Editorial: Raising the Bar

Not good enough.
Some good writing sometimes.

Video games are not there yet. We are still largely apologists. The best could be better. The rest should be better.

Yes, I am coming out swinging this time, LusiGamers. I think that as a community, gamers love the medium so much that they lose their objectivity when discussing their favourite pastime.

I must point out that I am primarily talking about writing. From a visual, technical, and occasionally musical standpoint, games have always pushed the boundaries. But while games like Tetris and Peggle are lots of fun, they are more comparable to board games. Any game that tries to include a story of any kind must rely on its writing to be truly excellent, and that is the area that I feel like games are most notably dragging their feet.

I notice that many gamers get defensive when I bring up this point. They point to their favourite titles and mention how moved or impressed they were. I feel they are missing my point. I have also been moved and obviously have many games that are extremely close to my heart, but that is not relevant when talking about how games could be so much more. A perfect example for me is Final Fantasy IX. That is a game that I am impressed by and it is a game that has made me laugh and has brought me to tears. I think there is great character work and powerful themes at play, but I hardly think that the writing as a whole should be considered a great work. And I think it is important for me to make that distinction because I think that video games really can become transcendent works. And that is not to say that I feel that every game should become weepy and philosophical, but that right now games have an artistic ceiling placed there by sometimes competent, sometimes bad, usually mediocre, and occasionally good writing.

Because I do feel like there is some good writing in gaming. Many of the stories in Lost Odyssey were well-constructed and moving, Bioshock and Portal are able to talk about more complex ideas without either exceeding their limitations or dumbing the ideas down, and the Mass Effect and Uncharted games have finally started to competently tackle subtext and the complexity of human interaction without getting indulgent about it. But good writing is not great writing.

I also apparently have a gross dirtstache.
Here I am, Ethos “The Weepy Tart” Pipher, crying and stripping while I conceived this article.

Of course, every game cannot and should not be Moby Dick or King Leer, but I think gamers are making intellectual concessions when they play games. They hear the music and get to know the characters, and so they can make the appropriate emotional connections and mistake their understanding of what the developers were trying to say as good writing. I think this is a disservice to the potential of the industry. It is why I make the distinction between good and great writing. I think it is incredibly naive to state that games are closing in on the apex of what they are capable of.

Of course, part of it may be that the games that are in the upper echelon will not get noticed by many non-gamers anyway and we just have to wait as a community before they are taken more seriously, but I believe the effort has to be on both sides. While games that deserve more notoriety may go a little under the radar, it is still up to the developers to push the envelope and for gamers to not be satisfied and even defend what is usually writing that is competent-at-best.

As a final point of clarification, when I speak of writing, of course I am referring to dialogue and tutorials and plot and voiceovers, but I am also talking about the deeper understanding of how all these elements tie together. The art of making every word and event have purpose and beauty without attaching the heaviness and indulgence that some people may believe that entails. Of course, I think a major hindrance of making this a reality is the lack of singular voices in an increasingly faceless industry, but that is another pretentious article for another pretentious day.

So yes, I know how pretentious this article is, but as not-even-the-most-intelligent staff member here at Lusipurr.com, I feel like gamer standards in general have lowered and that that is an ultimately bad thing for the direction and potential of the industry.

So take a hard look at the games you consider to have good or even great writing, LusiScholars. Remove your feelings and memories from the game and try to assess its literary merit. Am I just missing all the good games, or am I a pretentious dirtbag asshole prick who should remove his bulbous head from his own cavernous ass? Let me know in the comments below. And then tell your friends to also let me know! There could be a free game in it for you. I am not shitting you either. The reader who brings in the most new faces during the month of April will win a game of their choosing. Just tell your friends about Lusipurr.com and make sure they cite you as the referral and that is one point in your favour. I will even provide you with a sample sentence: “Hey, there this uppity lofty prick at this website I go to sometimes. Click his article and mention I brought you there and then rip him a fourth asshole.” Copy. Paste. (Have a chance to) win a game.

19 comments

  1. I don’t think you’re being particularly wrong at all; my only question is that if we were to receive a Moby Dick or King Lear, would we even recognize it?

    The closest I’ve come to hailing a game as a meta-fantastic work of art is when I played Spec Ops: The Line, but that game was so reliant on references to the genre that it is hardly recognizable as a supreme piece outside of the medium.

  2. I think something that further complicates matters is foreign (usually Japanese) games. Sometimes there’s information that doesn’t travel between the cultures, and sometimes there’s stuff lost in translation, and sometimes it’s just not good writing.

    How much of Killer 7, for example, is intentionally bizarre to western audiences, how much was just something only Japanese people would get, and how much was just shit? There’s a game that had a nice mixture of all three.

