For most of the evolution of video games as an entertainment medium, the defining standard for quality was usually how good they looked. From Pac-Man to Super Mario Brothers all the way to Halo, it’s always been graphics, graphics, graphics. Whenever a new system came out, what we were really impressed with was how much prettier the colors were and/or how realistic it looked.
As graphics are finally approaching photorealism, the focus seems to have changed. There’s only so much shininess you can add to a pixelated image and only so much smoothness you can attain for gameplay. At some point, you need something more than powerful hardware and ace programmers, and that’s when you call in the writers to make some art.
The telling and writing down of stories is one of the oldest and most potent forms of human expression. We love creating and experiencing stories. After all the technological and social advances we’ve made as a species in the past million or so years, it’s always going to come back to that. What started at the campfire moved onto paper, then to film, and here we are in the digital age.
Gaming may have started as a simplistic time killers where you jump over barrels or navigate mazes, platforms, and whatnot to test your skills and coordination, but it was always going to end up as just another way for people to tell each other stories. The last console gen really kicked this into overdrive, sealing the argument about whether games could be art for good. Not only can games be art, but the medium’s interactive nature means that they may have the potential to surpass all other forms of entertainment in that respect.
A lot of us remember firing up our first Nintendo or PlayStation game and marveling at how amazing Super Mario World or Final Fantasy VII looked compared to what we were used to, but now the graphics gap between console gens has closed and lo and behold, we now have games that make us think and feel. I mean, when we found out our princess was in another castle or that a winner was us it warranted a shrug at best. The weak attempts a story were just an excuse to do whatever it was we were doing in the game. Now a lot of us are playing the game to get to the story. We’ve got games that make grown men cry; that make us question the nature of reality and the human condition. They’ve got substance.
Who really cares about how realistic a picture looks when a video game can have characters and situations that make you fall in love and grieve and cheer and gasp and feel all of the things that make life so amazing in the first place? You can’t really do those things with awesome graphics and gameplay alone. At some point, any given genre is going to have exhausted its supply of visual and gameplay devices. It takes artistry and effective storytelling to make the gamer really experience a story to its full extent. It takes great writing.
Now, PC gamers have been spoiled with games with solid writing this whole time. I mean they’ve had games that were literally just text so the writing kind of had to be good. But we pitiful console types have only in recent years been consistently reaping the bounty of games that actually bother to tell fantastic stories with fully-realized characters. At this point, even sports games are expected to have some sort of story mode beyond the base gameplay.
Currently I’m catching up on a JRPG that’s been sitting in my “to play” list since the day it came out in 2008. The game is Tales of Vesperia and when I demoed it then, it struck me as pretty basic so I’ve just never gotten around to it until recently. Having poured some hours into it, I find myself loving it not because of the gameplay or even the pleasing visuals, but because the characters are so well realized.
Little touches like the way different combinations of party members interact with one another in post-battle victory celebrations and optional group conversations while exploring the world take a really standard real-time battle JRPG and make it a joy to experience. It’s a game that runs almost entirely on the charm of its characterization. Take out the outstanding writing, and it’d be downright dull.
And do I even need to mention BioWare and Telltale Games? Telltale in particular utilizes subpar (by current standards) comic bookish graphics and largely removes standard gameplay from the equation, leaving dialogue to do the heavy lifting in carrying the experience. The player interacts with the story largely through dialogue choices rather than action scenes that carry them from one story scene to the next like in most video games, but with the writing so compelling you are often more in the moment arguing with your in-game companions than you would be running around mindlessly shooting zombies or whatever.
Telltale’s been so impressive, in fact, that they’re being tapped to not only expand the worlds of comic book properties like The Walking Dead and Fables, but the fantasy intrigue-fest Game of Thrones and even Borderlands, the loot-filled first person shooter from another game company. That’s what you call being in demand.
And for all its deep fantasy role-playing goodness and epic quests, the things I remember most about Dragon Age: Origins were character moments mostly free of action. For instance, finding Ohgren’s ex-girlfriend and watching them argue was hilarious.
The random conversations your party members strike up as you explore the world are priceless. Leliana’s merciless teasing of the stoic warrior Sten as a “big softie” after catching him playing with a kitten (“I was helping it train”, my ass) or picking flowers was a personal favorite, but pretty much any combination of characters would yield a wealth of discussions.
To me, this is what modern gaming does that you just can’t get anywhere else. It not only puts you in amazing worlds as an active participant, but it also enlivens the characters around you and lets you converse with them. They may be just props in your grand adventure, but they don’t feel that way. They connect with you and one another in surprising ways and often have depth and substance. They evoke genuine feelings the way that a great performance from an actor would, but these aren’t just performers; they’re your companions. Their personalities influence the way you play the game, and you often make in-game choices based on how you feel about them, or even how you think they feel about you.
The complexities of fleshing out a world of potential conversations and interactions where characters react differently to everything you say and do is something that’s really underappreciated. The sheer number of hours put into just conceiving and writing a Mass Effect game is something that most of us probably couldn’t even conceive of. It’d be like writing a novel where every conversation could go in several different ways and you’d have to write every possible response from every possible character who may be present knowing that any given reader likely will only ever see one outcome. It kind of boggles the mind.
We’re asking a lot more than we used to from our video game experiences these days, and the only way they can keep on delivering is to keep improving the quality of writing. The focus is shifting away from system horsepower and towards engaging the player on an intellectual and emotional level. Games need great writing to break the art barrier and it seems like that front is expanding all the time. Writing is something that has long been taken for granted by the public at large and I’m glad to see it becoming a primary focus in an up and coming entertainment medium on the verge of widespread acceptance. I can’t wait to see what the future holds.