As I laid out in a couple of recent posts, I’m a stickler when it comes to writing in video games. Maybe it’s my background in journalism or all those childhood afternoons plowing through fiction, but if your game is sharply written, it’s far more likely to end up on my all-time favorites list.
That said, a game doesn’t have to have snappy dialogue, complex characters or a brilliant plot twist to convince me to fork over a dozen hours of my life. There have been plenty of fantastic games that wouldn’t know good writing if it walked up and bashed them with a hammer. In that vein, here are five games that succeeded in spite of, or because of, their lack of quality writing.
“LittleBigPlanet” (rated E, $60 on PlayStation 3): The star attraction of this platform-jumping game for the PlayStation 3 isn’t an anthropomorphic animal with a smart alec personality like so many other games in the genre. Its protagonist, a hand-crafted yarn man known as Sackboy, can’t even talk. While the game features a number of themed stages, along with catchy corresponding music, the writing stitching the levels together unravels with even the tiniest tug. “LBP’s” strengths come from its robust level-creation tools, along with the creativity of the game’s players. Oh, sure, you’ll want to play to the end of the levels that developer Media Molecule has created, but the adventures your fellow players have fashioned will be what keeps you coming back repeatedly. “LBP” is meant to free your mind in part because there’s very little writing present to taint your inner artist.
“Wii Sports” (rated E, free with purchase of a Wii): “Wii Sports'” writing is paper-thin even by sports game standards. The characters are Mii avatars you create yourself. Games are ephemeral. There is no “season” or “dynasty” mode. There is simply playing a game, trying to win and having fun. The sheer easiness and pick-up-and-play factor surely helped Nintendo sell millions of Wiis by including “Wii Sports” as a pack-in game. And the formula set by “Wii Sports” has helped Nintendo, admittedly not the world’s most writing-focused publisher, make hits out of such narratively threadbare titles as “Mario Kart Wii,” “Wii Music” and “Wii Fit.”
“Dead Rising” (rated M, $20 on Xbox 360): This gaming homage to George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” movies tries extremely hard to sell gamers on an incredible conspiracy. Players, taking on the role of photojournalist Frank West, are meant to research and discover the cause of a zombie outbreak at a Colorado shopping mall before they’re devoured by the undead hordes. But the plot never quite gets there. While its multiple endings are a nice touch, “Dead Rising” sports plot holes large enough to drive a hearse through. But it’s one of the greatest games of the last five years anyway because it takes place on a rigid timeline and lets Frank use anything and everything as a weapon for dispatching shambling corpses.
“Culdcept Saga” (rated T, semi-out of print, prices vary on Xbox 360): The story, dialogue and voice acting in this hybrid of card and board games is fingernails-on-chalkboard bad. You play as a boy who sells himself into slavery to help pay his family’s debts, only to discover you have an ancient mystical power that you use to free yourself, save the world and win the love of a beautiful princess. Gag. But my favorite strategy game of this console generation stands out because it lets you assemble a custom deck of 50 cards, based on the nearly 500 you’ll unlock as you play the game. No two matches are alike, and online competition is fierce.
“Gears of War” (rated M, $30 on Xbox 360, prices vary on PC): No one will accuse “Gears of War,” one of the Xbox 360’s bona fide blockbusters, of being well-written. Yet protagonist Marcus Fenix and the other soldiers of Delta Force are such over-the-top, roided-out caricatures that the eye-roll-inducing script and over-the-top voice acting make it as deliciously cheesy as a Bruce Campbell movie (“The Evil Dead,” “Army of Darkness”). What’s more, this was the first first-person shooter to truly nail perfectly balanced, two-player online co-op. Nonetheless, the game’s story jumps all over the place. I played through “Gears” on all three difficulty settings, by myself and online with a friend, and I had to look on Wikipedia to remind myself why one of the game’s levels was Fenix’s dad’s house.