Why are game writers so fucking awful?

Now with more blood!  Thanks, Electronic Arts!

The last hurrah.

I was feeling nostalgic after playing through the ending of Mass Effect 3 last week, thinking of the golden days of BioWare back before EA bought them out and began systematically running them into the ground, so I decided to re-install Dragon Age: Origins, which is widely considered one of the very last high-quality BioWare titles before the inexorable slide into complete and utter fucktardation began.  I was looking forward to enjoying some classic BioWare storytelling, but either I was remembering my first trip through DA:O with rose-colored glasses or I was just  high as a motherfucker all through 2009, because I found this latest experience pretty disappointing.

FUCKING HELL THAT THING IS SHARP

The d4 isn’t pictured because it’s lodged in the sole of my foot.

Now, let me give credit where it’s due: BioWare has always had a solid grasp on game mechanics, considering they cut their teeth on the super-crunchy 2nd Edition Avanced Dungeons & Dragons ruleset starting back in 1998 with Baldur’s Gate.  In fact, BioWare has to be the undisputed master of the AD&D computer game, considering the incredible job they did not only on the Baldur’s Gate series but also Neverwinter Nights and Knights of the Old Republic, which both used D&D 3rd Edition rules nearly seamlessly behind the scenes.  This technical know-how paved the way for them to create rulesets to be used in ther their original intellectual properties like Jade Empire, DA:O, and the original Mass Effect, giving ex-tabletop mouth-breathers like myself an outlet for their min/maxing tendencies (just remember: unless you’re a paladin, Charisma is your dump stat).

But I poop from there!

The problem, I found, wasn’t with the game mechanics in DA:O; these were still rock-solid, and I was able to fiddle to my heart’s content in the character generator. The problem for me started when I actually began the game in earnest, only to be rather disappointed at the writing for my character’s prologue.  If you’re unfamiliar with DA:O, you will have a unique playable prologue chapter that will differ depending on your race and class and will tell the story of how your character got caught up in this whole hero business.  While I’ve played through all the different permutations in the past, it had been years since the last time, so I chose the one I remembered the least – only to be completely let down by seriously lackluster storytelling.

Move along.

This is not the mentor figure you’re looking for.

The actual plot wasn’t terrible; I have to give the BioWare writing team that much at least.  It was utterly predictable and completely derivative, though: the story starts on the day of your wedding, but the son of the local lord shows up looking for a little Braveheart-style prima nocta; he’s humiliated and driven away before returning in force and making off with all the women, including your betrothed (or you, if you’re playing a female character), prompting you to rescue the damsels in distress before Little Lord Fauntleroy rapes the entire wedding party.  Once you escape (after carving your way out past a garrison of guardsmen), you’re saved from the hangman’s noose by being conscripted into the Jedi Order by Obi Wan Kenobi, the Grey Wardens by Duncan, and off you go.

I'll get you next time!

Curses! Foiled again!

Not bad, right?  Not great, either, but it’s a pretty solid story, if not exactly breaking any new ground.  I left out the worst part, though: the bad guy for the prologue is a completely two-dimensional Snidely Whiplash caricature of a villain, chewing up the scenery like he was being played by William Shatner (all due respect to Captain James T. Kirk, of course).  The only thing this guy doesn’t do is twirl his moustache and tie someone to the railroad tracks.  There’s no subtlety, no nuance to the character at all – he’s just a cardboard cut-out of “Spoiled Arrogant Brat.”  Hell, he’s even got the smarmy, smug asshole vocal characterizations down; one of his lines is literally “It’s a party, isn’t it? Grab a whore and have a good time!” said with enough sneer to make him look like a stroke victim.  At one point he even might say “well well well, what do we have here,” and the whole thing just made me shake my head and wonder who the fuck thought that was quality writing.

Oh look, an arena fight.

Exhibit A.

