Why game stories stink (because they don’t stink enough)

Wired has a nice little story on Austin Grossman, a video game writer (Deus Ex, System Shock) who went back to school to get a Ph.D. in English and write a novel. Grossman adds an interesting point to the discussion about story in video games:

“I absolutely want to go back to video games,” he says, adding that writing a novel has helped him see what’s missing from video game storytelling: the freedom to suck.

“Writing a novel was completely awesome because parts of it could suck and I could throw them away,” he laughed. “I didn’t have to know the ending until I got there.” Stories for video games, on the other hand, are very rarely revised. Grossman recalls how game developers might start building the animation of a final battle scene right after he’d delivered an outline of the story. Even if he realized later that having the battle there was stupid, it was already coded and couldn’t be changed.

This isn’t new in the sense that we already know game developers pay very little attention to and don’t understand story in a zillion different ways, but it’s a nice illustration of that fact. Then there’s this:

Another problem comes when designers try to shoehorn storytelling devices like character development into games. “Video games have their own emotional vocabulary, their own language,” Grossman says. “Maybe they just don’t do character.”

Yoinks. Don’t do character? That’s conceding an awful lot. I know we’re still working on a framework for how to make and analyze games, but jettisoning character development? That seems like a big thing to write off, especially when so many games are trying to be like movies and presenting ostensibly deep characters. Then again, Grossman isn’t the only one to feel that way.

— June 5, 2007

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