There’s a saying that’s been bandied about on the internet by more than one occasion. Not “pics or it didn’t happen;” while that’s a good rule to live by it’s not truly relevant here. No, instead I’m talking about the argument that says playing a video game for the story is like eating soup because you like the spoon, and every time I hear it I want to light myself on fire and jump off the nearest roof.
Now this isn’t the point that I’m making here, but first off I have to point out that this is in the running for worst analogy in the god damned world. If you want to eat some soup, you need a spoon in order to enjoy eating it – unless you like using your bare hands to pick up a hot, soup-laden bowl and burning your lips on the rim. This makes the spoon the mechanism for engaging with your meal, which would be – in gaming terms – closer to your controller (or mouse and keyboard). If you want to really drive the analogy into the ground, the spoon is your controller, the soup bowl is your game console/computer, and the soup is the game itself, as you can’t consume it without the aid of the bowl and the spoon.
This is what an advanced English degree gets you, by the way. That, and unsustainable lifetime debt.
But I digress. The point I’m trying to make here is that downplaying the impact that good writing (or abysmally bad writing) can have on a game is foolish at the very least. The whole “games are/aren’t art” argument doesn’t even come into play here since games, like any other media such as books, movies, and television, are meant to entertain; while there are plenty of movies out there that can be considered works of art there’s even more out there that are considered just mindless entertainment, and for every Gabriel García Márquez publishing poignant masterworks there’s a Dave Barry out there churning out the literary equivalent of a gruesome train wreck, so it’s not even artistic integrity that I’m standing up for here.
Instead the issue here is the overall cohesion of the work. Just as you can’t build a stool without at least three legs, you’re going to be hard-pressed to produce work of lasting merit that doesn’t have requisite amounts of the three things that make a game succeed: game play, aesthetic presentation, and story. In the film industry, poor acting can let down a movie with a fantastic script and not even the best actors in the world can save a film written, directed, and produced by George Lucas, just as a video game with a fractured, illogical, or poorly told story can detract from a game that otherwise boasts excellent game play, graphics, and sound – and even the best written game may not necessarily redeem a game with clunky controls, horrible music, or poor art direction.
Need an example of how bad writing can impede a game? Here’s a classic, infamous bit of dialogue from the original Resident Evil:
Anyone who has played through the original RE will know this scene quite well. If you cringed watching this and then started laughing in incredulity, you’re in good company. This isn’t just bad voice acting, though that is a big part of it – it’s just bad writing. More specifically it’s probably a bad localization job, as RE was originally released in Japan and then translated into English for a Western audience, but the fact that absolutely abysmal dialogue made it through Capcom USA’s “Quality Assurance” department indicates that the same office janitors they used for voice over actors were the same ones pulling double-duty as proofreaders and play-testers.
Thankfully for the Resident Evil series, the game play and art direction of the first one were strong enough to leave that all-important stool impact – though I’d be lying if I didn’t point out one its legs was much too short – that stool sure had one hell of a wobble.