Video-game writing is improving by leaps and bounds
Released in february, “Elden Ring” (pictured) has already sold more than 12m copies around the world and is tipped to dominate this year’s gaming awards. Co-created by Miyazaki Hidetaka, a revered Japanese game director, it is full of intriguing subplots, layered characters and twists. The tale takes place in a violent fantasy world riven by political strife, apocalyptic anxiety and supernatural monsters. Mr Miyazaki had some help. George R.R. Martin, the author of the fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire” (which was adapted into the global television phenomenon “Game of Thrones”), crafted the game’s lore and mythos.
The authorship of “Elden Ring” is symbolic of a wider trend. Video-game companies are investing in writers as they seek to create entertainment with sufficient emotional heft to compete with narrative forms such as films, books and television. Where once game directors mostly came from a technology or managerial background, they are now often accomplished writers.
“The Last of Us”, a post-apocalyptic survival saga, was written by Neil Druckmann, who also produces graphic novels. Ken Levine, the mastermind behind the “BioShock” series, once had aspirations in film and wrote screenplays. “Uncharted”, an Indiana Jones-style adventure series, was created by Amy Hennig, a literature buff; she has spoken of the rewards of finite narrative games that offer the “Aristotelian idea of [an] ending that’s both surprising and inevitable”.
Big-budget games now regularly hire writing teams to create plot, character and narrative; writers work alongside artists, musicians, programmers and gameplay designers. Independent game developers, working alone or in small teams, are also proving adept at delivering highly personal tales. “Unpacking”, a bafta-award-winning game by Wren Brier and Tim Dawson, tells a young woman’s story through a series of puzzles.
All this is far removed from gaming’s historic relationship with narrative and character. In their earliest form, games such as “Pong” and “Space Invaders” were almost entirely action-based, with little sense of story. Simple characters like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong came later, but were designed with marketing in mind and worked around the graphical limitations of the day. Later game-development teams tacked story onto their creations as an afterthought, sometimes giving writing responsibilities to whichever junior programmer on the team fancied having a go.
The results were usually cliché-ridden fantasy or stock characters such as grizzled warriors, cackling villains and damsels in distress. Schlocky marketing techniques, aimed at an audience dominated by boys and young men, added to this dismal state of affairs. Today the best-remembered pieces of writing from this era are catchphrases—think of “It’s-a-me, Mario!”
There were a small number of exceptions to all this, including early text-based adventures such as “A Mind Forever Voyaging”. (Released in 1985, it was a science-fiction critique of Reagan-era policies.) Occasionally novelists and scriptwriters were brought in to help with adaptations of their work: Clive Barker and The Wachowskis were involved in games based on “Undying” and “The Matrix”. Douglas Adams co-wrote an original game, “Starship Titanic”; Terry Pratchett was so enamoured of the fantasy game “The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion” that he freely contributed to a player-generated modification for the game.
Co-operation between traditional writers and game designers was hampered by the peculiar demands of player agency and interaction. In games, the function of dialogue has long been to give the player instructions of the “go here and do this” variety; designers are drilled in the importance of keeping the action moving. Complex characters proved elusive, as did marrying emotional depth with individuals whose main function is often to inflict violence on others.
Yet the success of games such as “The Last of Us”, which is being adapted for television by hbo, suggests that players are eager for more substance. (“Uncharted” was also made into a film released earlier this year.) Developers are adjusting their processes accordingly. Writers may be hired at the beginning of projects—as was the case with Mr Martin and “Elden Ring”— to set an emotive tone, back story and ambience that serve as a narrative template for other writers, artists and gameplay designers. The lore in “Elden Ring”, for example, tells the tale of a magical ring that secured peace and tranquillity in “the Lands Between” but was broken during a civil war. The lands are now contested, warred over by competing factions, none of which have the power to win.
In future, more novelists and scriptwriters will probably collaborate with game developers, especially authors who grew up playing games and admire the form’s peculiarities. Brandon Sanderson, a fantasy novelist, has said he was recently approached by the company behind “Elden Ring”. Mr Sanderson, best known for his epic “Cosmere” series of novels, said he has a few cherished ideas he’d like to pitch. ■