  3. Good writing will translate in any language. You do need a good localization team but it’s important that we reward good work. The gaming world is about to change and in what way we have yet to see. Just be prepared for the worst and make sure that your pocket book supports only the worthy. Many gamers today (if you can call some of them ‘gamers’) will buy just about anything and turn around and just trade it in to some place like Gamestop.

    I think that the gaming industry is still learning how to make money in this new world. We can’t show them that it’s shovel-ware, we can’t buy used games anymore if we can help it and we can’t let bad games get away with it. I hope that the gaming industry does what some publishers have taken to doing such as ATLUS. Give incentives to buy new games and make sure you don’t pay based on reviews or meta-critic.

  4. I don’t know about good writing *always* being able to translate. Sometimes things just don’t come across. The best example is probably comedy, considering how culturally defined it usually it.

  5. Personally I find it to be a mixture of both; a lot of Kurosawa films are excellent not because they are straight translations but because they fused Shakespeare with local elements, effectively translating Shakespeare but also making him into something unrecognizable to himself. The same thing happened to Kurosawa when Sergio Leone did his Spaghetti Westerns that were, in turn, translations of Kurosawa stories. That being said, it is a testament to Kurosawa and Shakespeare that elements of their stories are seen as universal, and therefore salvageable in translation.

  6. To be certain, there can be many elements of good writing that transcend cultural barriers. I just don’t believe it to be a given in all circumstances.

  7. Wait wait, hold on. This topic has gone on for 6 posts and no one has mentioned the picture in this article.

    Lost Odyssey is such a good game!

  8. I love Throne Of Blood and Ran, the writing in them is phenomenal, but I don’t think that the writing is comparable to Shakespeare. But that’s okay, because those movies are very excellent artistic achievements in their own right while providing a new context for the basic plot elements – something which Kurosawa was particularly adept at doing. Maybe I’m looking with Bard-tinted glasses, but I don’t think it’s just a matter of translation, or different languages and cultural contexts. It’s just not that good, or it doesn’t sustain being that good throughout like a Shakespeare play.

    Nobody going into the business of writing for movies or video games has the level of literary genius as Shakespeare, or Hugo, or Homer, and so on. It’s an unreasonable expectation, and the different mediums force a compromise on writing at any rate. The ability to provide loads of visual and aural information comes with a reduction of the headspace that pure literature provides, and vice-versa.

    I don’t think that standards for writing in video games have lowered, either. I mean, back in the day RPG’s were the only games that had lots of dialogue and story. Let’s say Squaresoft had the gold standard thereof. While I’d say FFXIII represents a downward arc from previous entries like VII and IX, there is now writing and stories amongst all genres. Compare the fact that Portal 2 has good writing to the fact that FPS’s in the 90’s like Quake had none. It’s a better experience, but at what point in the aim to create truly *great* writing in a game would it overwhelm it being a *game*?

    So yeah, it’d be cool if games had great writing going forward, but I’m not going to begrudge them if it was just good, or even none. How can you compare literature such as Les Miserables, a 1,500 page novel where every line of that damn book is at least good, if not great, if not transcendent, to video games where meaning is conveyed primarily visually? I don’t know. Am I missing something here?

  9. I am not looking for Shakespeare. I am just looking for Takashi Tokita, Maybe Hironobu Sakaguchi. (Writers for both FF4 and 6 respectively.) Today I find the writing to lack the emotion that those games once had.

    Final Fantasy 6 had emotions expressed in tiny sprites that just conveyed so much more than anything I think I’ve seen since FF9. Storytelling is much more than just the lines of text when it comes to video games. It’s also important to make emotions and movements and music to match up perfectly. While the visual storytelling is getting better it’s still not as good as it could be. Take for example FF14’s opening sequences. If you have seen them you would know that they were interesting and at times funny. This was short-lived though. The story of FF14 falls of instantly and didn’t flow properly which is what made it a failure. Storytelling must be consistent.

    I am hopeful that storytelling will reach the level that we are all weeping when somebody dies again… You should always feel like your heroes are important and almost care about them as if they were real people.

    Some games have achieved this goal – some have not. I am waiting for when traditional RPGs go back to their roots and tell a compelling story again.

  10. @Korusi: I totally agree with you. Those great games like FFVI expressed themselves through what they were, in a totally appropriate context. I was thinking of the inability to apply the standards of “truly excellent writing,” as they appear in literature, to video games. I can still get a lot of emotional affect through little sprites, bits of dialogue, and 16-bit graphics and music, in ways literature can’t do. Those bits of dialogue won’t ever reach the levels of great literature, but that doesn’t subtract from what they do well.

