Shoot first, ask questions later
Steven Poole ponders the current state of writing in videogames
Videogame writing has come on a lot, hasn’t it? Players love their epic sci-fi or fantasy stories, and the scope of the lore buried within their worlds. Everyone wants to celebrate the development of the medium into a sophisticated engine of ludic narrative. So when the American writer Michael Thomsen published a sceptical review of Uncharted 4 in the Washington Post, the backlash was severe. Fans scrambled to sign an e-petition demanding that Metacritic remove this review, along with the arbitrary 40% score assigned to it. The voice of Nathan Drake himself, Troy Baker, tweeted a link to the petition, and then tweeted a sort of apology. In the emotionally brittle world of videogames, someone had once again done something simply unacceptable.
What really enraged the fans was a single line in Thomsen’s thoughtful and interesting review. “The Uncharted games,” he had written, “have never excelled at storytelling.” Wait, what? But Uncharted has always been celebrated precisely for its storytelling. In the spirit of solidarity, I got in touch with Thomsen – who had stocially endured Twitter abuse and complaints from Sony to his editor (“In cultivating videogame communities around fandom rather than open critique,” he remarks, “publishers and developers help feed into these kinds of reactionary outbursts of abuse”) – to check whether he just hates story-driven games. Actually he doesn’t, mentioning games such as Twilight Princess and Cibele. But I agree with him about the Uncharted games, and it points to something deeper going on in modern disagreements about game writing. Most games are far too long, for a start, and no one has the time in the average dev period to write an amount of narrative that could compare quality-wise with two seasons of a top cable-TV drama such as The Americans. But a more profound problem is that when we talk about a game’s “writing”, we are focusing exclusively on a small subset of what is really at stake aesthetically.
People tend, for example, not to think of structural elements – such as backtracking or enforced farming – as part of a game’s writing. But if the whole game is supposed to be consumed as a “story”, then these aspects of its experience are key parts of the story structure just as much as whatever happens in cutscenes. Thomsen agrees: “Many critics often isolate a very specific kind of storytelling, such as in the Uncharted series, which I would describe as theatrical more than cinematic, invested in the idea of oration and exposition, and as technology has advanced, facial animation/emoting.”
In games as in film or television, however, the architecture of the story and the rhythm of its delivery is just as much part of the writing as single lines of witty dialogue. In
Uncharted 4, the long-noticed disjunction between the person we are supposed to take Nathan Drake to be in the cutscenes (amiable, thoughtful) and the person we make him while playing (psychopathic mass killer) is a fault in the writing, even if one belatedly acknowledged by the designers (a ‘Ludonarrative Dissonance’ trophy awaits players who kill 1,000 enemies). But there’s more: the fact that the pirates guarded their secrets with simple tile-rotation puzzles; the tedious crate-seeking; the late increase in bullet-sponge enemies; the fact that the game routinely forces you to try something even though you are scripted to fail – these are all faults in the writing, too. Perhaps the most forgivable faults are those that arise from impossible ambition. In a market, I listen to a long conversation in French between three men looking at their brokendown car. It’s a lovely throwaway detail. But it makes the fact that I cannot interject or offer to help them all the stranger.
None of this is intended to discount the experience of people who have sincerely enjoyed the Uncharted games as a narrative experience. Nathan and Sam do exchange many funny lines. Nathan does have amazing hair. And seriously, as an exercise in sheer vista-making, Uncharted 4 is an aesthetic landmark. (That’s why I’m still playing it after 16 chapters, for the sheer thrill of seeing what is around the next corner.) But if we are going to praise the writing in highprofile games we ought to pay them the respect of holding them to the same high standards as other genres. Uncharted 4 is many good things but it is not well-written. I suspect that the fans who become apoplectic and demand a newspaper unpublish a bad review secretly know this too.
In the emotionally brittle world of videogames, someone had once again done something simply unacceptable