It got me thinking about some of the other shitty writing I’ve seen from BioWare in the past, especially when it came to a lack of originality and creativity.  This was something that has bugged me for a long time, and the best way to illustrate it is something I can only describe as The Arena Effect, which is a stubborn reliance on the same old, boring “gladiatorial arena” plot point way too many times.  This started back in Neverwinter Nights, where there’s a secondary quest in the Blacklake District called the Gauntlet Arena, where you can participate in a series of underground Fight Club  arena brawls for glory.  Now this isn’t bad on its own, even if it’s a little bit of a hackneyed plot point, but BioWare repeats the plot point not once, not twice, not even three times, but four more times over a course of more than a decade  between NWN and Mass Effect.

Oh look, another arena.

Exhibit B.

Don’t believe me?  Check it out: In KotOR, there’s a major plot point right on Taris, the first planet you visit in the game,  where you can participate in a series of underground Fight Club arena brawls for glory.  “All right,” you say, “it’s a common trope, a little funny how it appears again so soon, but it could just be a coincidence, right?” It happens again in Jade Empire in the Imperial Arena, where you can (you guessed it) participate in a series of underground Fight Club arena brawls for glory.

ANOTHER fucking arena.

Exhibit… shit I lost count.

“Okay, okay, I see your point,” you’re probably saying now.  “So it’s definitely not a coincidence.  But hey, it’s a popular theme!”  Sure it’s popular.  So was the Black Death.  But that’s not even the end of it!  The god damn plot point shows up again, this time in DA:O, where a player that starts out as a dwarf has to participate in a series of (literally) underground Fight Club arena brawls for glory in the Orzammar Proving arena in order to finish their prologue.  And then it happens one more time, with the Pinnacle Station DLC pack for Mass Effect, which adds an entire space station devoted to nothing but underground Fight Club arena br– yeah, you get the idea.

Seriously, guys; come up with some original ideas already.  I know you’re all for the whole Hero’s Journey thing, but enough is enough – nobody’s ever going to take you seriously if you can’t come up with something that doesn’t involve the equivalent of an old-timey bare knuckle boxing match, complete with handlebar mustache.  Put the trope to bed, or go back to the minor leagues – you’re really not fooling anyone.

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14 thoughts on “Why are game writers so fucking awful?

  1. I’ve just reinstalled nwn to mess with mod making and the toolset again. Happy to report there will b no gladatorial arenas. 🙂

  2. I’ll start with reiterating, as if you didn’t already know, that I know fuck-all about how to write well, aside from grammar. That said, I assume that it’d be really difficult to come up with innovation for a genre these days. So much has been done already during the boom of 15-20 years ago that most ideas are pretty much spent. A few games come along that are cool and refreshing, such as Heavy Rain, which is basically an interactive detective movie. In that, if the character you’re playing as dies, you don’t get a game over….it writes that into the story.

    That aside, I happen to like some arena stuff in RPGs. I liked the FF7 one and the Dragon Quest 8 one, though I haven’t played through one in awhile since I haven’t played many RPGs in awhile. Maybe you should look into being a VG writer! I’d definitely be interested to play a game based on your short story blowing off steam. That’d be pretty awesome! Of course, you’ll have to include an arena brawl for glory….and by glory, I mean BJs from scantily clad hot chicks with large breasts…..

    • Actually I think I read somewhere that back in the day, most of the people who worked as writers in the video game industry were really just the head developers and programmers. This means that most people didn’t have any real idea what the fuck they were doing when it came to putting a narrative together.

      This really didn’t matter back in the days of Centipede or Asteroids, as it was all just the gameplay experience that kept people plunking down their quarters. Most stories remained kind of simple with a few exceptions – mostly the RPG genre – but still it was just programmers and art directors getting together and brainstorming over the plot of Corpse Shooter 2: Electric Boogaloo or whatever they were working on.

      I think the issue here is that the technical side of the hobby has gotten so advanced that the shortcomings of the narrative side are starting to become a little more clear, which is why you’re seeing more actual writers working in the industry. I just wish more of them weren’t so fucking tone-deaf.

