Useful Blather on Writing

In The Gaming Community, Video Games on August 26, 2011 at 5:21 pm

Writing is hard because it’s easy. Anyone can put words to paper (or screen). We all like the finished product of writing through the books we read, the movies we watch or the games we play. Certainly, we all are inspired by the world around us and the works we imbibe, and raw ideas seem to flow so naturally through the tips of our fingers. Whether the mind in charge of that creative vehicle has the tools and knowledge to forge those ideas into something worthwhile is another matter entirely.

Writing is also hard because it’s deceptive. There are actually many different specialties in writing: literary writing, fiction, non-fiction, journalism for print, journalism for television, critical evaluation and so on. Proficiency in one does not necessarily impart competency in another. No truer is this particular story told than in game journalism.

Game journalism is a tricky industry. Far more than any other special interest publication sector, it shares such a symbiotic relationship with its industry. Game journalists aren’t passive spectators in the reading or viewing of a piece; they actively play the games they review, relaying both a travelogue of their own experience while maintaining an alleged demeanor of objectivity in their critique.

(Notwithstanding, I actually disagree with the idea that reviewers should purport to objectivity, but that’s a column for next week perhaps).

So that’s like, three schools of writing, right off the bat. More when you consider that they’re trying to give us a comparison to other, similar products while evaluating the story and its technical prowess. Honestly now. This is just getting ridiculous.

So it’s not surprising that a few important pieces get knocked out and they forget some of the concepts they might have learned in a literature class or creative writing workshop (if they had such lessons at all). So you see quite a bit of games being denigrated for not having “likeable” characters while they glaze over how un-dynamic the characters are or how generous the writers seem to be with their simple, hated foes. We’re told that a character is badass like it’s supposed to mean something and don’t even get me started on female characters.

Likeability and Believability

Writing is hard because we’re all the Mary Sues of our lives. We want to be liked and aren’t as aware of our flaws as we should be as enlightened, self-aware adults. This is reflected when a game writer creates a product for mass consumption, and is part of our expectations when we leap into the boots of our game protagonist du jour. Games are sold on the prowess of their protagonists, what they can do filling in bullet points on the back of the box, rather than on their limitations or how they (don’t) overcome them. Our immersion is reliant on our seamless transition, the smooth ride into a likeable character and a jarring moment of character-defining dickery can pull us out just as easily as a game-breaking bug.

Trust me when I say this: likeability isn’t as important as believability, although they’re not mutually exclusive by any means.

But what is believability (he asks to himself)? A number of details contribute to whether you’d describe a character as believable, but being grounded in reality is not among them. Whether the story purports to tell the story outside our windows or in the deepest recess of our imagination, people are still people with attitudes, thoughts and desires that should make some kind of sense no matter the setting. The most important trait is consistency, as showcased by writing that allows the characters to be challenged and show us what they’re really like. This one difficult to fully wrap one’s mind around. In simplistic stories, such as Gears of War, the characters are never challenged in a fashion where this is tested; rather, they fight their inhuman mustache-twirling locust with no great challenges to their ethos or drive. Dom hates the locust and loves his wife; they kill his wife — shoved her in a fridge, really — and he continues hating them and loving his wife. Nothing’s changed. And nothing should change: the locust aren’t people to reason with and Dom couldn’t have prevented the entire debacle by, say, being a farmer. So he gets off easy. He’s consistent but he has no reason not to be.

Consistency is difficult to pull off when you’re married to a concept and not a character. Sunshine shows a marvelous example in Chris Evans’ character Mace. Mace is an engineer with a military background: he solves practical problems and he’s pretty disciplined about it, moreso than the rest of the crew. He and Robert, the scientist-guru behind the sun-starting machine, frequently exchange words — angry words — over their differences in approach and demeanor. For much of the movie, it would be easy to write him off as the stupid hard-ass military guy. Yet, when the survival of the mission is at stake, he’s quick to selflessly dismiss his own survival in favor of the much more mission critical Robert. This might seem like a turnabout, but it’s not: he was just singularly dedicated to the mission, what with the stakes being the survival of Earth. Good writing allowed his ethos to be challenged and we got a much more well-rounded and interesting character for it.

Secondly, characters should be affected by their experiences. Max Payne 2 wonderfully focuses on just what kind of person Max would turn out to be with a mobster kill-count in the quadruple digits. In the first game he was incidental; in the second, due to his experiences and how he and other characters react to this, he’s pivotal. Max Payne 2 could not have starred any other character in the telling of Max’s story. Because every character acknowledges what happened in the first game, our actions in the second have great weight: we can easily believe they are happening to Max and the stakes seem all the higher.

Lara Croft is blithely unaffected by her experiences. Delving into tombs and going toe-to-toe with all manner of supernatural foes has zero emotional or intellectual impact. The revelation of the truth behind her parents’ deaths fazes her for but a moment. That her longtime confidant was murdered shortly before her mansion burnt down only compels her onward without a shred of guilt, anger or thirst for justice. She’s not a believable person. She’s rich, smart and strong willed but little else other than seemingly perfect.

