The Perils of Celebrity Game Writing

As most everyone following the games industry knows by now, 38 Studios, the developer behind this February’s Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, laid off all of its employees after failing to make a single loan payment to the state of Rhode Island, after borrowing $75 million and asking to borrow more to pay back the first loan.

The first post I didn’t finish on Loading Screen was a non-review of Amalur, because I lost interest in writing it after I lost interest in playing it. I still don’t have much interest in writing an Amalur review, because frankly the game’s not very good. It’s not very bad, either. It’s flat, uninspired, and after the first few hours you’ve seen everything you’re going to see. It’s a set of very pretty hallways with fun and energetic combat that never grows or changes. I lost interest in it before I even got to the second area tileset.

I still adore Big Huge Games, though; Rise of Nations and Rise of Legends are among the best real-time strategy games I’ve ever played, and their work on Age of Empires III: The Asian Dynasties gave that game life it had long since lost in my library. There’s a lot of talent and promise in that team, and I hope the spirit of BHG lives on in whatever studio snaps up their people. I hope everyone hurt by this mismanagement lands on their feet quickly, and this is just a nightmarish situation that depresses me greatly. My ire is aimed solely at the celebrities involved with this game.

I don’t have any insight or valuable input into what happened with 38 Studios. I’m no insider, just a pretender. But I do think this article has something that I can comment on, as a gamer and a writer.

The passage of note is this:  “R.A. Salvatore, a fantasy writer who helped develop the games, is slated to receive $1.46 million from 38 Studios in October under the terms of a consulting agreement he signed with the company in 2007. He is also eligible to earn up to $5 million in royalties from sales of “Reckoning” and other 38 Studios products.”

That strikes me as a terrible waste of money, and for once in my life I’m not disparaging R.A. Salvatore’s writing. (Don’t get me wrong, I think he’s awful. Not Richard Knaak awful, but awful.) Salvatore added absolutely nothing positive to Amalur, and instead did a lot to bring the quality of the game down through his work.

Most NPCs in Amalur have anywhere from 5-10 bits of interest in their dialogue options, all with names like “Well of Souls,” “Tuatha,” “Darrenville,” “Elves,” what-have-you. Clicking on any one of those gives you fully-voiced unique dialogue about that specific item, specific to that one character. None of it’s any interesting or any good, except once. The one sidequest I did that felt worth my time was helping a man who accosted me in the forest. He turned out to be a wolf turned into a man by a prankster fairy, and he needed me to help him get back to his lupine state. His dialogue had some actual energy and humor behind it, and while I wasn’t blown away like this was the best thing in the history of videogames, I was sufficiently charmed enough to tackle this rather annoying fetch quest.

Every person in Amalur is an encyclopedia of useless knowledge, reciting facts about a history that’s completely irrelevant to your current adventure. You are run down in the street by names with no fewer than nine consonants every time you ask somebody if they know where the blacksmith is. With each person having their own dialogue, set up in two different UIs (some characters have a Mass Effect-style radial menu, some characters have an Elder Scrolls-style vertical menu, and even worse, some characters switch back and forth between them depending on their last line), the player is left wondering what lines are important and what lines are just background flavor. Salvatore said in an interview that he wrote over ten thousand years of backstory for Amalur to get the game world just right. It shows. And it’s all terrible.

I do want a rich and storied world in my video games. I play games primarily for the story — even the Warriors franchise has a great story appeal to me, thanks to the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the Sengoku era. But this is a game. Writing a game is almost nothing like writing a book.

I am not a great writer. I think I’m pretty good, but I’m not great. I hate to use an example from my own book — a book that’s not even out because I’m taking forever on the rewrite — but I want to use a passage from it to illustrate what NOT to do in gaming.

The Ember Forest, just south of Delenn, earned its name in the aftermath of the worst fire in the city’s recorded history. For four weeks the forest burned, with flames consuming miles and miles of the thick forest, from the western shore all the way to the eastern mountains that made up part of the pass in which Delenn sat. The fire survived the best of the city guard’s efforts, a group of magi from the capital, Kasilos, and a week’s worth of prayer during the height of its damage. It took a steady week of torrential rains to finally extinguish the fire, an act that the druids of Arcell were quick to claim credit for. It was through Arcell the Lifegiver, the God of Nature, that the city itself was spared, they said. Regardless of what saved the city, the forest was ravaged by the weeks of destruction. Even after the rain had fallen, the forest smoldered, with so many patches of red mixed with the ash that, from the mountain pass, it looked like the plains ran thick with lava.

The druids worked to restore the forest, and their rituals met with early success. The first plant life to grow after the fire had flowers that bloomed the same color as the flames. Either the emberbloom flowers took their name from the forest or the Ember Forest took its name from the flowers, and scholars argued both sides for years.

“Huh.”