    I think Ni No Kuni is a fine example of a traditional JRPG still doing that well enough… Valkyria Chronicles too. Maybe I don’t love them as much as 90’s Squaresoft RPG’s, but they’re still telling a compelling story. Part of the issue is that what you get out of games when you’re young, i.e. when those SNES games first came out, is different than as an adult. Another part is a little harder to grasp or put into words, but it seems like JRPG’s have lost the “big picture” that Sakaguchi and Kitase had, when they were at their best.

  11. Kingdom Hearts.

    Best. Writing. Ever.

  12. Ok so like, to wrap up that line of thought… When my friends and I were 10 and FFVI and Chrono Trigger were coming out, we were affected by those games and their little worlds of stories and characters. They provided the groundwork, the prism, the mythology for which to see the world by. Now I’m seeing the world, and instead of getting meaning from games, the things I’m affected by are relationships, and jobs, and friends that have died, and other friends getting married and raising kids, and if my family is in good health, and such.

    I think you can see how FFVI and CT can provide examples about friendships and doing the right thing and responsibility and so on, which as a kid mean a lot more to you, which you can extrapolate more from, because that’s all you know. But as an adult, you could be given the same kind of story and characters in a game and not get the same emotional affect from it because you know much more than those little imaginary worlds now. So it’s not just a question of if the quality of the writing and the stories, characters and worlds in those kinds of games has gone downhill, but the sense that one can’t get the same meaning and emotion from them that one used to.

  13. I don’t necessarily think that quality has declined, and like I mentioned, I still get a lot of emotional satisfaction out of games, including from the most recent generation. But I think we make apologies for the quality. I don’t think we should always be proud to show off the games we consider good. Or at least we shouldn’t pretend they’re of the literary quality we purport. I guess I get frustrated when words like “excellent” or “brilliant” are used to describe writing and dialogue in games when it’s more often “clever” or “good”. I love games, so I want to hold them up to the standard of the rest of the arts. I don’t want to say “excellent writing” just because it’s excellent writing FOR a video game.

    I suppose that’s more the point I was trying to make. Because I see Matt’s point in that it becomes more difficult to judge or assess or even create something of more poignant literary merit in a new medium like gaming.

    I also want to veer the conversation away from comparisons to Shakespeare, although I’m aware I made the comparison myself. It was a comparison more meant to show how far the best video game writing is away from the best literary writing. But of course, there hasn’t been a Shakespeare since Shakespeare, but there has still been plenty of writing since then that could be well-considered brilliant.

    But the point of steering away from that comparison is that I doesn’t necessarily mean lots of dialogue and dense language when I refer to excellent writing. It includes good storytelling that has already been referred to in this conversation. And part of the storytelling experience is obviously other elements as well. Visuals, controls, music, pacing, concept, etc. But I feel like writing holds those elements back from being truly great in many, many cases. And I feel like we make apologies for that as gamers instead of acknowledging that writing in gaming -even at its best – is almost always worse than the better writing in books, TV, and film.

    I feel like a lot of this is owed how corporate gaming has become. And like I alluded to in the article, this suppresses singular artistic voices. It’s why I feel like indie games have been stronger artistically recently. I consider Limbo to have good writing. Bastion is also an example of writing that is better than any AAA effort I’ve seen in years. These games actually say something.

    So I’m not looking for Shakespeare either, but I’m looking for something that I won’t have to make excuses for if I were showing a friend how brilliant a game is. I just feel like we have become too lax as a community in terms of artistic criticism. If games want to be taken seriously as an art form, we need to take it more seriously in our criticism.

    3 points if you read the whole thing.

  14. Can we cash them in for more awkward pictures of you? I’m making a collage.

  15. @Jahan: Your wrongness is so incredible that it makes Mel look right. Now *that* is astonishing.

  16. Dear Diary:

    Day 28. My Jahan-bot has infiltrated the website undetected for a good length of time now. It won’t be long before his presence there turns Lusipurr’s thoughts of me completely around. It’s getting close, now.

  17. You can cash them in for more amazing pictures like the one featured in the article! I can Google “Lost Odyssey” like nobody’s business.

  18. Ethos, we knocked another half-an-article out of you! I’d add Anodyne to your list of independent games that say something – but then again I don’t think it says anything more than Link’s Awakening. Much of the games we love are like fairy tales, or Arthurian stories, or anything which turned young humans’ minds on to new imaginations since times immemorable. We don’t think of those stories as profoundly artistic, but they did define certain cultural boundaries – and I think video games are our post-modern equivalents. Being silly and weird are part of their fun! Of course, if you want them to be relevant even into adulthood, then it follows that you’d also want them to be profoundly artistic, and thus not-so-kid-like. It’s just going to take particular geniuses to produce games like that, and it’s up to independent, amateur games journalist(s) to promote the verdammte scheisse out of the next great achievements to raise the bar.

Comments are closed.