This is an argument you hear from a lot of people. It’s been harped on enough that I’m fairly sure it’s a dead horse, so there’s no point in beating it any further. But.
There are many, many things that shaped me as a writer. I love books, but there are so many ways to tell a story, and so many different forms. What works for film may be drastically different from what works for TV. And the differences between Western comics and manga are polarized enough that each medium is considered to be completely different from the other.
Similarly, there are different styles of storytelling across video games. What works for a first-person shooter won’t work for a traditional RPG, because they have completely different demands. And this is what I love about video games so very, very much–
They’re interactive stories. Those choose-your-own-adventure books you read as kids? Yeah. That’s it. You get dropped into a story where you can actually interact with the world and its people. And since games are rather time-consuming and costly to make, there are two important things amazing games never skimp on:
A rich, well-thought-out story
One of the major rigors of creating a story is worldbuilding. You’ve got to figure out the macro stuff–time period, physical setting, regional culture, taboos, language–all the way down to the micro stuff. How do these people get electricity? Does it even exist in their world? What kind of clothes do they wear? Why? What kind of slang do they use? A good story will give full consideration to every last one of these details. And there’s a good reason for it: to immerse you in both the story and the world. How can you sink in if you’re too busy spotting plot holes or issues with the world?
And this is the beauty of having a strong team of writers working on a big project–they’ll cover every last one of those bases.
Characters worth caring about
This one is my biggie. The make-or-break aspect of a story and particularly a video game. I don’t care if the main protagonist is borderline evil and initially unlikeable so long as they have a compelling story of their own. Characters have to have a certain charisma–something that makes them interesting and compels the player (or reader) to follow them through the story. What makes this character a member of the cast? What are their strengths? Their weaknesses? Fully fleshed out characters will show us both their best and their worst. That’s what makes them relatable and compelling. Two-dimensional stereotypes might work for a gag, but not for the main cast.
The other thing I’ve noticed in this vein are dialog and personal voice. Stand-out characters have a voice and a personality all their own. The way they speak is more than just voice acting–it’s their choice of words, the structure of their sentences, the peculiarities that make the player (or reader) go “Oh, Character, only you would say that.” Good dialog is hard to come by, and even harder to write. It has to sound realistic for that character, realistic for the world, and natural when spoken aloud. Great voice acting can cover half of these demands, yes. But the best voice actor can’t do much with wooden dialog.
These two elements have been on my mind quite a bit as I’ve played through the recent HD reboot of Final Fantasy X. The series will always be close to my heart–FFVII was my first RPG–but X retains a spot in my all-time favorites. It’s got plenty of flash, yeah, but it’s equally heavy on the substance. All those elements I mentioned? They’re there. That’s why I loved this game as a teen and why I love it now, but this time around, I have a deeper appreciation for it. So much goes into building a world and a story people can love. To do it well is very, very hard indeed.
What about you guys? What are you favorite games? Why? What won them a spot on your shelf and in your heart?