Why Games Need More Than One Simple Word

Illustration for article titled Why Games Need More Than One Simple Word

No matter who is brought in to write a story or dialogue, the industry still treats the written word in such a utilitarian way that it has a second-class citizenship among the other art forms comprising a video game.


That's the argument Jamie Love makes in an essay for Gamesugar. Love notices that there are specialists representing every other art form in game design, "but when it comes to language, is anyone really engaging the specialists of that medium?" While professional novelists and screenplay writers have been engaged for such projects, Love argues the work they produce isn't as integrated with the game as elements of visual design or music. As such, few games have recognized, taken advantage of, and been strengthened by the use of the written word.

As someone continually disappointed by dialogue and plot in games - even the best ones - I must say I haven't thought of it this way: that writers are doing their job incompletely because their work isn't informed by an understanding of the game's code, in a way that an visual artist on a game does. But whenever a game hits a pothole of threadbare, expository dialogue, this lack of understanding is probably why the designers couldn't find a more elegant way to move the game along.

The Word, Gaming's Second-Class Citizen [Gamesugar, March 25, 2010.]

[T]he bigger point is that language has been enslaved by the gaming industry as a tool toward this end. And for a medium that bears the burden of being the best of all our future creative endeavors, it's a severe oversight, because that one medium to rule them all draws power for that bold statement to be true because it can draw all other forms of art and expression into itself – the audio, the video, the horizontal and the vertical and never forgetting the physical and tactile – but not at the expense of the written and the verbal, which have never been recognized as an art form by the industry proper.

Why do I claim there's no respect?

The written word, and language, are seen as they are used within gaming, as a tool, a descriptor, and as a direct act of forcing narrative intention. If studios and publishers want "narrative", they seek out the best of the novel set, failing from the start by trying to insert one form of the language medium as an attachment, rather than taking the grains of it and integrating that into their designs.

Once again what the hell do I mean? Well we don't incorporate film aspirations into games by switching between the two like a light switch – okay we in fact do often do this but we know the best games find means to take filmic concepts and ideas and use those within the gaming space, not just show us movies that make us put down the controller.

And let's face it, for the longest time language and writing were seen as things the designers did in their off hours. I don't go around thinking I can code a game, so why the hell should you know the potential for language within it? Every other art form has specialists in game design, but when it comes to language, is anyone really engaging the specialists of that medium? If simply hiring on a novel writer to write scripts for a game without any real concept of that potential relationship between the code and the word is good enough, well then yes I guess we can say it is – but that's a bunch of bull.

There are examples where good things have happened of course.

Let's drag Half-Life 2 out to the party – a game that rid itself of filmic interference by integrating aspects of that medium into the design of the game, which also drove a very visual narrative. And the game also did something else with language – it used one form of it to enrich the world it presented.

When you're wandering through Combine facilities and hearing Breen's speeches on the radio and view screens, you're absorbing an added layer of depth that paints a deeper grain about that world and the oppression of it, because we recognize the audio as propaganda. And Valve uses this in a way that doesn't tear you out of that world but invests you into it more deeply. At the same time, this is a small success for language only, not far removed from what the radio does within a Grand Theft Auto title.


Simply appreciating the play of language both verbally and visually in relationship to game design is at least a good place to start, since as it stands it really does seem like we don't enjoy one of the greatest joys available to us. I'm not advocating that we directly begin work on Italo Calvino: The Videogame – I'm just a guy raging over the lack of dialogue about the role of language in all sorts of directions.

At present all I'm asking is that you consider that language has been a second class citizen within the industry – except for the excellent gains in its manipulative abilities made by PR peeps – and that's a barrier causing language to come across as such a disruptive element of game design. Let's be clear, I don't have it all figured out, but I damn well recognize that there's a problem we should talk about more.

- Jamie Love

Weekend Reader is Kotaku's look at the critical thinking in, and of video games. It appears Sundays at 11 a.m. Mountain time. Please take the time to read the full article cited before getting involved in the debate here.


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Honestly, while I think this is probably the trend with most games, it's most definitely not true of all of them. The written word is given a tremendous amount of respect in the Halo, Mass Effect, and Bioshock games, and they bring on extremely accomplished writers in order to use dialogue and writing to flesh out the universe throughout the game (and outside of the game, in the case of Halo and Mass Effect). For a medium in which the written word is not primary, these games have writing as absorbing as some excellent screenplays.