Scholars also disputed the cause of the blaze. Some pointed to other instances in Khazair’s history, claiming that forest fires are a common occurrence, and to have one of this magnitude was just an unfortunate coincidence. Others pointed to the reports that metal was found near the southern end of the forest, melted almost beyond recognition. They argued that the metal matched the stock used for the holy symbols for Scinterra, the Goddess of Fire, and that this must have been the work of a violent sub-sect devoted to one of the lesser gods. They backed up their assertions with cultist propoganda found in Delenn that spoke of “Cleansing by Fire” and other loaded statements. The sect never claimed credit for the fire, and the investigations never led to a suspect. Delenn authorities closed the case with the cause listed as natural.

“Well, well.”

The Ember Forest’s recovery from a decimated wasteland into its current, thriving state is a testament to the power inherent in both the magic and the people of Quintana. Before the disaster, worshippers of Arcella and Narkend regularly clashed over theological issues. The druids argued that worship of the Goddess of Death placed too much importance on just one aspect of the natural cycle of life. The mages of Narkend felt that the druids focused too heavily on the big picture, foregoing individual concerns for the “circle of life” they so often referenced in their research papers. Yet, after the fire, both groups worked hand in hand to return the Ember Forest to its previous splendor. The works the druids accomplished could not have been done without the rituals Narkend’s mages cast over the land, using the forest’s own death to bring about new life. Descendants of that group, both in lineage and in philosophy, still travel Khazair and the rest of Quintana helping with disaster recovery, calling themselves Eternal Life. They serve as a testament to what is possible when the people of Quintana embrace their differences, instead of stand rigidly by their doctrine.

“Hmm.”

Chamber sighed, and lowered his book. “That’s the third time, Dante.”

The redhead riding beside him shifted in her saddle and looked at Chamber, eyebrows raised in a good impression of surprise. “Third time for what, Chamber?” she asked him.

“Third time you’ve made some little noise like that.”

“I can’t say I have any idea what you’re talking about,” came her innocent reply.

“Oh yes you do,” he retorted, riding closer to her. “You do this all the time.”

“You’re probably just hearing some noise in the woods,” Dante said, indicating the forest around them. “It really could be anything. Maybe you should be more alert when we’re traveling through an area this dense.”

“I don’t know what you have against me reading when we’re riding somewhere. What is it?”

That’s not bad. That style works very well in writing, because it lets me present something interesting — the area in which the next few chapters will be taking place — in a way that tells you more about the characters in those chapters, namely that Chamber is a reader and Dante likes to annoy him to pass the time. That’s a scene I can build from, and introduces character traits that will be important later on, and failing that just add more to the characters themselves. It also means that if the trees start throwing fireballs at people later on it’s not completely insane. (They don’t.)

If I were to try and establish this kind of history in a videogame, I wouldn’t. I straight up would not even try. I may have all that written down in a world-design document, it may be important for the history of the world and how everything evolved, and it may mean a lot to me. But I would show a forest, perhaps have a character mention its name and fire off one line, maybe two, and then I would keep going. It’s writing for a game, not a novel. In a novel, I, the writer, am important. In a game, you, the player, are important. I need to stay the hell out of your way while working to heighten your playing experience.

Games writing is not novel writing. I cannot emphasize that enough. Every time I hear that a novelist is working on a game story, I cringe and prepare myself for the worst, because games writing and novel writing have made for some terrible bedfellows. Amalur is one of those. Salvatore’s philosophy for using that 10,000-year history was to make sure he crammed it in everywhere in the world, because he’s R.A. Salvatore, he wrote the Drizzt novels, let’s make sure everyone knows just how great a writer he is.

Obelisks cover the game world, each one telling you some story about the world as you play, like the audio logs in Bioshock. But there is no lead-in or explanation of why this is important, and the first area’s obelisks are a rather twee song by a would-be folk singer about a lost love of the gods. There are either eight or ten obelisks per area, and each area takes hours to explore if you are chasing down all 150 sidequests per area (and I do not recommend doing this). You may come across Obelisk Six days after you found Five, and have completely forgotten why an old man is singing to you in his Children’s TV Show voice. But since each obelisk gives you XP, you’ll be loathe to pass it up. Since R.A. Salvatore wrote it, he was loathe to cut it, so it’s in.

The Elder Scrolls hides its historian goals inside books, books that are entirely optional to read and do not offer any serious game advantage to those who elect to read The Lusty Argonian Maid versus those who decide that slaying dragons sounds like a better use of their time. The worldbuilding is done in such a way that you learn about the world by finding things in it. When you walk into a dungeon and find bandits painting the walls in body parts with one dead troll between them, but streaks of blood leading further into the dungeon, you know exactly what happened there. You also know what you’re going to do about it — you’re going to go kill that surviving troll and hope that he’s sitting on treasure, and not something else far worse hidden far below.

In Amalur, there is one surviving guy who is willing to tell you his life story and every detail in his day that led to him coming down the path to this cave with his friends, where they were suddenly set upon by a troll — trolls, incidentally, have a terrible fear of fire stemming from how they were cursed ten thousand years ago by Agartha, when she came down from Old Murkenville — that’s the village where two of the gods were born, Agartha and Morwen — sisters, they — fair as a summer’s day, pretty as a lark, ’til one day they went a-dancing right outside the Hillside Park…

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s