In my 21 years of existence, video games have come a long way. There is no doubt that what developers are able to do now visually and from a gameplay perspective blows anything I played in my childhood out of the water, especially when you take away the nostalgia factors. Games nowadays are just objectively prettier, bigger, and more complex, and almost all of that is correlated with the beefier hardware, tools, and budgets developers have access to.
But in all that time, one of the key elements of games hasn’t been as reliant on technological advancements. You can add more pixels and polygons. You can create more advanced character models. You can even create ever expanding worlds and add online components. But the tools for a game’s writing are the same as they were from the day I was born: 26 letters, an infinite amount of numbers, and some punctuation marks.
With single player games, especially nowadays, writing is as crucial as it has ever been. While games may have started as simply a fun past time, they have expanded into a story-telling medium and, at its core, writing is storytelling.
In my mind, writing has two core aspects. There is the plot, the major events or points of story that you would touch on if you were to summarize the game to a friend (the character goes here, this person dies, this major character betrays you, etc.). Then there is the dialogue, the seemingly small interactions in the game that add humor, character development, and some depth to the game. The latter emphasizes the former. For example, The Last of Us would not nearly have been as great of a game without the dialogue and the smaller relationship building moments between Joel and Ellie. In Portal and Portal 2, the conversations of characters like GLaDOS and Wheatley not only inject humor and some personality into a puzzle game, but tell a better story than some games do with actual people. Even games like the Borderlands series, which don’t have the greatest plot, have great dialogue among its cast of characters with the likes of Claptrap and Handsome Jack.
Bad writing can also ruin a single player campaign. When you look at a lot of campaigns from FPS blockbusters such as Battlefield and Call of Duty, the knocks against them usually aren’t hardware limitations. It isn’t that the graphics look shoddy or that the game doesn’t play well. Very often it’s the writing. The characters are often cookie cutter soldiers, dialogue is flat or just strictly consists of details regarding the task at hand, and the plot is simplistic, uninteresting and exists as nothing more than a vehicle to move you to the next mission. Even if the plot is good, bad dialogue can really ruin the flow of a story and hurt the plot, especially if I end up not caring about any of the characters involved in the story.
For a single player game, writing is such an important factor that it becomes incredibly noticeable when it is missing. A striking example of this in my opinion is the BioShock series. BioShock and BioShock Infinite were both created under the direction of Ken Levine and Irrational Games. Both featured great writing and storytelling. BioShock 2 was developed by a different team and was less critically acclaimed. It wasn’t a gameplay issue either. In fact, I found BioShock 2 a lot more fun to play than the first game just due to the availability of different weapons and the sense of control as a Big Daddy. That being said, the writing and story fell flat. Sofia Lamb was no Andrew Ryan, and the overarching story arc and ultimate twist were underwhelming.
And while some games have great gameplay mechanics to fall back on, old-school adventure games are almost entirely dependent on writing. Classics like The Secret of Monkey Island and modern takes on the genre like Broken Age would not be memorable if not for the great stories and the great conversations your characters had along the way.
In an age of remasters, it’s even easier to see what has held up. When I look some of the platforming series in my childhood (Ratchet & Clank, Jak & Daxter, Sly Cooper) or games like Grim Fandago, the HD versions have apparent outdated mechanics compared to contemporary games, but the smart writing and wit remains and can still hold its own. By the same token, a lot of games today spend so much time on graphical fidelity, and this shouldn’t be a surprise given how much consumers care about it, as seen in the myriad of graphics comparison videos. But while the transition from SD to HD has been great for games, it can only go so far.
To be clear, a game doesn’t need to have great writing to be entertaining. A lot of action games, for example, are far from intricate narratives, but still incredibly satisfying to play. Sports and racing games almost never have a narrative component, yet are still enjoyable. Likewise, plenty of summer blockbuster movies are not going to win an Oscar any time soon but are still worth watching. But if we are to look at video games as an art medium that is starting to come into its own and needs great games, writing is more important now than ever. And while the increase in computing power has opened doors for new ways to tell a story in a video game and create amazing worlds, it’s important to remember that you can’t make writing HD and that no amount of graphical polish will fix poor writing.