|It kills me to say this, but I've
always believed that if you can't do it right, don't do it at all. So here I am.
I'm a writer and I love video games. Being a writer may make me hypersensitive, but I find myself wondering all the time: Where did they get this crap? It's not the plots of games, which are varied and diverse enough to satisfy any genre desire, but the way these plots are presented. Where did all the dialogue writers go? Why aren't any of them working for game companies? Why does this gross negligence never get attention?
First, I don't know if I understand the taste of many of the corporate video game magazine writers. EGM pans Gex all the time, never letting up about how lame his wisecracks are. But they love Solid Snake? Now, if it were Solid Snake who were talking about drinking the water at Jerry Garcia's house, that would be one thing, but unfortunately that's not in his repertoire.
Also, I realize that a lot of excuses can be made for poor dialogue in games that are created in Japan and then translated, but I know two things: 1) If all that I've read about the massive profits being made on the American video game market is true, why can't they afford to pay some decent translators? and, 2) I've read the subtitles on many anime movies, and translations of manga, and I don't see the same carelessness I see in video games. Hong Kong movies, yes, but not Japanese products.
So why is it? Why do we have to sit through drawn out lamentations and hokey flashback narration? Do they think that gamers want to be bored?
This little treatise has been inspired by a recent work week's worth of play on Xenogears. I've loved Squaresoft products since before I knew to pay attention to developer's names. Final Fantasy lived in my NES for months. In the last year, three of the games I've enjoyed the most are Final Fantasy VII, Parasite Eve and Xenogears, but they are also the three games that have offended my fictional sensibilities the most.
FFVII is chock full of characters recounting great tragedies of the past. I assume this is intended to give the gamer a more involving experience and provide some justification for why this diverse band of adventurers is adventuring, but the problem is that these stories are drawn out and melodramatic. As a gamer it leaves me wanting to just move on. I click through the dialogue as quickly as possible to get to a part where I can move around and use the character.
Parasite Eve is another wonderful game. Aya is great: All the action of Lara Croft, but she doesn't have to show skin to be noticed. In fact, Aya could blow Lara Croft up with her mind, which makes me quite happy. But isn't the plot to PE just about the dumbest thing you could possibly conceive of? Even in an age in which viruses are being used to deliver genetic medicine directly, isn't it just a little far-fetched that our mitochondria are not organelles, but actually independent lifeforms who have become sick of living within human beings? Sure, it makes for some killer FMVs and scary monsters, but when it all comes down to it, I just can't suspend my disbelief. In addition to the hokey storyline, PE throws all sorts of little jabs at single parents and homely scientists. Of course the scientist isn't going to get any women in PE; he's too busy worrying how to get our mitochondria back under control, and the only two women in the city are Aya and Mitochondrial Eve, both of whom are textbook unattainable, regardless of how smooth you are.
Then there's Xenogears. It's a great game, and has a pretty cool premise, but when it comes to the story presentation and the dialogue sheesh! I don't know if it could get much worse. While FFVII repeated material, Xenogears thrives off repeating aspects of the plot. Nothing is left to the player to piece together. You talk to a person and get part A of a subplot. Then you talk to a few other people and get parts B, C, and D. Then, you are forced to talk to somebody else who gives you the whole story, directly from A-D, and you can't stop it. You have to sit through it or else there's nothing more to do in the game. And is it necessary for every character you meet to have such a tragic history? Everyone from Fei, the protagonist, to Bart, the randy pirate, to the Bene-Jesserit-esque nuns have some sad story to tell about their past.
What Squaresoft needs is some flat characters characters who are there to perform a job and not tell you their life story. I think it's interesting that they've opened up game play and allowed you to get to know the people in your surroundings, but all of these people have trite and clichéd storylines behind their lives. And not only are they trite and clichéd, but they are long. Very long.
I don't expect that much will change in the way of video game dialogue, but there are some bright spots. The Resident Evil series nearly avoids the question altogether by simply having very little dialogue. The plot is simple, and the game focuses on play rather than story. That's okay. And Grim Fandango, Full Throttle, and other action-adventure-story type games on the PC have had much better dialogue and writing.
A game can involve the player in basically one of two ways: through play or through story. Strategy and simulation games are the perfect example of how a title can involve the player through play. You want to run a city, or drive a car, or fly a plane, or command troops in WWII, so you play a game that best simulates this. Fans of these types of games expect realism and complexity, because these are the requirements that allow them to suspend their disbelief.
Role-playing games and story-based games rely on the plot to keep the player going. The basic model of these games is almost universal--just the details change. What gets you involved is the movement of the story, and if that stagnates you will usually put down your controller. People who like fantasy RPGs usually like to read fantasy novels and watch fantasy movies. Fans of games like PE and Resident Evil are going to be more likely to watch horror and gore films. The success of an RPG is often closely related to how well they have recreated a story we expect to see. How close is it to the last fantasy novel you read? How much is it like Evil Dead 2? When we're familiar with these genres we begin to expect the conventions and hallmarks we find in similar stories, regardless of the media they are presented in.
It's a given that good writing is not as important a requirement as good imagination when it comes to satisfying the popular appetite. And it's also true that the interactivity of video games allows us to be more lenient about what we expect from them story-wise. But already games are not all for kids, and the adults are asking for more. While you enjoyed Hong-Kong Phooey when you were eight, it's more and more difficult every year to enjoy the same episodes, and Hanna-Barbara is a long way from the Simpsons as far as writing quality goes.