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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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

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.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era