Video games have always been looked down upon in the entertainment world. Despite the fact that the industry is valued well into the billions, video games aren’t really taken seriously. That’s why the recent decision made by the Writers Guild of America to remove the video game category from their awards ceremony feels like a bit of a slap in the face. If the Writers Guild had tried to remove the award for Best Original Screenplay or New Series, then there would undoubtedly be uproar. Whatever their reasoning behind the removal of the category, it clearly displays a disparity between the respect that TV and movies have compared to their video game cousins.
From an outside perspective, it’s not hard to see why video games aren’t the first thing that spring to mind when you think of good writing. When looking at perhaps the most recognisable game franchise of all time, the Mario series, story isn’t exactly their strong point. This is because games originally started with gameplay at the core of the experience. Arcade games like Space Invaders, Pac Man and Donkey Kong were made to be played in short bursts, so any kind of narrative thread would have hindered the experience, not enriched it. However, as the industry has grown, games have gotten larger and deeper. The need for good writing has become apparent and when we look at some of the best games in recent years, I’d argue that need has been met.
Games like God of War and Red Dead Redemption 2 are prime examples of award-worthy writing in video games. If we look at God of War at the surface level, it might look like a story of giant monsters and ancient gods all clashing in the snowy Norse mountains. However, when the game starts it reveals itself as a gripping story about the relationship between parent and child. It deals with issues of grief, dealing with your past, and controlling your emotions. These are things that we all must deal with, and I believe God of War offers a fresh take on each of these themes. Just like a lot of great stories, it takes ordinary problems and frames them in extraordinary circumstances to create something truly entertaining. It’s arguably one of the best games ever written and its ability to deal with these issues so well while remaining entertaining demonstrates just how good the writing is.
Games also have the unique opportunity to switch up pacing and use interactive elements to make their stories and writing even better. For example, the game Until Dawn allows the player to make choices that shape the story in different ways. You can play through the entire game with each of the characters surviving or you can make a series of awful choices that lead to the demise of each and every one of them. This type of writing is something that books, movies and television don’t have to deal with. The pitfalls soon become obvious. The only way to write a scene when a character could either be alive or dead due to a player’s choices is to write multiple scenes with each potential character combination in it. Until Dawn is one of the best examples of this challenging problem but it’s certainly not a rarity. We are seeing games give players more choice than ever, meaning that potentially thousands of lines are being written that the player likely won’t see. To be able to write such huge scripts while maintaining a high quality of writing demonstrates just how hard a meaningful video game story can be to craft.
It’s easy to forget that games are still very much in their infancy as a platform. The earliest examples of films that we’ve found were dated in the late 1800s, whereas the first examples of video games came around the late 1950s. Games are still 50 years behind as an industry, and yet their narrative quality is almost equal. With the rise of indie games, we’re also seeing some truly amazing, personal stories being told. Gone Home is a perfect example of how an indie game took an experience as personal as coming out and put the player right at the heart of it. The Writers Guild should be recognizing and celebrating these stories for the unique perspectives they can provide instead of dismissing the platform. It’s time we as a society started to give video games the respect they deserve.