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Better Read

As summer vacation arrives, I find myself wishing vaguely for an absorbing new game to take advantage of the free time. Sadly, no promising strategy games are in the offing, so I’m willing to settle for something less, maybe an MMO, an “RPG,” or even a shooter with strong RPG elements. Don’t know if I’ll find anything even in that expanded search.

Red Dead Redemption is getting attention for its sandbox play, GTA style, so I took a look over Stan’s shoulder as he tried out his new copy. Meh. I’m not going to say the game is bad, just…typical. By Stan’s account, the “sandbox” play—like GTA, I gather—isn’t actually a sandbox. It’s a sandbox in the sense that you can shoot any random passerby and steal his horse, but that can only occupy you for so long. Then it’s back to the quest structure: a series of fixed missions to open new areas and new missions. That’s not inherently bad, either. It can work with good writing, but the good writing is absolutely essential, and not in evidence in what I saw of Red Dead. For that matter, I didn’t see it in Dragon Age, either, Philistine that I am, and that’s supposed to be landmark writing.

Marrying good writing to good game design is tough. Good games demand rich and meaningful choices; good writing at the least is easier when narrowed to the single most promising plot, and more likely can’t happen at all apart from a very few coherent and closely related branches. Bad writing of several hundred endings, sure. Good writing, not so much.

MMOs can skate over the writing because the focus is on interacting with other players. Strategy games don’t need writing at all. “RPG”s, though, are narratives. To be immersive, they need good writing or some damned engaging game play, including fresh new design ideas. And a shooter, even a shooter with RPG elements, ain’t that.

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