      I mean, if you’ve ever played the original Resident Evil on the PlayStation, it sounds like they just ran the Japanese script through Google Translate. Backwards. And then let George Lucas edit it.

      Oh, and I’m definitely down for some “glory.” Which reminds me, I need to go ask my fiancée something….

  3. Brian has a good point, and it’s one that many philosopher and author has already spoken about in the past – essentially all stories and all variations of stories have all more or less already been expressed. likewise Art has all more or less been done, only the medium and the manner in which these things are conveyed can change.

    This is why I generally don’t get hung up over abused tropes if the content is fun or somehow engaging.

    We jaded gamers/art consumers must remember that we are in our thirties and consume these things in mass quantities.

    When I was a younger child hanging out in Daves Den or computer room sporting a mullet and wearing a black Dracula cape… it never bothered me that almost everything we consumed for entertainment was just a retelling of old archetypes or stories, partially because we had little experience in them all.

    This is why execution IMHO is key.

    Take Avatar (the blue people one, not the silly magic monk one), The entire plot was just a retelling of several native American folk tales and movies – A sprinkle of pocahontas, a smattering of dances with wolves, and a whole heap of hippy blue shit.

    But you know what? I fucking LOVE Avatar. As in – I was depressed, certifiably depressed that Pandora wasn’t a real place I could move to and live as a Na’vi.

    That’s because the execution was nearly perfect, and the medium was completely new and fresh.

    So in our quest for entertainment, and in our ambition to be connoisseur of multimedia, let us not forget that over time, even the most sophisticated of palette can become jaded and unable to taste the nuances it once held in highest esteem.

    • See that’s the thing: there’s only like 8 or so different types of stories in the long run. Simply because everything IS so derivative, you’ve got a responsibility as a writer to make it fresh so that your audience isn’t sitting there and going “seen it” every time you do something.

      Avatar is a great example of that and I’m really glad you brought it up. I’ve even called it Dances With Wolves in Space on more than one occasion, but watching that movie is entertaining as fuck, isn’t it? I walked out of there and I wanted to shout “someone plug my ass into that machine” just as much as you did.

      That was all presentation, and an example of presentation done in perfect sync with a story that really was a pretty derivative one.

    • I must disagree with Avatar. I found very little about that movie to be great or truly immersive. I found myself looking at my watch repeatedly, which is always a bad sign. I understand what you mean about putting known plot concepts in with a fresh landscape to make a good union, but I don’t really feel they did that, IMHO. To me, every single “plot twist” or plot point was so insanely predictable, and I ended up totally bored.

      I would rather a movie like Event Horizon. While not perfect, I personally feel that it blended a cool story with solid acting and a very immersive setting. It had some predictable parts, of course, but plenty of unpredictable ones that were pretty sick. Avatar just seemed like he wanted to show off an effects budget, and didn’t give a shit whatsoever about story or character interaction and development. For christ’s sake, they called the shit unobtainium!!! Come on….

      /end rant

      BTW, I don’t hate on people for liking that movie, since a fair amount of people I know do. I just don’t agree with them.

      • I have to admit I cringed at the “unobtainium” line. Are you telling me they couldn’t have just come up with a better made-up word for some ultra-rare material?

        Speaking of Event Horizon, that movie is almost responsible for me actually killing someone. I had gone up to visit a friend in Albany the weekend that Blair Witch Project 2 came out, and we were so disappointed by the movie that we went back to his place, got completely piss-drunk, and watched Event Horizon. Of course when his roommate came home in the middle of the night right after the end of the movie, we both almost jumped him we were so keyed-up from watching that movie.

      • LMAO!!!
        My friend Gary cannot watch that movie alone, it freaks him out. I always wanted to hide a speaker in his apartment, wait until he was going to bed, and whisper “Billy” through a microphone and out the speaker. Unfortunately, I feared it would actually fracture his sanity, and never followed through. But hey, it’s the thought that counts.

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