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01/06/2004

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Scott Miller

With Max 2 we tried to bring in an experienced Hollywood writer to help lead writer Sam Lake with some of the plotting and dialog, but, much to our dismay, this effort was summarily quashed by Rockstar's execs.

Had we not sold the franchise to Rockstar a year earlier, thus losing ultimate control of the game's quality, we would have taken the extra time (maybe six weeks) to improve much of the writing. But, Rockstar made the final call and told us not to let an outside writer interfere with the game's script.

My only guess is that they made this decision to avoid the game coming out later than its planned Oct. release. Oftentimes with publishers, the release date is everything. Quality be damned.

san

Well, talk about convergence of filmed and interactive entertainment: the creative team wants to improve the art and the studio just wants it released. Scott put that well enough; the game industry is suffering from the same dearth of quality consciousness at management level that other creative mediums struggle with.

This begs the question, When do you bring in the niche experts? I say, in light of Scott's experience, early on, the minute after the specification is written, before that even. To carry non-gaming talent into the creative process, the only solution may be to make that talent part of the package at the initial pitch. Get all the players and contributors signed into the contract before the publisher can start capping efforts to expand the creative team to improve the product. Of course, in this case, that might have meant bringing in a screenwriter on Max 1, before the game was a bona fide hit, before it could attract, and afford, talent from other mediums.

Ken

I find that the general opinion in the industry is that words really don't matter. Dialogue and in-game text is written by game designers and rarely proofread or researched before being put into the game. One more than a few occasions I've heard from producers or developers that they "aren't interested" in text bugs. As long as there are few enough mistakes that the game passes standards checks, it's fine by them.

And this is just spelling and grammar, let alone quality writing. Not to get to fogeyesque, but there was a time when writing did matter in games. Some used to actually come with novellas, or, for that matter, were composed entirely of text. Though we've come so far since that time in terms of graphics, writing has really taken a turn for the worse.

However, I think one recent example of really good writing is the GTA franchise, specifically the radio stations. That is some funny shit.

BrainFromArous

Not to mention "Taxi Drivers Must Die," in GTA2 - the best video game song ever.

Bowler

I really enjoyed (mostly) the dialog in Max Payne (the first). I thought it was intentionally overly gritty.

What I really would have liked to have seen changed were the constipated facial expressions of the guy (designer?) who played Payne. And the broken wrists. Always the gun-toting broken wrists. Even when not gun-toting.

eli

"I find that the general opinion in the industry is that words really don't matter."

Sounds just like the movie industry! Perhaps the gaming industry would serve themselves better by NOT getting involved with Hollywood, after all it is Hollywood that brought us movies like Demolition Man and Die Hard with their wonderful dialogue. It seems like most of the GOOD movie dialogue is from independent screenplay writers working out of their respective homes.

pajamo

Aw, come one people! I LOVED playing MP2. And a big reason was the dialogue.

I thought the over-the-top "noir on speed" approch was sweet. And it's also the reason I've been toying around with the idea of writing a game. What better compliment can I give than to say that I found myself inspired.

I play MP2 straight thru. Thne I bought the GBA title and loved the cheesy dialogue in it. I will admit though that I have since bought the original MP for xbox and it's not as good.

For me the importance of good writing isn't just dialogue it's the situations the charactes find themselves in.

I loved the story in Beyond Good & Evil. They had characters I actually cared about. Whao.

Now, I really like final Fantasy X but the writing felt hampered by translating Japanese to English.

pajamo

Aw, come one people! I LOVED playing MP2. And a big reason was the dialogue.

I thought the over-the-top "noir on speed" approch was sweet. And it's also the reason I've been toying around with the idea of writing a game. What better compliment can I give than to say that I found myself inspired.

I played MP2 straight thru. Then I bought the GBA title and loved the cheesy dialogue in it. I will admit though that I have since bought the original MP for xbox and it's not as good.

For me the importance of good writing isn't just dialogue it's the situations the charactes find themselves in.

I loved the story in Beyond Good & Evil. They had characters I actually cared about. Whao.

Now, I really like final Fantasy X but the writing felt hampered by translating Japanese to English.

Robert L. Hoover

I appreciated the dialogue in Max Payne. But I think there is a distinction to be made: dialogue is a part of writing. It does not compose all of the writing process, such as in C++, it would be a derived class "Dialogue" of the class "Writing"... Sorry, the programmer inside of me emerges...

Anyway, part of writing involves carving out the background story, as well as (attempting) to get the player (or viewer, in the case of a movie) emotionally involved, among other things. We need to move forward in the whole context of writing, dialogue and all, which is what games suffer from at the moment. Has anyone ever read "Creating Emotion in Games" by David Freeman? I think a better question to be asked would be, "Was anyone emotionally drawn into the story for Max Payne and Max Payne 2?"

Just my two cents.

Scott Frazier

Eli,

To get totaly off of the subject of things, you mention the movie Die Hard as being a terrible "Hollywood" movie. Fact of the matter is, the script for the original Die Hard movie is quite possibly one of the tightest movie scripts ever written. There is not a single piece of misplaced dialogue or exposition, every character is pitch perfect and the structure is nearly flawless.

