Why Video Game Writing Makes Me Swoon

13 Aug

Part of the Monday Musings series

I have something to admit: I like video games.

I am not a hard-core gamer by any stretch of the imagination, but I do.  I like them.  And I like some of them a lot.

I am the first to admit that I likely do not fit the stereotype of someone who plays video games.  I routinely wear makeup, know how to carry on a conversation, and am even somewhat adept at dressing myself (no pleated pants and ill-fitting t-shirts for me, thank you).  I don’t sit in my parents’ basement, hunched over my computer and maniacally jamming the WASD keys as I grow attuned to the darkness like some cave creature.  (Few people who play games fit that cliched image.) Also, I am a girl.  That seems to throw a lot of people.

More seriously: also, I am a writer.  And I like video games because some of them actually have good writing.

The pinnacle of game writing. Clearly.

In conversation, most people seem to dismiss video game writing with a wrinkle of their noses, as if I have just declared Fifty Shades of Grey to be the next Booker Prize winner.  Video game writing is supposed to be vile quality, filled with nameless lunkheads shooting the socks off anything that moves (and often anything that doesn’t), scantily-clad damsels in distress, hackneyed fantasy or sci-fi worlds, and terrible, terrible dialogue that all sounds like it was lifted from Attack of the Clones.

And I’ll admit, that can sometimes be true.  But I have found just as many memorable characters in games as I have in books, movies, or plays.  Characters, as the venerable Shrek once said, should have a lot of layers.  Like onions.  You’d be surprised how many video game characters and plot arcs have enough layers to make them so engaging that people play the titles over and over again.

My first game with an actual story was Bioware’s Knights of the Old Republic.  Set 4,000 years before the Star Wars movies, it had a cast of characters I found that I cared about.  My ten-year-old self was entranced by the Jedi Jolee Bindo’s wisecracks about Wookiees, Mission the young street urchin’s daring and occasional foolhardiness, and the sarcastic assassin droid HK 47’s quips about killing…well, anything.  More to the point, I could hardly fathom the scope of what I was playing.  Here I was, shaping and controlling the person who would save the galaxy.  I molded his morality, chose his dialogue, and watched the implications of his choices play out across solar systems.  When The Big Plot Twist (you will know what it is if you have played it) came, I think I actually fell off my chair.  Then I cried.  (I was ten, okay?)

The characters that first made my little heart swoon.

The next game franchise I encountered was the Elder Scrolls series.  They’re known for their amazing graphics – rolling hills of volcanic ash, craggy mountains covered in snow, a quiet sunset near a seaside town – but their characterizations aren’t too shabby, either.  In Oblivion, my character joined the Dark Brotherhood, a clandestine organization of assassins.  Honestly, the Dark Brotherhood was more like a cult than anything: they could be summoned by a secretive blood ritual and lived alone in a dank underground lair.  They even worshipped the god of evil and death, for chrissakes.  But here was the kicker: all the members of the Brotherhood were smart, talented, and welcoming.  Gradually, my character came to feel more at home in a den of killers than she felt anywhere else.  If that’s not good writing – to let your character fall under the sinuous sway of such an inherently evil cult and hardly even realize it – then I don’t know what is.

But by far, the most memorable characters – by that I mean the most human and the most flawed – are those from the Dragon Age and Mass Effect titles.  Let’s take, for example, the companion and alien Garrus Vakarian from the Mass Effect franchise.  In the first game, he’s a wayward cop who doesn’t want to play by the rules and can act far too impulsively for his own good.  But by the third, he has learned when to be a leader and when to be a follower.  Over the course of three games, he has sharpened his sense of morality, and he ends up becoming a pillar of support for the player character as he/she attempts to literally save all sentient life.  (Although he never does finish those calibrations.)  And did I mention that he has a delicious sense of humor?

Can it wait for a bit? I’m in the middle of some calibrations.”
Tell me you wouldn’t hit that. TELL ME.

Garrus has a legion of fangirls, and for good reason.  Although he looks like someone threw a cat, a komodo dragon, and a peacock into a blender, he’s managed to convert thousands to xenophilia and send thousands of panties flying.  The reasons?  His warm, down-to-earth voice acting, his snappy, sarcastic dialogue, an awkward but endearing romance, and a layered back story that exposes a good deal of his species’ culture (he’s got that whole Shrek-onion thing going on).

Then we’ve got Dragon Age‘s Oghren.  It’s hard to pick a favorite in terms of good writing out of such a stellar cast that includes characters like Sten, Alistair, Leliana, and Zevran, but there’s a reason I chose him (other than the fact that he’s probably the most quotable character ever made).  Everybody’s favorite foul-mouthed, flatulent, and constantly drunk dwarf also happens to be far more complex than he lets on.  This pint-sized, hairy ginger comes from an intricate caste system in which he used to be a promising warrior.  However, after his wife, a brilliant smith who was a heroine to the dwarven people, deserted him, he turned to drinking.  Oghren was eventually booted from his House and stripped of his weapons.  During the course of the game, he goes from a whiny drunk looking to pick a fight to a man who has regained his confidence and pride.  And he does all this while firing off the funniest one-liners ever written.  Like Garrus (but to a much greater extent), Oghren’s marvelous writing depicts a character demoralized by the culture he’s from while revealing key parts of that culture.  His journey during the game is both physical and mental, and his heartbreaking encounter with his wife provides the sort of emotional catharsis that makes a character arc feel real.

“Well, fart me a lullaby!”
Oghren also has fangirls. But for different reasons.

So when you stack up these kinds of video games against other genres of storytelling, I’d say they do pretty well.  The characters are just as complex.  The quality of the dialogue is higher than most Hollywood blockbusters.  The plot arcs are, if not the most original, at least suspenseful and exciting.  As a writer, all this combines to make me feel like I am immersed in the worlds these games create – and that’s exactly what they should do for everyone.

Now, am I going to ditch all my writing dreams in order to throw myself at Bioware and beg them for an internship?  Of course not.  (…well, maybe not.  Bioware?  Bioware, are you listening?)  But characters like Garrus and Oghren have certainly given old favorites like Han Solo, Merry and Pippin, and Tyrion Lannister a run for their money.

Tyrion is unimpressed by your silly video game characters.

What do you think?  Do you agree or disagree about the quality of game writing?  Did I write about your favorite character, or did I miss someone?  And, most importantly: what’s your favorite Oghren one-liner?

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2 Responses to “Why Video Game Writing Makes Me Swoon”

  1. Macky August 24, 2012 at 2:19 am #

    After spending 14 hours on skyrim today, I can honestly say this is the perfect thing to read before I collapse into bed. ❤

    • elizabethballou August 24, 2012 at 10:16 am #

      14 hours? Jesus christ, woman, you are a champion! (And I’m glad you enjoyed this, of course.)

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