Key to their experience is the enemies they face. In fiction, conflict may be focused around any number of concepts, abstract and tangible. A man must face his own fear, a woman faces social injustice, children face bullies and so on. Conflict in games is always much more centered around physical entities and organizations that threaten the existence of our protagonists; the answer to this is violence and external triumph, rather than internal realization or change.

So in a sense, game writers cheapen their characters when they allow them to face naught but faceless, blatantly evil constructs that are only occasionally human.

Martian Successor Nadesico plays with this idea. At first, Earth is under attack by the Jovian “lizards.” Near the end of the series, it’s revealed that this was just an evil moniker as no one knew what they looked like. As it turns out, the Jovians were a lost colony of humans with bizarre cultural values that happened upon some advanced technology. Their culture was based on the heroics of a television show that the main cast was familiar. So they understood their enemy, knew they were human, knew that they were flawed and came out of the experience shaken.

In Persona 3, while shadows seem to be the bread and butter enemy, their nature and tendencies within their arcana cause the cast to discuss, somewhat endlessly, some of the ramifications of their actions. When their situation is revealed to be not as simple as they once thought, they are all forced to come to terms with what they’ve done and now must face.

Kane and Lynch is commonly derided for its unlikeable protagonists. While the series is far from perfect from a graphical, technical or gameplay-based standpoint both my brother and I find their characters compelling. They are not nice people, not likeable people and they can barely stand each other. Yet, within the confines of the game’s plot, each one knows how much he can trust the other, and sometimes even that idea is wrong. It’s a compelling game where the characters — mass murders and violent criminals both — aren’t minced into heroic sociopathy. They aren’t Salem and Rios of Army of Two, happily fist-bumping after their morning mass-murder, nor are they generously given a moustache-twirling foe as in Gears. Why it should be an issue that bad people aren’t likeable is beyond me. The enemies are humans, after all, and the game doesn’t let them get away with that fact by making heroes out of them.

Many of these concerns are cast aside so long as a character is badass enough. Has no one realized that being badass in a video game is far from unique? The shelves are littered with titles starring protagonists with loads of powers, who trump all conflicts set before them. There is a struggle to win, but it is also a foregone conclusion with little triumph at the end. Halo’s Master Chief is probably king of this with the prowess of Spartans being well documented at this point. Not dwelled on (in the games at least) is that they are child soldiers with innumerable cruelties inflicted upon them in the name of humanity’s security. All MC is, is a badass. Once the fighting stops, you can start feeling bad for the guy because he’ll have nothing left to live for (outside of “being lucky”).

The above causes some problems (though the transitive property of lousy writing) to female protagonists. The majority of women in games are written so poorly that it seems a cold comfort to have yet another ridiculous specimen whose only saving grace is that she “kicks ass.” Everyone kicks ass. Strength of character isn’t a physical stat. This is especially sad once you consider that, even among the poorly written males, women still take the cake. So let’s go over some advice for writing women.

When I was a wee lad and took my slew of writing courses, someone made the mistake of saying they were writing a female character. This lead to a lengthy class discussion on “how” to write female characters, what traits you had to include, which ones you couldn’t, and so on. What we came away with — and indeed, the whole point as orchestrated by my professor — was that there are no character or personality traits required by or unique to men or women. None. So her answer to this question? Write the character based on how their experiences, goals, motivations and so on would shape them. The moment you’re including something like “sensitivity” or “vulnerability” or “emotionality” just because they’re a woman (or “emotionally distant” “paternal” or “testosterone-driven” for men), and not because of who they are, well… same thing as letting the plot railroad the characters (instead of the other way around).

It’s not that men and women aren’t different — they are. But this is more an issue of gender, society and norms; not traditional video game topics by any means. So in the meantime, training wheel mode enabled means just stop thinking about it and just write something worthwhile.

  1. Yay, writering… stuff!

    One of the most common beliefs I encounter out in the world of game design is the notion that game writing still has a long way to go, though this is generally purported by people who can’t really do anything about it.

    Beyond that, I do agree that whatever notion of what it is to be a badass it what hurts a number of games, and hell, movies as well.

    Detour time!

    I fucking hate the Scarface remake from the ’80s. The movie is technically an interesting look at a man’s rise and fall in organized crime, but at the end of the day, the main character is a freaking idiot. My discontent comes less from the film and more from the people that glorify the film and its idiot main character. I don’t know whether you’ve seen the movie, but I’ve little doubt you’re familiar with the imagery of the protagonist pulling out a machine gun and firing like a mad-man before being gunned down from behind. I see people- even little kids- wearing Scarface shirts regularly like the man is some kind of goddamn hero because he took what he wanted, all the while missing the point that it was this behavior that ruined him.

