However, next week I'll be going to Austin for its version of the Game Developer Conference. This one seems to be largely focused on the creation, management, and advertising of online games (i.e. MMOs and casual games). But in addition to that, there's another "track" (a fancy word for a group of seminars) for game writing, which is where I'll be spending most of my time. I'm glad to be going, of course (in no small part for the after parties and the copious amounts of booze they provide). But generally these things are only as good as their teachers, and I know precious little about most of them, with three exceptions - Drew Karpyshyn, Denis Dyack, and Lee Sheldon (more on him later). Drew worked on Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect for Bioware, and Denis Dyack is the much-discussed head of Silicon Knights, which is responsible for the way-trippy Eternal Darkness.
But even if I didn't know any of the speakers, I'd still be excited to go, because I love getting down and dirty with storytelling in video games. And that makes me a rare breed. Because the fact is, most game stories suck balls. And nobody seems to care. People are generally content with whatever cliched, stereotypical, thoughtless drivel happens to spill into the game so long as shit blows up and the headshot animation is realistic.
I'm not saying all games need stories, but if you are gonna tell a story, why not put a little effort into it? Is "not completely mindless" really something to shoot for? This especially gets me on otherwise top-shelf, multi-million dollar budget games. One of the most recent big-name offender in my eyes is Gears of War. They had an awesome sci-fi writer. They had a seemingly bottomless budget. They had everything they needed, and the story was still a half-wrought, mindless, disappointing mess. I'm not going to break it down scene-by-scene, but suffice it to say I found it very fucking lacking.
Usually when I express this opinion, I'm met with apathetic cries of "Who cares? I got to chainsaw aliens! I don't need a story." Well, maybe you didn't, but I don't think that's enough to give the obviously talented dudes at Epic a pass. It could have been so much better, and all they had to do, in my opinion, was care more. This brings me to my third exception - Lee Sheldon. I'm sure most of you have no idea who he is, but he wrote a very cool book called "Character Development and Storytelling for Games" (three guesses what it's about). He covers a ton of ground in it, but if I had to pick his overarching message, it's that story should not take a back seat to gameplay - they should be developed side-by-side to support each other.
Most working game developers seem to think that focusing on one will necessarily lead to less quality in the other and also see gameplay as inherently more important. But Lee sets forth a very good argument that shows how placing more emphasis on story can lead to better gameplay and an overall much better experience. He also talks about gaming's struggle to being taken seriously as an art form, and how the storytelling (the part that actually allows us to connect to the game in an emotionally meaningful way) is the key to that recognition. Story should never, ever get in the way of gameplay, but by God it should get an even shake right from the start.
A few games have or will soon come out that seem to agree with these views (Bioshock and Mass Effect, for example) and that makes me a very happy camper. But as a medium, we have a very long way to go, and the first step is trying to convince more people that story matters and that we should expect more out of our preferred entertainment. I'm not saying that every story has to be a metaphysical exploration of the Oedipal conflict of modern man, but I am saying that if you're gonna make an alien game, or a zombie game, or a crime game, then goddammit make it right! Not just from a visceral kill-or-be-killed perspective, but from the perspective that the craft of storytelling does matter and that by elevating that, we can elevate the medium as a whole to where it should be but isn't. Whether you're a player or a creator, just give a damn. I've just started my own little journey as a professional writer, and if I have my way it'll be long and blisteringly successful financially. I just hope it doesn't have to be an uphill battle the entire freaking way.
Anyway, that's my rant for tonight. Once I get back from Austin, I have some ideas for a weekly thing to try and keep this thing active. Hopefully someone will give a damn by then.
tl;dr stories in games suck and it's mostly because neither the fans nor the devs give a shit about it. We can and should do better, but only if we give a damn.