither your a and b scenarios seem likely when she keeps touting her writing in Heavenly Sword as a crowning achievement. It’s not simply the plot (and no, this isn’t design related, you can easily fix that entire scene with a rewrite that doesn’t affect any level design.) it’s the fact that she’s honestly proud of what she did.

        • Travis Stewart

          Okay, I just looked around at the critical reviews on Metacritic and I’m not sure why you seem to think Heavenly Sword is some great crime. Even the lowest review says the storyline is well-executed. Is it trite? Yes. Are there more logical options in the opening? Sure (though I’d note it’s a very traditional opening). But the critical reception says that it is well-executed, and that means it is no albatross.

        • dreadguacamole

           Fair enough, but I still don’t think you’re giving her a fair shake if you’re just basing your opinion off Heavenly Sword -  I didn’t know she touted it as her crowning achievement, she’s done better work elsewhere. And I’d posit that the script for the game is in the upper tenth percentile of game-writing quality.
           (Yeah, I know that’s not saying much. For the record, I didn’t care much for it, but it did manage a couple of affecting scenes. That’s more than most full game series get.

           Also – it’s impossible to know without asking her or the folk at Ninja Theory whether that specific plot hole was her fault or not. I’d dispute that it could have been fixed with “just a rewrite”  (I don’t know how those devs work, but in many game studios the script is in flux and beholden to changes in the game design up until the eleventh hour). She’s not an in-house writer; I’d wager she was called in after the basic premise and levels were set out.

    • RhiannaPratchett

      # HilariousNPC – “She seems to be in
      this isolated bubble of reality where everyone thinks everything she does is
      awesome and original.”

      I’m really not and I really don’t. I’ve
      worked in this industry far too long for that to be a realistic way of
      thinking. If I’m asked about a project, then I’ll talk about it, the good
      points and the bad – although I only did a bit of press for Heavenly Sword at the time. I’ve never
      pretended anything I’ve done is perfect. No creative ever feels that way. You
      have to keep learning, you have to keep adapting. It’s the only way to survive.
      There are always things you’d want to fix given more time, money and agency.  As for your issues with Heavenly Sword, well unfortunately plot is still gameplay’s bitch.
      Am I proud of what we (as a team) achieved? Sure! Are they things I would have
      changed/polished etc.? Absolutely! But you have to pick your battles and use
      the tools at your disposal. Game writers are rarely given carte blanche to do
      what they want. You are always working within boundaries that aren’t of your
      own making. It’s the nature of the beast.

      As for Faith – I never once pretended
      she was unique in being a female anti-hero. You might consider me pompous, but
      I’m not actually stupid. However, Faith was, and still is, a more unusual
      female videogame protagonist, for a whole bunch of reasons. I’ll certainly
      stand by that. But, as I’ve always said, she was the product of a team of
      skilled people coming together with a coherent goal in mind. And in many ways
      that worked.
      Rhianna