That is, unless of course you were referring to Die Hard 2... In which case, yeah... That's some pretty bad writing.

Andrew

Interesting point. Even the Metal Gear series, which is lauded for its storytelling, is filled with cliche-ridden and over-melodramatic dialogue, and the story pacing is kind of off too.

plaidchocobo

Dialogue is obviously not an easy thing to master. Even professionals stumble, and often. Think of any genre fiction you've watched/read recently. I'm willing to bet that there was at least one line that made you wince. The balance between exposition and character development is tricky, and aparently subjective (see Die Hard debate above).

Professionals are a step in the righ direction, but I don't expect it to fix the dialogue problem as a whole. It will only scrape those bottom-level games (like Resident Evil *shudder*) up off the floor.

plaidchocobo

Dialogue is obviously not an easy thing to master. Even professionals stumble, and often. Think of any genre fiction you've watched/read recently. I'm willing to bet that there was at least one line that made you wince. The balance between exposition and character development is tricky, and aparently subjective (see Die Hard debate above).

Professionals are a step in the righ direction, but I don't expect it to fix the dialogue problem as a whole. It will only scrape those bottom-level games (like Resident Evil *shudder*) up off the floor.

Mike Drucker

I enjoyed Max Payne's little narrated interludes because of their cheesiness. I mean, I thought that's what they were going for was a really, really, really cheesy 70s film quality. I mean, c'mon, the scene in the game where the guy's chanting the names of gods and he mentions Cthulu? That had to be intentionally bad.

Writing in games is not always bad, though. Or is it always so obvious.

Look at a game like Eternal Darkness. Okay, maybe the concept of the game was completely lifted from Lovecraft, but the game was genuinely interesting with well written dialouge and characters that weren't just stereotypes of their eras. They popped, if you will.

Other games like StarCraft and WarCraft have witty writing both inside the story and just for the characters' speech.

Heck, Beyond Good & Evil is also pretty well written, if not a tad heavy-handed. And it was written by the main game designer.

I think the issue is realizing that a game script and a movie script should be different. My main problem with Metal Gear Solid 2 was that I played the game for fifteen minutes and then watched fifteen minutes of talking. A game should have a good story, I'll grant that. But at the same time, the story should be used to make the game, not the other way around.

Ah, well. Just thought I'd add a little somethin'.

BrainFromArous

I thought the running monologue in Max Payne 1 was a great send-up of film noir and hardboiled detective tales... until I realized it wasn't a joke.

Then it hit me, hit me (as Max would say) like a truck full of memories speeding down streets of my mind. No escape, except the grave. The grave was where I'd left my last partner, a happy-go-lucky kid who didn't know the price this cruel and hungry city takes from those who dare to smile in the rain. I can still hear the gunshots, and the screams. And that song playing on the radio - the extended dance mix, actually. Pretty funky, now that I think about it. Wait, where was I? Oh yeah, the grave. I pulled my coat tighter against the cold, invading hands of the night air and walked back to the toystore. All alone, of course. Maybe this time, I would be lucky and they'd have that Admiral Ackbar figure. Maybe.

But it didn't look good.

Sal M

Surprisingly for me, Fire Emblem for the GBA kept me going for the twists in the story pretty well. In game cutscenes were nicely done, and spun a good (if slightly hackneyed) tale of political intrigue, while the ability to go through subplots based on what characters you chose to keep near each other for support opportunities added an extra little element to the general strategizing during combat.

pajamo

Has anyone played Duex Ex: Invisible War yet?

I just started played it on my xbox. I got it specifically for the story and characters which I heard was pretty engaging.

I'm only about 2 hours into it but I gotta say that it's a little hard to get into BECAUSE unlike Max Payne 2 the player isn't being sent down a clear path. I can agree with folks who don't get into the humor of Max Payne's "inner monologues" and hence feel the game is basically stoppping every few minutes to let the player shoot some baddies but since I AM lovin' the cheesy dialogue I look forward to 'em. It's akin to the old intermissions on Pac-Man.

But back to Invisible War...
It's structurally a lot like Knights of the Old Republic. Sad to say, I never finished that game. THe world was great and I'm a big star wars fan but I hated all the side quests that had to be done. And I'm kinda feeling the same way with IW.

Anyone else feel like this?

No? Then I'll get back to Invisible War...

Iain

Personally I enjoyed MP2, and especially enjoyed what was for me an awkward tension between what appeared to be genuine pushes towards more adult (as distinct from just more explicit) content and a clumsy style of adolescent noir dialogue. In my time I have been known to enjoy self-aware clumsy adolescent noir dialogue, but it seemed this was without intention. Coming from the developers of Duke Nukem, I think my assumption was that irony was going to be served liberally with the title.

For me, this issue of dialogue is best highlighted by the emergence of machinima, and in particular work like RedvsBlue. The fact that this simple conceit works so well and can be so funny illustrates just how deeply ingrained the conventions that developers such as 3dRealms are having to work against actually are. I wonder if the development of this kind of work is going to influence developers, or more importantly the studios?

