Friday, August 29, 2014

Good Writing in Games

Video games and good writing have traditionally been an kind of oxymoron.  Usually when the request comes for counter examples people tend to bring up The Witcher series or Telltale's The Walking Dead.  Not bad games, but when I think of writing in games I tend to exclude story directions and spoken dialogue.  Instead, to me it's all about words printed on a screen.  So, having limited myself to that narrow definition lets take a look at few noteworthy titles.

Three Fourths Home takes place entirely in a car while on the phone.  You play as Kelly, a recent college graduate driving back to her parents farm during a storm.  The way the story unfolds depends on dialogue choices made by the player.  At first the narrative takes time exploring recent events in Kelly's life as well as her relationship to her family.  As the story progresses though the conversation turns to storytelling to pass the time.  I won't spoil the ending, but let me just say tension builds as Kelly progresses toward home (and the end of the tale).  Overall, the writing is incredibly evocative, and while the graphics might seem like the bare minimum there are a few clever things the developer did to make them meaningful.  The same goes for the limited interactivity players have over the story.

Vlad the Impaler is a hybrid choose-your-own-adventure RPG that takes place primarily in medieval Constantinople.  This is a grim tale filled with mysterious kidnappings, murder and other evil deeds.  Then again it's about vampires so what do you expect...a cheesy romance?  You'll be reading a lot of text and making quite a few decisions none of which will put the life of your character in danger.  What it will do though is adjust your stats and equipment which will in turn affect the outcome of your inevitable confrontation with Dracula in his castle.  Three classes are available to choose from; explorer, soldier or mage.  Depending on which you select the story alters, this combined with a number of other variables gives the game some replay value on top of being an enjoyable read.

Unrest is set in a fantasy world with ancient Hindustani trappings.  While the prose aren't as strong as the above two games, the lead writer here has an incredible talent for presenting grey and grey moral quandaries that ground the setting and make it feel surprisingly compelling.  The story jumps from character to character and leaps around chronologically as well.  Actions earlier in the timeline will modify events that happen later in important ways.  Players also have a degree of freedom to interact with the environment from an isometric perspective.  While not featuring RPG stats, every NPC has three relationship bars which indicate their attitude toward the player's avatar.  In turn this mandates a certain degree of role playing to succeed.  Being yourself can be interesting too though if you're a consequences-be-damned kind of gamer.

Based on person experience reading doesn't seem to be very high on most people's fun things-to-do-list.   It's a shame because oftentimes written words can paint visuals in our minds far more vivid than even the most cutting edge graphics.  Regardless, I'm glad to see that there is a new budding market for text driven experiences that aren't just fan translated visual novels straight out of Japan.

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