OPINION: E3 demos prove we need better writers

As cringeworthy dialogue undermines impressive gameplay, developers must spend more time with their scripts
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“Okay! Let’s drop some bombs on this thing!”
"No more mister nice guy.”
“Well get ready, because here comes another one!”
“Yo, I’m ready to go in. Play me something fresh.”

These are just some of the lines that were mocked via social media last night in the middle of what should have been exciting game demos.

While the visuals and gameplay of Scalebound, Final Fantasy XV, Gears of War 4 and Watch Dogs 2 impressed across the board, the dialogue left much to be desired. It couldn’t even be passed off as the cheesy faux-natural ‘player chat’ during multiplayer matches – these were in-game characters spouting off one-liners that often sounded more at home in a Saturday morning cartoon.

Storytelling has come a long way in video games over the past decade, and arguably the tales developers are telling today far surpass anything our medium has ever done, but there is always room for improvement – and in-game dialogue should be a high priority.

Recently, we’ve had multiple writers – namely Tomb Raider’s Rhianna Pratchett, author Stephen-Elliot Altman, and Dragon Age’s David Gaider – discuss the need for developers to work closer with them in order to improve all aspects of a game’s quality. Perhaps its time to listen to them.

Why did the dialogue rankle so many last night? Perhaps because it can undermine the genuinely impressive spectacles happening on the screen.

Riding a dragon and throwing explosives at a giant crab in Scalebound is no doubt meant to be a highlight of the game, but the casual nature of both the voice acting and the lines themselves – after all, actors can only work with what they’re given – takes away some of the tension.

Similarly, Final Fantasy XV’s battle against a colossal monster feels interrupted by the cocky chants of your party members. They’re distracting from, not enhancing, the moment developers are trying to create.

Granted, these two examples are both from Japanese games, and therefore it might be down to one of two things: either a culture difference – as dialogue is often structured differently in anime, manga and the like – or the need for better Western localisation. Simply translating the Japanese dialogue into English isn’t enough; it needs to resonate with a Western audience.

But this was not purely a Japanese problem. Gears of War 4 and Watch Dogs 2, notable Western franchises, both had moments in their E3 demos where the dialogue felt at odds with the action.

That said, this was to a considerably lesser extent given the context of each IP: Gears of War 4 is known for its ‘beefy bro’ characters and their “hell yeah” attitude, while the sequel to Ubisoft’s near-future action game is trying – perhaps a little too hard – to emulate the ‘hacker’ culture. Even so, both felt like their script could do with a bit of fine-tuning.

This is, of course, without tumbling down the rabbit-hole of constantly monologuing protagonists, as seen in the Horizon: Zero Dawn and Days Gone demos. While this can be a handy verbal prompt to help developers nudge players in the right direction, ongoing commentary of everything heroes can see runs the risk of patronising your audience.

These issues in no way completely ruin the prospects for these and other games in need of tighter dialogue, but it’s a shame to have a seemingly simple aspect potentially tarnish what were promising previews of some of the biggest titles currently in the works.

And that’s not to say every E3 reveal suffered from this problem. The writing in Compulsion Games’ We Happy Few was remarkably tight, quickly drawing players into the world without having to go into lengthy exposition about the lore. The writing of God of War and Dishonoured 2, meanwhile, showed genuine chemistry and believable relationships between characters.

There was also the inevitably hilarious dialogue of South Park: The Fractured But Whole, although perhaps this is a special case. For one thing, the title is far more dependent on its writing and humour than the gameplay. For another, it is written by veteran TV writers who have been working on these characters for a decade – although perhaps discussions with other TV writers could help developers in future.

When writers – whether from the games industry or beyond – are brought onto a project, it can often seem like they’re primarily handling the overall plot, backstory and cinematics, and while these are arguably a priority, the in-game scripts cannot and should not be neglected. Given how the vast majority of titles are structured, gamers will spend most of their time actually playing the game rather than watching the cinematics. In which case, they’re far more exposed to a cheesy, potentially off-putting “way to go!” than even the best storytelling monologue.

Every word in your game matters, so give them the time they deserve.

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