    To get en route, this kind of characterization is what’s wrong, and it’s especially symptomatic of the audience watching it. A movie like Scarface at least has an obligation to explore its character, whereas many games are built with the philosophy of minimizing story. This isn’t a bad philosophy unto itself, depending on the needs of the game, but it invariably undermines the notion of serious storytelling when there’s a fear of putting in a real investment at the expense of a few more minutes of the player’s time.

    Now, I should grant, I’ve never played Gears of War or Halo. Not to snub, just more out of disinterest. I think the closest I could say I have to the badass archetype is Samus Aran, who was ironically reduced to a blithering idiot when she was given a full voice versus when she remained silent.

    Going on from that point, I do concur there is a value in consistency when applied correctly. My longstanding philosophy with writing characters is that there should either be a primary goal of developing the future or developing the past. The former suggests the character is challenged in some way and may even change by the end of the story, while the latter is consistent to their beliefs and we get to learn why they are the way they are. It’s probably not the most accurate outlook, but it’s the basis I’ve worked with for a long time.

    Pushing a character forward can be easy, but can fall in dangerous risk of becoming badly forced if the provocations aren’t sufficient and are simply milked to create drama. Keeping them steady does risk stagnant men fighting mustache-twirling villains (as you put it), but of course doing it well means that every action they take (especially the pleasantly unexpected ones) will actually fit within their modus operendi if you stop and think about it.

    And with regards to your point on writing women, I’ve got my own story (literally!) from a while back. I wrote a story called Gracious some years ago in my first creative writing course, told from the point of view of a coarse mannered girl named Shaun. The entire story was basically compelled by my finding this name as a girl’s name in a name book, without any sort of gender-friendly vowels suffixing the end. Owing to her personality, there was such a debate about the voice of the character and how she didn’t really sound like a female, and my argument then (as it is now) is that I don’t put so much stock in writing women to sound like women as I just try to write them as human beings. This isn’t to say some gender stereotypes don’t leak in here or there (in fact, I would say they have to), but rather I stated that I knew a couple of tough-talking gals in my day who you’d as much figured were guys, but still managed to be straight (sexually speaking).

    That said, I returned to the story years later and found it wasn’t very good. :-p I gave the character another go, same archetype and all, but around a different and more somber event. Humorously enough, those who read about Shaun in 2010 had the same problem as those who read about her in 2003, so I think she’s just doomed to be misunderstood.

  2. The biggest issue to game writing as I understand it is that it’s very much a commercial product that is written by committee. Concepts, plots and characters will be created, edited and excised at will based upon executive mandate, market study or if the dev team does or doesn’t have the time to put them in the game, based upon the needs of the game and gameplay, rather than the needs of the characters or plot. Game writers are usually added after the fact to polish things up, to add dialog (including dozens of variants on repetitive phrases), much like a carpenter being hired to polish up a house that’s already mostly built.

    This doesn’t mean there aren’t games with cohesive creative leads or no games that are written with the story in mind, or games that place the plot ahead of gameplay. It also doesn’t mean that there aren’t games that come out of this process with good plots and characters anyway. But it is a hurdle that isn’t helping the creativity of the industry any.

    Films and books are written by writers first and touched up by editors, publishers and studios second. Yes, some books and movies are written to order, and sometimes meddling gets meddlesome and tanks the quality, but you see the difference: games are like an updside-down cake compared to other written arts.

    The people in the industry that have the power to change this aren’t the assholes with opinions (you and me, sitting in a darkened room bitching to our hearts’ content while sipping cheap rotgut). Nor is it the game writers who essentially proofread scripts written by the rest of the dev team. It is an executive deciding how to minimize the risk of a multi-million dollar project, and one of the ways to reduce the risk of alienation plotting and characters bring is to allow them to fade to the background.

    Characters in games are more defined by their capabilities than their actions. We have innumerable space marine bald toughguy soldiers because that’s a blank template that justifies the gameplay. Broadly speaking.

    Blah blah blah.

    I’ve never seen scarface, but it wouldn’t be the first or last time people latch onto a cool idea, ignorant of the real message or meaning (see also Fight Club). Whether that denigrates the quality of the base work is our opinion to bastardize.

    Team Ninja isn’t known for their excellent characterization, nor their ability to make quality female characters.

    Regarding developing the future or the past …well, one’s for the audience and the other is for the character. Good writing will be good writing, but literarily speaking it’s a non-event when the audience learns something that a character already knew. The character hasn’t changed, nor has his perspective and they haven’t experienced anything new, but the audience is expected to stand up and take notice of the revelation all the same. It’s not that it can’t be fun or interesting, but it’s not character based. That’s the narrator witholding the goods for a cheap hook. Which can be a legitimate framing device, but that’s something else entirely.

    Regarding your story about your story (checking to see what condition my condition is in…) that’s pretty typical. I suppose meeting it halfway, you’d have other characters or society react to whether they are adhering to their idea of gender (or have the character react to the reaction or idea of how they’re supposed to act). It’s a toughie and kind of funny you more or less had a first hand example as such.

    Though hopefully there’s less of an issue in a visual medium. Hopefully.

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