July 2, 2010
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Writing in Games

I've been toying with The War Of Eustrath HD, a clever little game for the iPad. It’s a plot-heavy tactical role-playing game, complete with manga characters and romantic subplots. The subplots are fairly good, and since the translator’s grasp of English is tenuous, it would be churlish to make fun of the many missteps in the writing.

The writers have an odd sense of grittiness; one manga girl scores points in a debate with another by calling her small-breasted. Is this precisely the insult a Japanese warrior might select before heading out to meet the invader in a nearly-hopeless battle?

I wonder if the original has a different insult? Perhaps this was an interpolation to appeal to gaijin tastes?

This lies, I think, at the heart of Ebert’s now-famous claim that games can’t be art. As Ebert now acknowledges, that was a silly way to pose the question. And let’s not roust up the whole game studies controversy about games and narrative, at least not today.

But, on the whole, if narrative — or character — were really central to games like these, I bet the writers would take more care.

Update: Mike Auxhiller explains that calling a rival “small-breasted!” is actually a common insult in Japanese entertainment. He thinks the issue arises from the developer’s workflow. My guess is that’s part of the story, but if the writing mattered to the developers as much as the nifty fashions the characters wear, they’d have arranged the workflow otherwise..