The MP franchise hints at some really interesting potentials for me, it's both heartening and encouraging to play something like it - but excrutiating to see not developed to its best realisation.

eli

"Fact of the matter is, the script for the original Die Hard movie is quite possibly one of the tightest movie scripts ever written."

You're right, Die Hard was pretty awesome, and yes I was thinking of Die Hard 2 (the one at the airport). I picked those examples because they keep playing them over and over again on TBS... But now they've moved on to the film about super-smart sharks.

deadguy

At the risk of sounding cranky...

...there is a tremendous tendency within the gaming community to confuse lots of writing or visible writing with good writing. The writing in Max Payne is up front and in you face, in big comic book letters on the screen. Whether that's good writing or not is irrelevant; it's there, it's noticeable, and as such it gets talked about. Ditto for dialogue. There are plenty of well-written games that are written subtly, and as such don't get the attention that showier ones do.

There are a lot of reasons writing in games isn't always up to snuff. Part of it is the general disregard in which developers hold the craft of writing. Let's face it, everyone thinks they can write, and they don't need to hire a writer because the designer/the artist with some free time/the producer's boyfriend who ran a kickass Rolemaster campaign back in college can do it. At this point, games are professional products and demand professional game writers. I cringe when people look to Hollywood for our writing saviors, and do so for several reasons. First of all, there is plenty of writing talent in the industry. It's just not being recognized or appreciated, and frankly it's ridiculous to pay more for a Hollywood pedigree when you're not willing to pay for the good stuff that's in your backyard. Second, anyone who's been to the movies knows that Hollywood writing isn't automatically equal to good writing. And finally, games are a different medium, period. The tricks that work for movies might work in some cases, but in games we're trying for something very different. Harlan Ellison made ominous reference to what happened when he tried to bring "real" science fiction writers in to do Star Trek scripts - the results were generally dire. Why? Because TV was a different medium than fiction, and what works in one doesn't automatically work in the other. We've already seen some of this in collaborations between Hollywood and games; I'm sure we'll see more.

misuba

If they did make a game where all the dialogue was supposed to be an ironic piss take on gaming dialogue, how would we be able to tell?

caninusrule

I think most the narrative in games is horrible, and it's unfortunately most noticeable in RPGs because they tend to make a showcase of the story every bit as much as the battle mechanics or inventory system. As an adult, I can't remember the last Japanese rpg I played that didn't make me cringe or hope someone didn't walk into the room as a "scene" was being played out. And that's not to rescue Western developers. When they are creating a RPG, the fantasy fiction cliches come at a fast and furious pace, though it's interesting that something like KOTOR could manage to be more entertaining narratively than the recent movies the license is based on.

I think the primary problem is that gamers haven't created any demand for more serious or interesting plot devices no matter how their age increases. Their more than happy to make the latest FF outing a huge seller as long as the graphics improve, and Zelda WW can win countless GOTY awards by not even using voice acting and staying with a children's cartoon motif as long as the gameplay is good. Look at how Beyond Good & Evil has sold, all it's kudos for story aside.

The ugly truth about gaming, even with so-called "hardcore" gamers, is that we crave the familiar and hence the franchise or remake. Since grand narratives have never been part of the genres history, we generally don't require one to feel an emotional reaction to a favorite game played out in tired tropes again.

And also, many older gamers I know still don't read that much. Many like film, but simply read the same sort of predictable plots in fantasy novels they've always enjoyed. There's even an older audience constantly growing for a lot of video-game like anime.

It's too bad though, I know there's a lot of talented writers out there looking for work or outlets for their vision and a venue with the gaming industry might someday be more feasible.

caninusrule

...and not to pile on, but I thought MP2 was horrible. The first I took not too seriously, and felt like a B movie with the dialogue, slow-motion action and constant shoot-em up scenes. The second added a better physics engine and nothing else. Hence it was really, really boring.

I thought R* made put out some good games this year (midnight club 2, manhunt, GTA DP) but that wasn't one of them.

amar

glad to see someone addressing the issue of horrible dialog in games. metal gear struck me as particularly egregious given that i read so many reviews where people *praised* the writing. were they on crack?! this is why it's hard for me to take the stories in most rpgs/adventure games seriously (especially those, like final fantasy, where the dialog is translated from the japanese).

Chris Burke

One of us (either me, or Sanford) didn't "get" Max Payne.

I loved the dialogue in Max Payne because it captured the idioms of noir pulp. Sure you can make great art out of noir but much of it is pulp - meaning cheap work printed on cheap paper to satisfy the reading habits of a well-established repeat audience.

No, Max Payne wasn't The Maltese Falcon - it wasn't trying to be. Good is good enough, and I think Remedy got it just right.

I loved it so much, I wrote my entire review for Mindless Games in the same pulp noir style. If anyone had criticised my writing in that review as terrible (nobody did), I'd laugh and suggest to them that they should take a Valkyr chill pill and try to "get it". I hope the writer on Max Payne does the same, in this case.

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