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Game writers, your injokes aren't as funny as you think

Game writers, your injokes aren't as funny as you think Exclusive GDMag Exclusive

July 24, 2013 | By Derek Sanderson

July 24, 2013 | By Derek Sanderson
More: GD Mag, Design, GD Mag Exclusive

In this reprint from the August 2000 issue of Game Developer magazine, Derek Sanderson warns of injokes and pop culture references spoiling the timelessness of your game.

We spend years, and millions of dollars, developing games. We spend thousands of hours writing and optimizing our code, thousands more making the art "just so" in order to create the best visual effects possible within the constraints imposed by time and budget.

And then many of us take these technological masterpieces and flush their quality down the toilet by not giving the most basic elements of our game design the same attention to detail we do our code and art. This design inconsistency takes many games that could be "A" titles and drags them down to mediocrity.

What do I mean by "design inconsistency"? I'm referring to any aspect of your game that doesn't blend seamlessly with your overall design. As the saying goes, if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem, and as an industry we are prone to creating problems where there should be none. Bad voice acting and typographical or grammatical errors are still far too common, despite being a source of derision (and lowered ratings!) from game reviewers for years. Other problems are subtler, such as dialogue or story elements that don't fit a game's overall feel. These non sequiturs lead to a reaction of "Huh?" when they are encountered by players. Whatever the flaw, however, there is a common element to these lapses: they collectively break the sense of immersion, pulling players out of the environment and reminding them that they are only playing a game.

This is a bad thing. When we read books, we want to be immersed in the story. A typo or poorly written line of dialogue reminds us that we are only reading a book, pulling us from the environment woven by the author and jostling our attention back to the real world. An excess of such mistakes leads to the novel being set aside, never to be completed, never to be recommended to others, and worst of all, lessening the likelihood that the author's future works will be purchased and read. Commit the same design sins in a movie, and poor reviews consign it to a shorter run in the theaters, smaller box office receipts, and less money in the pockets of all those who collaborated in the film's production.

So why, then, do so many of us not pay attention to the finer details of game design? Why do we take our lovingly crafted games and introduce things that detract from the experience we have worked so hard to produce? Every bad voice actor, every poorly written dialogue, every typographical error, and every gameplay element that doesn't fit the rest of your design detracts from the overall gaming experience. Each such mistake has the potential to drive away a customer who would otherwise like your game; commit enough of these sins and you'll never have a classic, no matter how fast your engine or slick your graphics.

Let's talk about poor writing; what you're reading now is a good example. I consider myself a decent hack, and can string sentences together reasonably well. But before a single word I type sees print, a professional editor will read every bit [HI MOM], making changes [GO CUBS] to ensure my prose meets the standards of the magazine.

Does the writing in your company's games undergo the same process? Do professional writers create your dialogue and game messaging, or do the designers and programmers make it up as they go? Once the text is written, does your QA staff review it for grammatical and typographical accuracy? Does anyone exist on your team whose job it is to ensure every bit of your game's writing meets the same high standards of quality, so it consistently conveys the same message about your world? For most of us, I fear, the answer is no.

And what about your voice acting? I've had friends whose projects had voice actors who were clearly not up to the task, and when they pointed this out to the producer, were told the acting was "good enough" to get the job done. In one case, "good enough" was cause for a full-star reduction in ratings from several game magazines. And how many of us have worked on games in which the majority of the voice "talent" came from team members who couldn't act their way out of a paper bag?

Out-of-context story elements require a keener eye to spot, but eliminating them is just as important as any other aspect of building a quality game. My favorite examples of such inappropriate elements come from the (really good) post-nuclear-holocaust role-playing game, Fallout 2. Fallout 2 is set in a world in which the nuclear fears of 1950s America came true and featured an outstanding cast of characters with vivid, humorous personalities, all of them impeccably voice-acted: an antler-headed medicine man who speaks in riddles, a country-bumpkin ghoul who gasps and wheezes as if he were on his last legs, a tough, no-nonsense mutant with the personality of a classic Old West sheriff. Other elements of the game are similarly humorous, with many of the jokes poking fun at the nuclear paranoia and other cultural hallmarks of 1950s America.

Most of Fallout 2's humor fits perfectly into the overall atmosphere of the game, but there are several instances where the designers went too far, placing humor elements in the game that did not fit the rest of its environment. For example, late in the game the player comes across a rope bridge spanning a huge chasm. The bridge is guarded by an old man who insists you answer three questions to pass " you guessed it: your name, your quest, and your favorite color, straight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In another part of the game, one encounters a wrecked Star Trek shuttle, complete with the bodies of "red shirts" lying about. Funny? Yes, for a moment. But the joke broke my suspension of disbelief, ultimately lessening the game's otherwise excellent quality.

So why does this matter? There are hundreds of games I could have picked on for being absolute, irredeemable crap, but I wanted to make my point by showing how a good game can harm itself by losing focus. Fallout 2 has its non sequiturs, Everquest its typos, and many other products have voice-acting deficiencies while still remaining decent games overall. Although recent phenomena (such as the boom in discount titles or the closure of Looking Glass Studios) may seem to prove otherwise, I still believe the market rewards quality. If we as an industry can improve on the consistency of our games' quality, we will be better poised to take advantage of the coming boom in gaming.

Our industry is at a crossroads. Our parents may not have grown up with computers or home videogame systems, but most people born after 1975 have, and there will eventually come a day when no person alive can remember a time before videogames existed. If we are to take advantage of the rapidly expanding market of gamesavvy consumers, we need to ensure we provide them with products of consistent, outstanding quality. We need to do this with every game we make, because the mass market not only judges your individual game, not only your company, but gaming in general when they get burned by a bad purchase.

"Quality" doesn't mean every game we ship has the latest in graphical splendor. Not all of us have multi-million-dollar art or programming budgets. Not all of us have time to add every feature we would like and still make our ship dates. However, consistent design, compelling writing, and good acting are within the reach of everyone, and Hollywood has shown us that you don't need a lot of special effects to make a good movie. Casablanca, anyone?

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