Writing versus Story

Bhagpuss said something interesting in his last comment:

In general I think the idea that GW1 had good writing is fanciful. Much though I like Prophecies, the writing is pretty shoddy. I think when people praise the writing they are mainly talking about the plotting, which is fairly coherent. The dialog is mostly stilted and unconvincing, often risible.

First, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the word “risible” in my entire life. It means laughable, as in, “It’s risible that I’ve never seen the word risible.”

Secondly, he brings up a really good point: Does a good game need good writing?

For myself, when I mentioned that I had heard Guild Wars 1 had a good story, I wasn’t talking about the writing at all. I was talking more about the “immersive experience” or something along those lines. The world, the people in that world, the things those people are doing, and the way that my character interacts with them.

I honestly can’t think of a single RPG I’ve played in over 20 years where I looked at the quest text in a dialog box and thought, “Wow, that’s really good writing.” At best it’s totally transparent to me (which I consider good), or at worst the font is too small to read, it’s full of grammar errors, or it’s an assault of bad puns. Yes, I mean World of Warcraft when I’m talking about the puns.

I mean, I’m sure I must have occasionally thought to myself, “Nice turn of phrase, there.” But it’s so rare that I don’t even remember it.

Actually I can think of one game that I would praise the writing: The Secret World, because those cut scenes are often riveting, but they are more of a combination of good writing and good voice actor performance.

And now that I think about it even more, Lord of the Rings Online consistently has pretty good writing in their quest dialogs, at least in the areas that I’ve played, which is generally up through the Mines of Moria.

I think the issue of writing quality might be a moot point for the upcoming waves of MMORPGs, though. I’m reasonably confident that the days of reading quest text are coming to an end, if they haven’t already ended.

2 thoughts on “Writing versus Story”

  1. When I first toyed with the idea of starting a blog about MMOs, one of my ideas was that it would be somewhere I could review MMO writing, specifically quests but also flavor text, lore, exposition, NPC dialog and so on, using the same rigor as you would hope to find in the book reviews of a quality newspaper. I never followed through on that because a) it would be a LOT of work and b) it could very well end up appearing either cruel or smug or both at once, which would very much not be the intention but which might be hard to avoid without being so bland as to render the exercise pointless.

    The fact is, though, that as an Eng. Lit. grad who’s worked in a bookshop for nearly 20 years,who spends an inordinate amount of time reading and assessing fiction both for fun and as part of my job, I find it all but impossible not to analyze and review the writing in any form of entertainment i consume – which has been mainly MMOs for a very long time now. So, when I talk about the quality of the story or the writing in an MMO I am usually thinking about the prose style, the sentence structure, the originality of metaphor and choice of language as well as the plot, storyline or narrative, not to mention the structure and architectonics.

    As I reflect on it, though, it seems to me that only the in-game text should really be held to the standards of written fiction; quests, in-game books, chunks of descriptive lore, that kind of thing. The story arcs and long narratives of “Seasons”, the voice acting and the cut scenes and so on might be better held to the standards of visual media like TV or movies. That involves a written element, of course, but it’s only one among many. As for the World Building, I’m not entirely sure there is any meaningful counterpart unless it’s something like the construction of an I.P. like the Cthulhu Mythos or The Marvel Universe.

    The Secret World is a very interesting case. Only today I mentioned in a post how I don’t feel it holds up all that well on a revisit. I think it does stand out from most other MMO storytelling in terms of the absolute quality of the voice acting and the writing, but now that it’s no longer new to me and I can factor out the surprise I felt on seeing such a noticeable jump in quality over what i was expecting, I can see that the writing is often cliched and pedestrian and the voice acting is stilted and uncertain. I didn’t at all feel that on my first (or second, as far as I went second time) run through but on a third it’s hard to miss.

    Which is why I have been telling people for 35 years that it takes a minimum of three readings to create a baseline for assessing a piece of writing – or, probably. a movie or a video-game story. Only, who has the time?

  2. You have a good point here. Good story is different from good quality of writing.

    As a writer, I do judge MMOs by story and writing. I don’t expect award winning writing in an MMO, but truly BAD writing (or poor translation) will turn me off from a game instantly. I can put up with mediocre writing if the story and world building hold my interest.

    However, if you have so-so writing and BAD story, that’s it for me. If I have to strain to believe what the plot is feeding me, or if characters suddenly swerve really out of character, I’ll put a game down real fast.

    That’s pretty much why I stopped playing GW2 back at the end of Season 2. I had so much trouble following why characters were doing what they were doing, and why the writers felt the need to blow everything up just to shock players into feeling something for something (though it achieved the opposite for me).

    GW1 may not have been the most brilliant writing, or even the most original plot. But keep in mind when it was first released. There really weren’t a ton of story-based MMOs at the time. We were just starting to see big name MMOs dabbling with plots and character. So, it was easy to get invested in GW1, despite all the drawbacks it had, simply due to a lack of options.

    It was also a great introduction to MMOs for folks who would never dive into a sub-based game. GW1 was a first MMO for my best friend (who now plays FFXIV, GW2, SWL, etc now). She’d never experienced something like this before, so it holds a special place in her heart. It was because it had a story that she stuck to it.

    As for me, I feel Secret World is a pretty well written MMO. I feel like parts of the new expansion in GW2 can be clever and laugh out loud worthy. I also feel FFXIV is well written consider it’s translation job, and the fact that writers/lore writers work together between the different languages to pull the game together.

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