As I’ve aged, it has become harder to find video games I enjoy. It’s not the creativity, or the mechanisms, or slowing reflexes in my middle years. It’s the writing.
When I was a kid, story was almost secondary. Running around Castle Wolfenstein (the first one on the Apple II c) or Wolfenstein 3D (the second one, and first ‘first-person’ shooter), it was a simple as killing Nazis and finding passcards. That was how espionage worked, right? You shoot everyone in sight, take their color-coded door cards and then kill Hitler.
‘Inglorious Bastards’ it most definitely was not; but you filled in the gaps with your imagination.
Now, I spent most of my time writing stories for a living; my imagination is tired. It needs a rest; consequently I’ve only finished a handful of games in the last five years: Dishonored (a neat stealth/assassination game in a high-fantasy steampunk world); Wolfenstein, the New Order (a ‘what if the Nazis had won’ sci-fi shooter); Ryse: Son of Rome (a simplistic-but-fun story of a Roman centurion saving the empire). I’ve finished most of the quests in Skyrim and the odd other shooter or puzzle game here and there.
But mostly, I play a few hours of them and quit when the story becomes dull or the game play repetitive. And most video game writers, bless their hearts, couldn’t write a letter to Santa Claus, let alone a passionate and focused narrative.
The best example of good writing in a game so far has been The Witcher 3, which many people consider the greatest role-playing fantasy game ever made. But finding games this good is rare indeed.
Books require imagination, too; but if they’re well-written they not only give you some help, they also are paced properly to keep the reader not only excited but also emotionally invested. Ultimately, huge games with huge casts that you rarely deal with more than once have a lot of difficulty maintaining reasons why you should care. They have other distractions, but much of the experience is hollow. In movie terms, it’s the difference between Die Hard! and Transformers. The former is brilliantly paced, and you’re emotionally invested throughout in the main character, because his wife is one of the hostages and he’s isolated and alone. The latter is a 120 fps blur of CGI and things blowing up, sound and fury signifying boredom.