Games Writing Needs a Battlestar
The Games Were Created By Man.
Their Stories Blew.
Many Are Just Copies.
They Look Amazing.
Some Are Programmed To Be Fun.
Eventually We're Going To Need a Better Plan.
The Games Were Created By Man.
"Battlestar Galactica" is important. It's not just a fantastic television show, a landmark series in the history of the medium. It's not just a high water mark for the concept of 'reimagining' older stories. It's important because Ron Moore and the show's production crew absolutely destroy the crufty sameness of what 'sci-fi television is.' The tropes of Star Trek and Star Wars are so familiar, so well-tread, that they're almost played out. Sci-fi TV shows are still being made as if one mediocre show from the 60s is the template for modern storytelling.
In many ways games are operating in the same model.
Most modern games are very story-weak, or attempt to ape past successful story-heavy titles. Our medium suffers even more than television because many of the truly great stories were created so recently. Half-Life is the template for FPS storytelling, and it's only ten years old. The western-style RPG has been largely typified by BioWare RPGs, and Baldur's Gate is also just about ten years old.
Despite these archetypes originating so recently, it already feels as though calcification has set in. Videogames are already mimicking the stodginess of a medium more than twice its age. Sci-fi TV shows have improbable time travel, we have physics puzzles. Crime dramas have the crusty old cop, we have the foul-mouthed space marine. It's flabbergasting that already this limitless palette for expression is being reduced to hackneyed stereotypes.
One of the most dire signs of this is the game remake. How can developers justify remaking a game in a medium as young as this? "Battlestar Galactica" is a rehash of a thirty-year-old show. The upcoming Alone in the Dark is a do-over for a game that was released in 1992. There needs to be some sort of statute of limitations on this sort of practice.
There have been many articles of late decrying the poor state of games writing, but my biggest fear isn't the quality of the writing itself. On the whole I think that the writing is getting very good; even Gears of War was well written. My biggest fear is that increasingly familiar genre crutches will become ingrained components. What we need is a game that takes its story seriously, that shakes up the very foundation of games writing.
What we need is a "Battlestar Galactica." A game that isn't afraid of the hard questions, real emotions, or the fundamental experience of being human. A game that challenges our assumptions of what the medium can convey. A title that cracks the shell on our Oblivion re-rating culture and makes people understand what we've known all along: it's not just magic coins and 1ups. I'd like a pony, too, as long as I'm waving my magic wand around.
That lack of humanity is games writing's biggest hurdle; how do you humanize a space marine? How do you convey the storytelling potential of an art form best known for beautiful bump-mapped babes and gratuitous violence? I think the real answer to these questions is straightforward, but kind of a punch in the gut.
The answer is casual gaming.
Storytelling in casual games began in a very simple place: "That mayan frog really hates those colored balls." As the sophistication level of the audience has risen, the stories have become more elaborate as well: "A woman fed up with her job quits to start her own restaurant." They're still fairly straightforward, but a lot of casual games have qualities AAA titles are missing entirely: empathy, heart, and approachable characters. Who's more human, Marcus Fenix (Gears of War) or Flo (Diner Dash)?
As casual games continue to evolve and adventure games continue their rise from obscurity, hardcore gamers may one day find themselves on the outside looking in. After all this time spent on graphics and high-profile titles, wouldn't it be a kick in the pants for a puzzler or flash game to finally achieve that emotional impact?
While I am personally and emotionally invested in a number of AAA games, I don't see that as a widespread phenomenon. How many people got choked up by the end of Oblivion's main story? How well do you remember the climactic final duel in Jedi Outcast? The answers to those questions, I suspect, are not many and not very well. We complete these games (or more likely shelve them) as quickly as we can. Glazed and uncaring eyes at another start menu, fire and forget, move on to the next title.
I've already gotten misty because of a game. I'm over that, and I think games writing is already there. Now I want my mom to cry because of a game. I want people to be talking about the latest chapter at the water cooler. I want E! to dish the dirt about the next installment. I know it sounds repulsive, but have you seen The Soup? Precious.
We're already in danger of a calcified, ghettoized gaming medium. As popular as games are, as many copies of Halo have sold, we're still at risk. It would be so easy to endlessly reuse, remake, rehash old material in the same physics puzzle/space marine/convict with a heart-of-gold ways. Whether it's a casual or a AAA, I want a game to break the chains. I want a design studio to back a gutsy story and see it succeed wildly. We need a plan.