What's your pet hate about bad video game writing?

One-note characters, bad exposition and boring choices -- Naomi Alderman and David Varela give their

In September, the Arvon foundation is running a week-long course, aiming to teach students about the unique challenges of writing for video games. I recently spoke to its tutors, Naomi Alderman and David Varela, about creating characters, worlds and dialogue for this fast-growing art form.

Both have experience writing for games and other, more traditional media -- Naomi is a novelist (her latest book, The Lessons, is published this month) and David has written for TV, radio and theatre.

What is the biggest challenge in writing a computer game?

David Varela: It's really allowing the player to feel that they are exploring and finding things out in a way that is organic; that they are not being all fed lots of expositions at key moments; that they are finding things out on their own. So giving them a sense of freedom when, actually, you are manipulating them.

What's your pet hate about bad game writing?

DV: It probably is too much explanation. Show, don't tell. You can build up a lot of information piece by piece through a well-thought-out environment; you don't need to literally shout out to people like you do in Call of Duty.

Naomi Alderman: I often feel there's a lack of understanding of character. Characters often just have an assigned role . . . In any game, once you've played it for a while in a particular way, your choices ought not to be the same as they were at the start. So three-quarters of the way through that game, if you've always been helping out the people who ask you for help at the side of the road, you shouldn't have an option to go on a shooting spree. That is where the character starts feeling hollow . . . if they will always do what you tell them.

Take an example from Monkey Island. There's a bit where Guybrush Threepwood is confronted by his beloved Elaine: you get to choose, "I love you so much" or "You're the only one for me"; but whatever you pick, what he says is "Bleugh bleugh bleugh".

It's a beautiful moment because he is a character -- he's not you. You can't make him do anything. At some point, you have to understand that he's a bit of a shmuck. Heavy Rain's very good at that -- there's that bit where you try to make Ethan walk across a crowded subway station and he can't do it. That's what character resides in.

DV: Heavy Rain is a really interesting example because, at a point at the start, it felt like a single-parent simulator, where you are having to tend to this child. It builds an interesting relationship between you and the child, where you feel a duty of care and, at the same time, you feel slightly irritated. You create a relationship through the gameplay and when your child goes missing, it feels like you have bonded already.

It's very frustrating when you lose Jason [your character's son] in a shopping mall and you assume that if you play well enough, you can find him -- whereas the game is designed not to let you catch up with him.

NA: As games mature as a form, I think we'll have many more games where you cannot win, in that quite narrow sense of winning. Silent Hill 2 is a real classic. There's a man who gets a letter from his dead wife, saying, "Come to meet me at Silent Hill," which is the place where they first met. And, obviously, there's a handful of ghosts and horrors -- and he's just a bloke and not very strong -- and can't fight very well.

By the end of the game, it seems like the whole thing is a kind of hideous hallucination of his and he's trapped into doing the one thing that the whole way through the game he doesn't want to do. It's brilliant. The point at which characters are limited in what they do -- that's when they start to become real, rather than being menus.

Do you think most developers or publishers are now seeing writing as important -- or is it an afterthought?

DV: I think it is rising in terms of priority. It is going to be an on-going battle and I expect it will take a while.

But it is definitely on a lot more people's mind now when they are first coming up with proposals. They are thinking of the creation of worlds, rather than the creation of games: so they do start thinking early on about the atmosphere of the piece, what is the story, what is the background story, where do the characters come from?

Naomi, you mentioned character. Did the ending of Red Dead Redemption irritate you -- when you go from Clint Eastwood-style badass to doing chores for your wife and ungrateful teenage son?

NA: Yes, there's no emotional arc: [John Marston] is forced to hunt down and kill all his old friends, he's betrayed by his government, he's kept away from his wife. If this were a movie, at the end he would be a very different character to the character he was at the start. When I played, I killed 734 people in that game -- you would think that would change a person.

The [lack of arc] was more obvious, maybe, because RDR is drawing on those tropes of westerns -- a big story about a man who becomes disillusioned with the life that once enthralled him and who comes to realise that all the deaths were for nothing. That's quite a typical story in a western. But there's no change in him . . .

What about the binary choices -- very good or very evil -- that pervade games?

NA: In Bioshock, it's save the girl, kill the girl -- not a very nuanced moral choice. In fact, it's so un-nuanced that it reminds you that you're playing a game and it's not happening.

Are there any games that push beyond that?

NA: I can name one for you: Dragon Age: Origins. You're a wizard at wizard school and one of your friends comes to you in a dreadful state and says "They're going to take away my powers" -- mentally castrate him -- "You have to help me escape."

Asking around, you find out that it's because the people who run the school know he's been dabbling in blood magic; [they say] if we let him out of the building with magical abilities, he'll be taken over by a demon and he'll become a threat.

So you don't know what to do. Obviously, it's a more melodramatic choice than most of us have to make in our lives but, at the same time, you sit there thinking, "Either I help him -- he is my friend, after all, and maybe he's right that the people who run this school are corrupt -- or I don't help him, because maybe they're right that he's a danger."

You just pick one and then you have to live with the consequences of your actions. In either case, the consequences are quite nasty.

What, for you, is the game with the best writing that's available at the moment?

DV: There's a beautiful game that came out probably 18 months ago called Flower, which is lovely. Elegant game, tells the story without a single word of dialogue, without a single word on the screen. It's quite an emotionally led story; quite impressionistic but it's very powerful; it makes you very happy.

It gives you structure without saying a single word. Writing is about more than just dialogue; it's about creating a journey.

Why don't the artistic aspects of video game writing get taken seriously in the mainstream media?

NA: Basically, you need to sit down and put in 50 hours learning how to use a console in the same way that you would sit and bloody learn enough about opera in order to be able to understand an opera.

There's also the fact that games are becoming increasingly cinematic.

NA: I sat and played Heavy Rain with a friend of mine, Josh Appignanesi, the film director [he directed The Infidel]. He was very interesting on the way that Heavy Rain is actually directed. Cut scenes are usually filmed from one angle -- two talking heads -- there isn't anyone thinking about conveying mood in that way . . . The use of that artistry is very interesting.

What do you hope to teach on the course?

DV: It's about getting people out of the mindset that writing is all about words. Writing a game is not all about the dialogue any more than writing a screenplay is just about the dialogue.

NA: Professionalism. Writing for games involves a lot of writing and isn't as much fun as sitting down and playing your favourite game. The best teaching involves asking really interesting questions and then allowing students to figure things out. I don't think games writing now is as good as it will be. It's a young medium -- it's OK to be a young medium -- but we have to keep pushing forward.

I'll be posting more from Naomi and David tomorrow. For details of the Arvon course in September, click here.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution