Experienced Points: Million Dollar Actor, Five Dollar Writer

By Shamus Posted Friday Jan 15, 2010

Filed under: Column 81 comments

My tirade against terrible writing in games. Probably should have made this a multi-part series. I’ll ask the same question here that I asked over there:

What game has such horrible writing that it angers you with its stupidity?


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81 thoughts on “Experienced Points: Million Dollar Actor, Five Dollar Writer

  1. Jason Love says:

    Metal Gear Solid 4. Allegedly, the Japanese version has writing that’s clever and subtle, but that didn’t get captured with the translation. The writing dwells overlong on useless dialogue; it doesn’t contribute either to the story itself or the texture of that story’s depiction.

  2. Maldeus says:

    @Jason Love #1: They just shoved in a lot of filler to meet their quotas for cut scene length.

  3. TWorlock says:

    House of the Dead 2’s story is so bad it’s funny.

  4. Rutskarn says:

    Dark Messiah of Might and Magic had the most infuriatingly terrible writing of any game I’ve ever played.

  5. Brandon says:

    So bad it’s funny is a thoroughly different category than simply bad, though. Resident Evil and House of the Dead strive for that and succeed. The truly bad writing is that which aspires for much more but lands in the mud, face-first.

  6. Heron says:

    Someone in the Escapist article’s comment thread mentioned Final Fantasy as the “epitome” of good writing.

    While for the most part I agree that FF7 falls in that category, and FF9 to a lesser extent, I think the series has become weaker and weaker in the writing department. FFX’s story was weak and the characters were too stereotypical in their responses to everything. A little tweaking and their boring responses could have been transformed into character development. Imagine that.

    (I’ll admit I haven’t played FFXI or FFXII, but FF8’s writing annoyed me to no end.)

    Hmm. Now I can only think of games whose writing I liked.

    See, developers? If your game’s writing is bad, I won’t waste brain cells remembering it.

  7. Jacob says:

    My beef, most often, is with the localization crews and translators rather than the original writing. All too often the dumbest mistakes are made that a simple google could fix with freetranslation.com. *sigh*

    Xenogears pops up in my mind immediately.

  8. Magnus says:

    I suppose Command & Conquer should be mentioned, where the cutscenes and story veered from believable to cheesy and yet was enjoyable and fun (with a good game to back it up).

    I seem to recall many cutscenes from HOMAM5 being filled with awful dialogue and the story was quite atrocious in my opinion. Perhaps I am overly harsh though, since I just don’t like the game.

    More recently, I’ve been playing the original Dawn of War (WH40k), and the cutscenes were very difficult to watch at first, but that was more because of a certain amount of faithfulness to the source material. Watching and listening to Ork and Space Marine conversations can be a strange experience, but it does grow on you after a while (YMMV).

  9. MichaelG says:

    You could say the same about most summer action pictures. I don’t know why the script doesn’t get more attention, especially when Pixar has hit after hit based on good scripts.

    The Pirates of the Caribbean movies especially annoyed me. There are a handful of scenes where the actors really get to do something other than clown around, and the effects are there to set the mood, not just as thrill ride. I wanted to see the movie made from just those scenes!

    I’m surprised you single out Far Cry as hopeless writing though. It’s nothing special, but I don’t remember a point where you say “well, this is just stupid!” Not like your Champion Online experience.

    Do you like the Half Life scripts, esp. Episode Two, or is it just one long excuse to get you to shoot things?

  10. Selifator says:

    Hmm, Kingdom Hearts comes to mind.

  11. Eidolon says:

    I’ve gotten to be pretty tolerant of cliches. Otherwise, as an RPG fan, I’d have a whole lot fewer games I’d be able to play. (I always look for the point where my village is about to be destroyed…)

    I’m also pretty fond of just-plain-weird. I don’t think anyone would consider Katamari Damacy’s writing a work of art, but it worked for the game.

    Of course, sometimes you do get really bad plotting. I don’t remember many of these games, simply because I gave up on playing them for the most part. I’d agree with Fable, though (still think there ought to be some way around that choice, where you can do something clever and get both rewards — that’s the way fables tend to work, after all). Jade Empire’s main plot twist was pretty inexplicable, even if the rest of its writing was decent — and it’s a Bioware game. There were a couple of Wing Commander knockoffs back in the day that had similar gameplay but not nearly the narrative. But a lot of the dreck, I’ve just forgotten over time.

    Good writing, though, I remember. Shin Megami Tensei and Persona tends to have it. About half the Final Fantasies (though the other half belong on the “bad” list). Fallout, Arcanum, too many others to list.

    My biggest recent disappointment was Mass Effect. It was promising, and a lot of the writing is pretty good (if fairly standard sci-fi stuff). There was even some character development along the way. But the main plot was never really explained. It’s all smoke and mirrors. Evil ancient evil from Evilworld invades, because it’s evil. What does it want? Er… did we mention it’s evil?

    I still enjoyed the game, but the total absence of any motive really bugged me.

  12. Yar Kramer says:

    Hmm. I generally seek out games specifically with story in mind, so I generally don’t have this problem (to the extent of “This game’s writing was SO horrible I LOATHED it!” — I didn’t even mind Enter the Matrix that much), but I think that one ought to consider the intent of the game. Is the point of the game to tell a good story, or to just show white-haired prettyboys stabbing things? On balance … well, I suppose the text-on-fiery-background-plus-voiceover in Devil May Cry 1 worked just fine and they didn’t seriously need to spend that much effort on introducing us to a whiny white-haired prettyboy (did these guys not learn from MGS2!?), but I can’t deny it looks nice.

    Also, Dante and Nero are uncle and nephew, apparently. I just thought I’d get that out.

  13. radio_babylon says:

    probably a lot easier to ask which games DONT have such horrible writing that they anger you with their stupidity.

    only one really jumps out at me, planescape:torment… im sure there are one or two more if i were to give a lot of thought to it… maybe.

  14. Mistwraithe says:

    #11 Eidolen: I loved Jade Empire’s plot twist. There were perhaps a few inconsistencies in it but at least they had made attempts to hang lamp shades on most of them.

    Best of all, while I had an inkling it was going to happen, they did an excellent job of being very subtle about any foreshadowing.

  15. acronix says:

    Fallout 3. The main plo was crowded with stupidity. Not as much as Fable II, but I wasn´t expecting anything nice from Molyneux, so my take goes to Bethesda´s Fallout.

    To its defense, I must say that now I pay much less attention to stupid plots once I get the idea that they are stupid, so I can enjoy some games despites their awful writing.

  16. Josh says:

    I’ll nominate Dragon Age because it’s fresh in my mind. As far as video games go, it’s not horrible. But the best-written video games have the same quality as the worst-written novels (fantasy or otherwise). Dragon Age’s story is somewhat worse than the most boring novel that you might find sitting on a shelf at Border’s.

    I don’t believe this is because it’s more difficult to have a good backstory for a game. I’m not asking for the player’s choices to be woven into some epic tale. It would be fine for the player to simply be affected and constrained by the events and times of the setting.

    Dragon Age tries to give the illusion that the player’s choices matter, and that the player is the central character in its drama. But your choices don’t matter. It’s an illusion that doesn’t hold up at all.

    So basically, I’m making two complaints. First, the story is too dull, and second, it tries to pretend that what the player does matters.

    FF7’s story was only a little better than Dragon Age imo.

  17. Jeff says:

    Fallout 3. (No DLCs.)
    At first, it was neat. Oooh, your father was a government scientist! Big project! all these people!
    Then you find out what this mysterious project was. Something that five minutes with Google will poke holes right through the entire premise and setting details you never noticed until they pointed big flashing arrows at the failed science.
    Then the railroad ending.
    Ugh. It’s bad because it had such a promising start.

  18. [d20]thegrinner says:

    Heros of Might and Magic 5 had horrendous writing. And the Majesty series is borderline for no longer being so bad its good.

  19. DKellis says:

    The Escapist comment thread illustrates my usual position on this sort of issue: while there may be fairly clear extremes of “good” writing and “bad” writing, things get quite fuzzy in the middle.

    Taking the question “does Final Fantasy 8 have good writing?” led to one commenter saying it was the worst writing of all time (comment 23 there), and another saying it was the best writing of all time (comment 36). So, is it Good Writing or Bad Writing? Should it be put to a vote?

    And there’s even style preferences. Is it possible to compare the quality of game writing between, say, Xenosaga and Phoenix Wright? Both are arguably story-based, so it’s not like comparing Tetris with Mass Effect.

    Also, game series vary in writing style, much less quality. Take Final Fantasy XII with Final Fantasy I, or Persona 4 with Shin Megami Tensei 1.

    Taking this comment thread: what do people want in “good writing”? Is it any story at all? Or a coherent story? Is it to be consistent (strong beginning, strong ending), or just to have a strong ending, regardless of how the beginning goes (Jeff @17)? Is it to fulfil promises made, such as about the significance of player choices (Josh @16)?

  20. Elethiomel says:

    You mention Unskippable in your article. Yeah, they make fun of cutscenes. They take things out of context, are willfully obtuse, and generally stretch the stupidity of a cutscene to cover up the good parts of the cutscene. They do this in order to make better jokes, and I can respect that – but don’t take it as given that what they’re making fun of isn’t actually worthwhile art.

    For example, from one point of view the story in the DMC games sucks. From another, it’s willfully over-the-top; the impossible cutscenes becomes a hallmark of the series and a point to be enjoyed – not for its story, but for the ridiculously impossible things characters do in them. They set the standard for the gameplay – to do things that seem impossible and over-the-top, with no regard to why you are doing them. The combat is the center of the DMC games, not the plot – and the cutscenes are more to set the tone of the combat than tell a serious story. DMC3-Dante usually says things like “I don’t care, I’m gonna kick your ass!” when villains rant plot at him, and this works perfectly in context.

    Thus I think your conclusion – that games that refuse to try are objectonable – misses the mark. Games that don’t try to tell a coherent story may be trying to do something else with their cutscenes.

    And that’s not to mention games with low-budget cutscenes that Unskippable make fun of for their low budget (or artistic choice) rather than for a fault in the story – see any Unskippable video cocerning a cutscene that is partially or wholly panning/transitioning still images with a voiceover.

  21. Monkey says:

    I’ll call out the game that I worked on: SAW. Based on the films. We didn’t even HAVE a writer! Talk about atrocious… It was just something one of the producers wrote. I think our situations is probably pretty common… the reason why some game stories suck is because they aren’t written by writers.

  22. randy says:

    Anything from id post Tom Hall. Not only bad, but pretentious on top.

  23. eri says:

    Fallout 3 is probably the most recent story-oriented game with big-budget voice-actors that utterly failed to deliver any decent writing whatsoever. Not only is the overall story pretty dumb and seems to prioritise “cool shit” over “stuff that makes sense and advances the story”, it also has trademark idiot things like Ewoks (the city of immortal children) and Evil Dudes who are Evil because of the way they look. On top of that, it breaks the canon in lots of really dumb ways, and Bethesda only managed to dance around several other issues by relocating the entire game to the other side of the continent (“this is the Capital Wasteland Brootherhood, we do things different out here”, etc.). The dialogue itself isn’t that bad, but it commits the sin of blandness, and they still don’t have enough voice actors (I don’t know if they’re bad, or if Bethesda’s voice directors just suck). Lastly, the game suffers from a sort of moral schizophrenia where it’s wrong to kill a scumbag pimp/drug dearler, but right to slaughter an entire town full of slavers.

    Another one with bad writing lately was BioShock (spoilers this next paragraph). This one actually has pretty good dialogue for a game. The problem is that the story really doesn’t make all that much sense. It “works”, but there are about a thousand better ideas that the villain could have picked over an unnecessarily convoluted scheme which ultimately kind of relied on luck. It’s sort of like Jade Empire, except that the villain, instead of being foiled by an unforeseeable consequence, was simply too stupid to think things through properly. The emotional impact of the giant plot twist wears of really quickly due to a prolonged ending sequence. There’s a few scenes in particular which exist solely to bring emotional response from the player, but in the context of the plot serve no purpose whatsoever. There’s also a lot of weird universe conventions like the audio diaries and the Little Sisters (why are they all little girls? Because it’s creepy!) which don’t have much proper justification. In otherwords, it’s a case of the needs of the script dictating the canon, which translates to laziness.

    I guess Grand Theft Auto IV is old hat now, but I just played it a few months ago so it’s a bit fresh in my mind. A lot of that one in particular strikes me as a bad excuse to make the player do busywork. The entire series in general is really bad at that sort of thing, and while they made improvements in Grand Theft Auto IV, despite its great acting, smart dialogue, and memorable characters, it still feels like a generally random sequence of events with an arbitrary end. It also has a massively stupid flaw, which is that a decision earlier in the game has a totally unpredictable effect on the plot. It’s sort of like how your actions in The Witcher can have later consequences, but they never ever attempt to telegraph that those actions will have a later effect, especially as it is the only decision in the game like it.

  24. Helgi says:

    Too Human has very bad writing in my opinion.

  25. silver Harloe says:

    I really liked the writing in Star Control II.

    I can respect games that have “fun” cut scenes as a comedy break. I just have to wonder about games that have crap cut scenes that are played straight. Why bother to have them at all?

  26. nerdpride says:

    But if you want a good story, you don’t play a game, or even watch a movie, you read a book! Or at least it would save a lot of money (and possibly time, if you’re like me) if you did.

    This point was dodged in the Escapist article. :(

    I think that a story could only fit well into a game if it couldn’t fit better into something else.

    One fun alternative might be making things more like the “American Civil War Board Game”, where you don’t have to know anything at all about the American Civil War to play. Story is completely optional. But, if you make something, and it’s expensive to produce, then of course you have to shove it down the consumers’ throats to get a good reception out of it. Or, if this is actually a board game, avoid it whenever possible because it’s low quality.

    An better solution might be the thing used by pen and paper roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons. The story is really interactive. But technology is limiting here. Even if you have lots of interaction, and I bet someone would stop you at this point and say that a good bit of it can’t be done, your game could possibly not sell as well just because people are concerned about how it lacks the standard of near movie-quality cutscenes for every significant moment.

    Or ionno what else could work.

    Really, Shamus, you skipped out on the interesting part.

    Next time?

  27. Kalil says:

    I’d like to bring up Warcraft III. It mostly annoyed me out of contrast to Starcraft, since it was pretty clear they were trying to re-use the Kerrigan anti-hero dynamic with Arthas. This totally failed, because Arthas’s character development went from angsty teenager to morbid sociopath. Not remotely compelling. I had to put up with two full campaigns centering around that whiny loser. It was maddening.

  28. ehlijen says:

    How about ‘Metal Heart: Replicant’s Rampage’? Unless the writing got drastically better after the first 15 minutes in, it’s so painfull and hard to follow due to wierd gaps and leaps of thoughts in conversations that you’ll want to give up (I did). Could just be a horrible or incomplete translation though.

    And it was meant to be a Fallout style RPG…

  29. Simulated Knave says:

    Worst writing?

    City of Heroes/Villains. Because it’s got a fully realized backstory with depth and humour, and then it keeps you as far out of the loop as possible. It doesn’t give you the context you need to get involved properly, so you end up disaffected and unable to care.

    At least, that was my experience.

    Though, of course, that’s bad writing in another sense.

    EDIT: Of course, there have been other games with flat-out worse writing. But no other game where the writing was so irksome.

  30. Jim O says:

    Lost Planet. LoadingReadyRun used it as their winning entry that launched Unskippable.

    The cinematics feature dialog that is extremely cheesy and rife with cliches, but are presented as if they are supposed to be serious. Amazingly the story gets much worse from what is shown in the linked scene.

    From what I recall as the game goes on the story becomes more and more convoluted to the point that it stops making sense. Like the RedLetterMedia guy could start on it after finishing the Star Wars prequel trilogy.

    The most infuriating thing is the game was really fun to play, even considering I was playing the PC Port. The config screens still show a picture of an Xbox360 controller, and all of the on-screen instructions reference those controller buttons too. However the game itself is great. They did a great job balancing the on-foot vs in-mech gameplay. Both types control well, its possible to successfully fight mechs when you are on foot, and even with that balance they still made the mech vs mech combat seem solid and satisfying.

    Really my only complaint with the player-controller portion of the game was the last level pulled a “hey here’s a brand new game mechanic you’ve never had to deal with, have fun with the final boss”.

    But the cut-scenes and overall story sucked so hard that I’ll probably never install or play it again, and I’m extremely skeptical about the sequel

  31. Spectralist says:

    Final Fantasy X. I’ve read that they tried to write the English dialogue to match the Japanese lip-sync. Which is just mind bogglingly stupid if true.

  32. ps238principal says:

    I found “Devil May Cry 4” not only poorly written as it advanced, but the premise and world just seemed like some fanfic where everyone was the writer’s Mary Sue insertion and he couldn’t decide if he wanted a sci-fi anime or a magical anime, so he had sword-gun fights with emo guys in armor that also wore headphones on occasion.

    But the worst games, and it doesn’t matter the genre, is one where everything comes down to a final boss fight that’s pretty much a deus ex machina to attempt tying all of the loose plot threads together. “Borderlands” is an example of this, as well as what Shamus cites in his article: A game that succeeded in spite of the writing.

  33. toasty says:

    For what its worth, the plot to games like Devil May Cry isn’t really important to me. As strange as it sounds, if it didn’t have a story, I wouldn’t have played it. As it was, yes the story sucked pretty bad, but I didn’t expect much more and if it wasn’t there the game would have gone from “fun, repetitive, eye-candy action game,” to “not worth my time.”

    Having said that, if the story was really, really, really good then that would have been even better. But it wasn’t.

  34. Ramsus says:

    I’m not sure why some people are claiming FF7 had good writing. To me it seemed like they had several different people make an overall plot to a game and then handed them to a guy who said “Sure, we’ll do all of them” and instead of integrating them proceeded to paste one to the end of the next and so on. Added to this the game was more ugly than you can shake a stick at and had an emotionally stunted mute for a main character.

  35. Sam says:

    How is it that no one has brought up any of the Soul Calibur games yet? Probably because nobody has ever bothered to read the text that follows a fight. There, I answered my own question.

  36. Guile says:

    FF7 had its good points; from the opening to the plate dropping to the getting out of Midgar bit as well as Cloud’s unreliability as a narrator and fragmented – and sometimes false – memories were handled well, I thought, but the whole Reunion-he’s a clone-no he isn’t-wait that was a Sephiroth clone-maybe- was very confusing.

    FF10’s love story between Yuna and Tidus was genuinely touching to me, and the big reveal at the end with Tidus and his dad was a punch in the gut because I genuinely cared what happened to the blond doofus… as long as you didn’t think about the whole Zanarkand twist TOO hard, which was balls-up crazy.

    FF12’s story was fun, if a bit derivative.

    Fallout 3’s story was weak, but at least I could vanish into the sandbox world for 10 hours at a time and forget all about it.

    And actually, I liked Soul Calibur 3's original character story mode thing. It was actually pretty comprehensive and kinda clever, not just the usual “˜6 fights in succession with a bit of text in there' for fighting games.

    For my least-liked writing, I’ll have to second Metal Gear 4. The premature aging thing was at least original, but the rest of the storyline just left me wondering ‘A-buh?’ in a confused tone of voice.

  37. Storytelling is HARD. Interactive storytelling is much, much harder. You can’t treat story as an afterthought and expect it to work. I remember reading a Gamasutra interview with Rhianna Pratchett about her involvement with Mirror’s Edge and going “whaaa…?!?” when I learned she was brought TWO YEARS into the project to try and hammer some sort of story in the cracks of an essentially finished game. That couldn’t have possibly worked, no matter how good she was.

    That goes for movies, too. When you’ve already decided that you want a movie with many explosions, and you write the story around that, never compromising on the explosions no matter how bad it’s coming out… well… you reap what you sow.

  38. LintMan says:

    I don’t think that games – especially big budget ones – have bad writing out of trying to save a buck on writing. Or at least, I think that’s secondary. I think the primary causes are:

    1) Some game developers/designers think they do have good writers: themselves! I think lots of people think they could write a great story/script if they put their mind to it, and might even relish the chance. Why bring in a writer when you can do it yourself? We’ve got lots of cool ideas, and that’s the hard part, right? Wrong. The sad fact is that writing a GOOD story takes a lot more talent and skill than it might seem.

    2) Some developers don’t give a rat’s %@#& about the story, they’re all about the multiplayer experience:

    … a)- that’s just “training mode” for the newbies! Put out something bare minimum to introduce new players to the units and gameplay, and then send ’em online! Most egregious case of this in my experience: Tribes 2. The back of the box bragged of the new “single player campaign”. The reality was that it had a set of 3-4 small tutorial missions that had some voiceovers telling you what to do. No cutscenes, no campaign, no story.

    … b)- but the publisher insisted late in the development that they have a campaign and some cutscenes so they can check off the “single player” box on the back of the game box (and on Steam). The gameplay and unit designs are already mostly solidified, so the story will have to be shoehorned in to fit those. Who wants some writer suggesting we make all sorts of changes just to fit his story?

    This doesn’t change your point that it would cost relatively little to have better game writing. I’m just thinking that cost is less an issue than the do-it-yourself factor, and the “who cares about SP?” factor.

  39. Jaedar says:

    Dragon Age, actually. Don’t get me wrong it has decent writing all over but there were a few sentences in the mage origin that made me physically facepalm and alt-f4 the game.

  40. Kdansky says:

    Bad writing has become my prime reason for not picking up games, or for raving like a lunatic after having played them. I believe the problem is primariliy that I read good books and compare their stories to the games. One can do that with movies or TV-shows, those often have decent plots. But games? Rutskarn recently brainstormed a one-shot RPG, and that was superior than all games except for about twenty.

    I am currently reading A Game of Thrones, which makes it impossible to touch Dragon Age and when I played Mass Effect, I was half way through Dreaming Void. Messiah of Might and Magic got mentioned, that was also a POS. DMC4 is also a great example. There is no reason why the story could not have been slightly more interesting, but we get garbled crap instead. Choosing between skipping the (pretty) cutscenes and having to bear them was torture. I did not get very far in that game, but that was due to the first “board game” room. Fallout 3.
    Jade Empires: Not so much terrible like the others, but very boring. Everything was just clichee, and either very dry backstory (f.e. about some city I could not care less about), or very dry exposition.

    Storytelling is hard, that is true. But not that hard. They’ve got all the software and people in place. I am pretty sure one could take the unaltered DMC4 cutscenes, change just the dialogue and end up with something more interesting. I fondly remember the days of Planescape Torment, System Shock 2, Broodwar, Deus Ex and Sacrifice. Some parts of WoW have great writing too (anything with Bran in it).

  41. Ramsus says:

    I’m not sure it’s fair to pick on Soul Calibur, it’s a fighting game. When was the last time you played a fighting game with a decent plot. You know what, I’ll settle for a plot that makes any sense at all. Did anyone play the latest Tekken game? I was practically yelling at the screen “WHY!?” half the time.

    Now what is fair to pick on is FFX-2. A game where if they actually removed all the dialog and “plot” we’d only be left with excellent gameplay and cutscenes we could mad-lib…actually I suggest mad-libbing it anyway. At least then you’re laughing at your own jokes as opposed to laughing at whoever did the writing for this game. While LintMan has a point that not just anyone can make a good plot for a game, almost anyone could have done a better job here….possibly without even knowing what they were working on.

  42. Danel says:

    Shamus, what made you think it would be a good idea to invite an audience of geeks to be iconoclasts? You just get threads like this, where instead of talking about genuinely bad stories you just get people using absurd and self-congratulatory hyperbole to discuss games with decent but flawed stories – or even genuinely good ones – as if they were the worst things ever.

  43. Sure, Kdansky, they could do a better job if they wanted to. The story in Planescape: Torment is great, and Deus Ex felt very much like an adventure game to me (granted, I haven’t played very far in the latter). But I think both of them were designed around their respective stories, rather than the other way around. You can’t fake it.

  44. Passerby says:

    It’s really a matter of priority. If there is a strong case for the correlation between a game’s commercial success and the quality of the writing, then game developers would budget more for the writing team. Some genres of games, like RPGs, naturally require better writing than other genres, like sports simulation games, or whatever they’re called.

    Rather than lamenting the lack of quality writing in games in general, wouldn’t it be more productive to limit the scope to just games that actually need good writing to enhance the player’s experience in a meaningful way, and hence, sales?

  45. Khazar says:

    Final Fantasy X. I am utterly shocked by how much good press this game got when it was released. Worst writing in any FF game I’ve ever seen, which is saying something in a series where the quality often waxes and wanes. I played about an hour of it before the disjointed dialogue and awful voice acting – paired with the boring turn-based combat – forced me to stop. Traded it in immediately. Good riddance.

  46. The Guardian says:

    This might sound weird but I actually hated the writing in Warcraft III. Don’t get me wrong, the story itself wasn’t too bad, but the main problem was that I couldn’t identify at all with the main character. I found myself wanting to make different choices but was not allowed to do so. I eventually quit the single player game about the second mission of Part 2.

    Given how much I love single-player games, a story driving me to quit is pretty bad. I did end up going through the whole thing several years later.

    KOTOR was good, but KOTOR 2 was not very good at all story-wise. And if you’re interested in some bad writing, they let the guy who wrote those two stories write the two Darth Bane novels, which are easily the most terrible of all the many Star Wars novels – which is saying something.

    It’d be cool to see someone actually go hire a REAL established A-list author to write a game storyline.

  47. @Passerby Trouble is, when there is a story, any story, one can’t help but notice it. Then, if it’s bad, that will detract from the experience. You say some games don’t need a good story. I’ll go even further: some games don’t need any story at all. And I’d rather see a game with no story (think the old Doom titles) than one with a stupid story. But nobody does that anymore. They put stories in each and every game because they’re supposed to. And I wouldn’t be surprised if they actually hated it.

    As for the quality of writing not having a visible impact on sales, you do realize that many people buy a game that everyone says is bad because “well, it can’t be *that* bad, can it? besides, gotta see for myself”. And then, of course, the game does turn out to be just that bad, but by that time the producer has chalked off yet another sale and doesn’t care anymore.

    ‘Tis just my pet hypothesis. But, you know.

  48. OEP says:

    There is one pitfall in seeking better writing. Graphics can be objectively measured. Writing can be pretty subjective. The height of drama for one person may come across as crass melodrama to another. Humor is even more difficult.

    Also making good writing interactive is extremely difficult.

  49. someguy says:

    I’m not quite sure how

    the writing about some guy whose plane crashes near a mysterious rock/lighthouse and who then, directly after entering said lighthouse starts to (instead of like, for example, following his own interest as in, like, rescuing himself) follow whatever strange orders he is issued over radio from three or so ominous hidden strangers, who obviously are the only people being in this city set of rooms and corridors you are supposed to care about, but you simply can’t…

    fits into Good Examples.(?)

  50. Passerby says:

    @Felix Plesoainu, I don’t think you got my point. To rephrase, I said different game genres require different levels of commitment to the writing team. For example, if I were to play a car racing game, I really would not be bothered if it comes with a plausible back story or not. I’d focus on the graphics, the route, and the game mechanics. On the other hand, good or bad writing in an RPG would have a much greater impact on my gaming experience. And if there is bad writing in a game that does not hinge on any writing at all, like car racing games, does it really matter?

    As for your reply to my point on correlation between writing and sales performance, aren’t the players who buy games that are suspected to contain bad writing enabling the game developers? Whose fault is that?

  51. @Passerby You’re saying you can actually ignore a bad story in the right kind of game, am I correct? In that case, good for you. I couldn’t, and judging by the other comments, I may not be alone in this. People are different like that. As for the other point, we seem to be on the same side of the argument. :)

  52. Passerby says:

    @OEP, I agree. Just the comments in the Experienced Points site alone demonstrate that. The same game receives opposite reactions to its writing.

    Bottom line, if bad writing bundled with flashy graphics and decent gameplay make respectable profits, why would game developers deviate from this formula? Players get exactly what they deserve.

  53. Rhykker says:

    Not a response to your question, but anyway…

    First off, nice article. Secondly, I get the feeling (and I could be wrong) that to game developers, the script/story aspect of a game seems to be the easiest (likely, as you pointed out, due to its relative inexpensiveness), and so they feel that instead of hiring an actual published and successful writer, they can either invent their own story or hire someone with good ideas and credit then as a “writer.”

    “Hire a writer? What for!? I got plenty of great ideas!”

    Yeah. If only writing were that simple.

    (I’m a newbie to the writing market, and have spent the better part of a year researching writing, and I was amazed to see how much there really is to learn. For me, it’s been the difference between rejection letters and getting published and signing contracts).

  54. Hal says:

    Since Final Fantasy has been brought up, I’ll just repost what I said over at The Escapist:

    I love me some Final Fantasy, I really do. Because I grew up on it, it’ll always hold a special place in my gamer’s heart. That being said, Square pulled some really crappy story-telling moves out of their bags.

    Take Final Fantasy 2 (or 4 if you’re a purist). You spend the entire game chasing the bad guy. You finally catch him and . . . wait, what’s this? He was just being mind-controlled? By the real bad guy? Oh, well let’s go get him!

    And why does that sound so familiar? Oh yeah, because it was the same thing that they did in FF8! They even did a lesser version of this in FF9. “Yay, we beat the bad guy! Oh, wait, there’s another bad guy? Who is this fellow? Oh well, I guess we have to destroy him, too.”

    I never played past FFX (and the writing in that one is up for debate as well), but as much as I loved the series, it had some serious writing problems.

  55. OEP says:

    It is difficult for me to cite a game which had writing so bad it enraged me. While I am as prone to nerdrage as anyone, I don’t usually get that involved. I have quite playing games because I found them uninvolving. Everquest 2 for example was a bit overwrought for my tastes.

  56. Ice Cream Monk says:

    I thought of a solution to this, actually: have Yahtzee write every video game. Sure, he won’t have as much time for ZP, but without the bad writing he’ll lose half of what he complains about anyway.

  57. Brains says:

    Mirror’s Edge has some godawful writing, but somebody already mentioned that they only brought in the scriptwriter halfway through production to shoehorn it in. The gameplay is excellent (in my opinion, anyway – people either seemed to love it or hate it with not much in between), but the story is incomprehensible.

    Batman: Arkham Asylum is another one that’s somewhat lacking in the story department. A+ gameplay, mind – I haven’t even finished it yet – but the story is more or less “Batman go to place. Batman beat people up. Batman restore status quo. Do it all over again in Batman: AA2 because Batman is a pussy.”

    And of course, somebody already mentioned GTA 4. I’ve barely played it at all, but so far all I’ve done is cart my cousin around and taken a woman out to bowl. Great story telling! I sure empathize with Niko. Now, excuse me, I’m going to go run over and murder 500 people. There’s GTA!

  58. Mirai says:

    I’m glad you pointed out Resident Evil 4’s absolutely abysmal pacing. It seriously killed the game for me when Ada Wong leapt out of nowhere kicked me in the face with no explanation and forced me through that garden maze a fourth time.

  59. Didn’t get a chance to read all the comments, but in response to comment #20, I’d just add that Christian Nutt had a great piece on Gamasutra about Bayonetta and camp, and I think it offers a little to this discussion re: understanding plot beyond traditional storytelling. Keep up the good work, Shamus :)

  60. cassander says:

    Part of the problem with Dragon age is the whole business with the origins. The problem with letting the character be any race, class or sex is that it forces the story to be very generic. Games with great stories, like half-life, work because you are playing a character that the developers have designed and can respond to. Comparing the Witcher to dragon age is a good example. The story is built around you being Geralt. It wouldn’t work if you were female, or a dwarf, or whatever. But by taking away a little flexibility they can craft a much richer world that can actually REACT to the player. The choices you make in the Witcher end up mattering a lot more and the whole game is a lot more rewarding.

  61. Steve C says:

    Like many others, I can’t remember bad writing. There are lots of examples others have given above that have jogged my memory, but an eyeroll is generally not memorable.

    Writing doesn’t need to be complex or lengthy to be GOOD. Ico is the perfect example. It wouldn’t surprise me if Ico’s entire story could fit on 2 pages. Very thin, but extremely DEEP and compelling.

  62. Juni says:

    If we’re talking about bad writing, how has nobody mentioned Indigo Prophecy in 61 comments?

    Heck, Shamus even has some posts about it already.

  63. felblood says:

    Okay, the first half of Dead Space is some of the best written game-play I’ve ever seen. Even if every scene is stolen from another game, excellent writing marries tight scripting and intense game-play to a solid re-imagining of a setting that didn’t get enough play the first time around(System Shock 2, with the warship in the second, rather than third act). However, much of the writings effectiveness derives from promises it is unable to deliver on.

    The third act provides the player with a rapid stream of increases in firepower, but no foe worthy to test it on. More heavily armored palette swaps of old enemies, and a stream of recycled boss monsters practically scream WE HAVE RUN OUT OF IDEAS FOR ENEMIES.

    At some point you realize that the potent promise that was Dead Apace has withered and fallen away, and you are left with a single player version of borderlands, with an inferior camera.

    They are clearly too busy “revealing secrets” to bother giving an explanation of past events that actually makes sense. The numerous “Truths” revealed at the end are much less compelling and more full of plot holes than the red herrings. A good twist should be implausible enough that the player doesn’t guess it, not totally laughable.

    The game even ends with the ending from Borderlands. (I really wanted to fight both Steele and the Traitor, but C’thulhu is too much of a kill stealer.) This is followed by a very mediocre jump-scare, in a game that has already delivered numerous better ones.

    That’s what really cut me to the quick about Dead Space. It was SO GOOD that we come to expect great things from it, but ultimately, all it could do was promise us good things and fail to deliver them.

    Dead Space is a tease.

  64. Daemian Lucifer says:

    The original heroes of might and magic 5(didnt playe the sequels).The backstory of the world is somewhat nice,and lot of effort went into it.But then when you play the game,you get to meet the characters.And saying that they are cardboard cutouts would be an insult to cardboard.My god they are awful!Which is even more intensified when the previous game had some of the best characters ever written,and quite intriguing stories,yet shoddy gameplay.This one decided to fix the gameplay(though that wasnt really a success),but at the cost of writing.

  65. Daemian Lucifer says:


    Fahrenheits problem wasnt really in bad writing.It was in rushing the end.Imagine if terry pratchet started writing the first discworld novel,and then near its end his publisher said:”Hey,all these ideas you have about guards and witches,well we wont publish them in separate books.You have a week to put them in this one you are doing right now.”

  66. Smejki says:

    Fallout 3. It is worse that this crap even won some writing awards.

  67. Nalano says:

    @64 (Smejki)

    Proof positive that advertising “WE RITE GUD” and bribing reviewers is cheaper than hiring writers.

    Sad thing is, every compelling element in all of Fallout 3’s setting, characters and plot were stolen (“paid tribute to”) practically ad verbatim from Fallouts 1 and 2.

    So I suppose you could look at it like Martin Scorcese’s long overdue Academy Award, except it was given to Tony Scott.

  68. Nobody particular says:

    I think the main problem with writing in games is that even simple games require huge amounts of writing, if they decide to persue a story. The question “why not hire good writers to do your writing?” is posed a lot, but I doubt that is the answer. Given the volume of texts needed, even great writers can’t write everything and I guess that if they would remotely have to, the quality of their work would suffer.

    To make matters worse, writing anything non-pivotal is rarely done by writers anyway. It’s much, much cheaper to have some underpaid level designer whip up some lines while he’s setting up the stuff in the editor anyway. No amount of QA can fix the subtle damage done by a disillusioned level designer and, given sufficiently tight deadlines, not-so-subtle stuff will make it out.

    So a big step towards story salvation is in my opinion to have the development team care more about the game they’re working on. Sadly most teams aren’t working on games anymore. They’re typically working on an established “IP”, often misunderstood by management and without much incentive (or even legal room) for creative input.

  69. Smejki says:

    @65 (Nalano)

    Yeah. I had the feeleing that the game is honoured for the universe itself (or the remnants of the old concept). Then the awards should go to guys from Black Isle.

  70. Robyrt says:

    Bioshock and Dragon Age are NOT examples of bad writing. They have believable dialogue, said by three-dimensional characters with coherent motivations, relating to a consistent fictional world. You may object to the plot holes, but that’s not the same thing as bad writing at all. Tolkien had plot holes and amorphous evil villains too, but the quality was high enough to make a believable story anyway.

    Devil May Cry 4 is a perfect example of bad writing. The characters have at most two personality features, the setting can’t decide whether it wants to be medieval or not, the plot offers no more rationale to progress than “Save the princess”, the supporting cast appears and disappears at random… You get the picture.

  71. Instinct says:

    Champions Online. ‘Nuff said.

  72. KitsuneFather says:

    Chakan the Forever Man, for the Genesis. It made itself out to be a plot-driven game, but once you got past the opening cutscene, the plot simply ceased to exist.

  73. Nalano says:

    @68 (Robyrt)

    Dragon Age wasn’t bad writing. Dragon Age was mediocre writing. It was cohesive, but not memorable. Aside from a couple of the origin stories, it was a potboiler genre work with sitcom banter added for flavoring.

    I suppose it did the job, tho. The only glaring wtf I can remember from playing DA:O twice was the fact that I was personally more powerful than all the armies I spent so damn long organizing.

  74. felblood says:

    It’s probably inevitable that the writing in a video game will fail on some level, because even professional novelists and screenwriters don’t have the complete skill set to write videogames.

    You need characters, plot, dialogue, characterization, suspense and resolution, just like other media, but you also need to be able to give directions, and expose all that other stuff to the player without breaking the gameplay.

    Dead Space, that I complained about above, actually managed to do a lot of things that a game written entirely by a distinct writer could never do.

    There are a lot of situations where you see a thing, or even fight it, but aren’t told what it is until later. In other situations, you are warned that a thing is out there, but don’t get to see one for a while. The player is encouraged to actively seek out information on his enemies, so he knows when to expect them, and how to kill them most effectively.

    The player participates in the exposition, in a way that can be very satisfying, until you find out none of it adds up to anything and experience satisfaction whiplash. That is, all your satisfaction is retroactively torn away, and you just feel duped.

    However, the trade off is that all the suspense leads to nowhere. Without a writer at the center to give these level writers direction, the whole thing is just the game equivalent of empty sophistry. It sounds nice when you read it, but if you think about it, it’s just nonsense.

    All of the levels are individually very well written, but as time goes on you start to realize that none of the level writers have the same vision of the timeline, and the alien infestation spreads faster or slower as lack of plot demands.

    Whatever it would take to solve this, I think that the term “writer” is not quite right. I think that the game really needed a very skilled editor or writing director, who could make all of these individually crafted scenes fit together as a whole, and ensure that all of the burning questions are answered and plot holes filled.

    The problem is, the industry has an incentive to not provide these services. Not only do they cost money, but all those dangling plot threads help to ensure that plenty of suckers (not me) will buy Dead Space 2, hoping to make some sense out of all this mess.

  75. Peter says:

    @Danel: my thoughts exactly. An online forum is a terrible place for this sort of discussion, though I can’t imagine any discussion of this sort actually being productive.

    In my overwrought opinion, I think the issue lies with the medium. As someone earlier mentioned, video games are an interactive medium. The recent RPG trends toward “player decision” can yield at most three divergent dialogue trees (good, neutral, or evil) and their associated outcomes. Thus, game studios must (under)pay a team of writers to develop these different dialogues and character reactions should the player decide to be an ass without compromising the overall storyline. It’s virtually impossible to develop a dynamic, interesting cast when the main character (the player) is a loose cannon. There’s a reason the vast majority of literature isn’t written in a choose-your-own-adventure style.

    The other end is the JRPG, which American game reviewers are so happy to fault of late. The railroading in any Final Fantasy limits player choice, which is a worthy sacrifice in my opinion. If I want freedom of choice, I’ll go get my tabletop group. I play a Final Fantasy title for memorable characters, fun battle systems, and stunning visuals, not so I can choose to leave Yuna and her pilgrimage to rot so I can be a blitzball star in Luca because I’m evil this time around.

    To summarize: video game studios have more to worry about than delivering a storyline that will garner mixed reviews no matter how amazing it is. Designers also have to make a game fun to play so you feel like finishing the story they probably threw together, and that takes a lot of expensive craftsmanship. Sure, I like a good story as much as any of you, but if I want one, I’ll read a book. I play games for the interactive experience, which is at the mercy of the design as much as the story. Sometimes excellence in one can compensate for weakness in the other, like Fallout 3’s gameplay or Rule of Rose’s story, but that’s a big gamble to take when you’re dealing in millions of production dollars. In a pinch, designers will go for broke on the gameplay because they know that no game story will ever be as addictive as a well-oiled, fun-to-play game (see World of Warcraft).

  76. Daemian Lucifer says:


    True that its hard to write dialogue trees,but that doesnt mean its impossible.Look at baldurs gate and planescape torment.

    Also,good story is not limited to just RPGs.Look at starcraft and halflife.

    And those are games that did not have mixed interviews about their stories.Everyone,even now,agrees that these have stellar writing.

    Oh,and just because it is a different medium than books,doesnt mean it doesnt have to tell the story.On the contrary,it can tell an even more epic story,because youll be the protagonist and thus more immersed.

  77. Peter says:

    @Daemian: I will have to disagree with you on the quality of Half-Life’s story. The writing (dialogue) was good, yes, but I can’t get behind any story that has a mute, single-minded protagonist with no supporting characters. I haven’t played HL2, so I’m not making any claims about it, but the only reason I cared about what happened to Gordon Freeman in the first one is because I’d spent so much time keeping him alive. The scientists, soldiers, and monsters were all disposable, and the G-Man ending wasn’t exactly epic, but I still played the game and loved it because the gameplay was absolutely spectacular.

    I do agree that games can tell an epic story, but the ones that pull it off (in my opinion) are not the ones that incorporate player choice. Too many resources are devoted to creating alternate endings that might be spent revising dialogue and developing characters. I’ll admit that I’ve never played Baldur’s Gate or Planescape Torment; resource limitations have always led me to favor console gaming, so these games may very well be exceptions to my argument. Still, one might speculate that the need to reach back ten years to find a good example of dialogue-tree storytelling is evidence enough that writing a good story with it isn’t something that happens often.

  78. roxysteve says:

    I realise that this thread is intended for critiquing video games, but for writing so abysmally bad it starts off bad, backs unwittingly towards good, but then floors the gas and drives ass-backwards into truly epic terrible awfulness, you can’t do much better (i.e. worse) than anything associated with Warhammer 40k.

    From the concept upwards it pretty much is a textbook of how not to write a background, from weak concept, poorly realised through badly thought-out extrapolation, not forgetting truly epic levels of bad English use. One author is so bad I can’t read more than a couple of sentences of his prose.

    Oh well. Sorry to interrupt.

  79. Jeromai says:

    Wow. You folks sure are picky. In the context of video games, I’d say most of the examples named above were perfectly decent tries to me. Plenty of books, games, movies and otherwise are full of TV Tropes.

    The worst writing I’ve ever encountered was in Hellgate: London’s quests. I could never make head or tail out of the ludicrous statements the NPCs were emitting. A Google Translation of Korean to Japanese to Sasquatchian to English would probably make more sense.

    Salt in the wound was the fact that there was a perfectly decent world setting (as explored in the comic and tie-in novels) and the game didn’t take itself seriously at all.

    When they resurrect Hellgate, I hope they hired someone who wasn’t smoking a couple dozen psychotropic drugs at the time to write simple quest text.

  80. MC says:

    How could you all forget Moder warfare 2? It really takes the cake from the very start of the game. It was really amazing to watch the cut scene where you were told that you have to prove that US did not kill civilians at the airport right after you finished killing all those civilians at the airport.

  81. Kodi says:

    I’m really surprised to see so many people say that Dragon Age’s writing was the worst, especially with the context of, say, Fallout 3.
    I can agree that the story was mediocre and not very memorable (I enjoyed the playthrough very much myself, but if the story wasn’t so simple I wouldn’t recall it at all), but TERRIBLE?

    As for what I’d consider the game with the worst writing I’ve played recently, definitely Fallout 3. One other that I can remember is Arcanum, or its ending in particular – the big bad and his motivations made me laugh.

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