So, video games. Believe it or not, I’m a big fan.
It’s weird how that still somehow feels somewhat taboo for a fully-grown adult to say, even though the video game industry now generates more revenue than the music and film industries combined. Games have always been seen as quite an immature medium. A children’s toy rather than a serious vessel for storytelling, lacking the scope to weave profound narratives - unlike films or novels. If you read my previous blog, you’ll have seen me attempt to fight against this stereotype by listing some of the games that were so good, they inspired me to be a better writer.
In this blog, I’ll be analysing games that had such bad writing they completely annihilated any fun I could’ve had with them.
Well, stereotypes exist for a reason I guess.
If Psychonauts was a mediocre game elevated to greatness through its fantastic writing, Dishonored is the polar opposite. This game had so much going for it – fantastic stealth gameplay, an intriguing setting, and incredible visual design. I mean, every character looks like a Spitting Image puppet crafted from human skin (and I mean that in a good way).
But any personality implied through character design was conspicuously lacking in the dialogue. Every line in Dishonored is the epitome of “dry” and “functional”. Between missions, you are expected to return to your base to pick up details of the next level and talk with your allies – but I had zero interest in doing that because they’re all so bloody boring. Everyone is constantly delivering simple factual statements in a flat monotone.
“The High Overseer has branded you as treasonous, blah blah blah”.
“I have chosen you to be worthy of my mystical power, yap yap yap”.
“You shouldn’t stab so many people in the throat, yawn yawn gurgle”.
This showed me that you should never turn down an opportunity to show personality in your writing. There are many different tones of voice you can use, and finding the right one for the right job is perhaps the toughest skill to pick up for a copywriter just starting out. But the importance of this talent is clear when you are faced with copy that has no personality at all.
It doesn’t matter how interesting what you’re saying is, if you deliver it in the blandest possible way, nobody is going to be engaged.
2. Sunset Overdrive
There are many different flavours of bad writing – and while bland and uninteresting might be the most common offense, we must also acknowledge the games that are physically excruciating to sit through.
So once again, I’m highlighting a game that could have been a huge amount of fun if the writing was more bearable - but Sunset Overdrive’s writing isn’t simply bad in the traditional sense. It’s not painful because of poor sentence structure, unnatural dialogue, or overuse of adverbs. It’s a very specific flavour of writing that doesn’t take anything seriously.
Sunset Overdrive tries very hard to be funny and irreverent - but its ceaseless fourth-wall breaking, meta humour and shallow stereotypical characters mean there’s nothing to grab on to. I know comedy is subjective, but I’ve never spoken to anybody who found Sunset Overdrive funny. It’s true of any good writing, but especially comedy, that we need some kind of connection to get invested. Something to relate to. Something to identify with. But the characters in Sunset Overdrive don’t care about anything – when faced with a monster apocalypse, most of them just roll their eyes and make a snarky quip.
If I tried to write a job listing in the same style as Sunset Overdrive, it would look something like this:
How’d you like to be a cog in a corporate machine?
We’re pretty much like any other workplace, most of the people here are all right but you won’t speak to them much beyond “How was your weekend?”
Obviously, we won’t pay you as much as you’re worth (we need to make a profit after all) but it should be enough to afford food and stuff.
Don’t forget to wear a shirt with buttons. You’ve got to look smart and professional while you sit behind a computer all day.
It can be good to inject some personality and humour into your writing, but you also need to take the subject seriously, even if you’re the only one. Ultimately, the only reason anyone would be reading your words is if they think you have something to say.
Because if I don’t care about what I’m writing, why should the reader?
So there we are. I feel it’s important to learn from gaming’s mistakes as well as its successes, and these examples stood out to me because they had so much potential. They showed me that writing has the power to kill a game as well as redeem it. I’m still honing my craft, but as I approach the end of my first year as a professional copywriter, I find it helpful to remind myself of that importance.
It’s easy to feel like I’m not making much of a difference with my work, but then I remember the writer of Sunset Overdrive, and I think to myself “wow, maybe someday, someone will want to punch me in the throat too”.