Today’s guest post is co-authored by Nikola “Mentoluptus” Banko and Vlatko “Wladisha” Goljevacki of Black Olive Games.
A lot of games have appeared lately that feature lots of reading and navigating through conversations (Shadowrun, Pillars of Eternity, Tides of Numenera, Tyranny, etc.), and some even feature entire parts that are text-based, like the mini-adventures contained inside Torment: Tides of Numenera. There has also been an influx of adventure games recently, which always tend to contain a large amount of reading and/or dialogue.
Playing Between the Lines
My question, then, is this: Is having a lot of text in a game beneficial or detrimental to the enjoyment and fun people experience, and should lots of text be avoided when it can? The answer is a resounding . . . it depends!
Text by itself is not bad: it’s much easier (and cheaper) to write text than to animate or do voice-overs on entire segments. So having lots of text is not inherently bad, as long as the text is inspired and to the point. Consequently, there is a difference between having a lot of text and having too much text.
Too much text refers to writing that could have and should have been edited. If you can write something in three sentences, never write it in six. That creates too much bloat, and the player (or reader, if we’re talking books) will be bored out of their mind by the end of the paragraph. It’s the effect people like to call “the wall of text”—that moment when you see a paragraph or page and you brain shuts down and refuses to read. If you try to force yourself, you will find it extremely difficult and boring.
But here is the thing: “walls of text” do not exist if the writing is good. Your brain will never complain if it looks at a lot of good text and is enjoying what it’s reading (that is, if you like reading in the first place).
There is also a difference between too much, just enough, and too little text. Too little text is basically something that can contain a good idea but is not entirely fleshed out. Or, it can just be rote writing created to fill a void—text for the sake of advancing the plot or explaining the mechanics of the world. Either way, it’s not ideal, but honestly, too little text is probably better than the other extreme.
See, “text” and “story” are not mutually inclusive. If focus is on gameplay first (less text, more gameplay in the beginning), amounts of text can be increased as necessary and reading will never be a problem. The player at that point will want to read about the game world, its characters, locations, weapons, and everything else. However, if your primary goal is making “a game with a lot of words,” then you will run into a lot of problems down the line.
Save, Rescue, Recover, Extract, Etc., Etc.
Some tips! As I mentioned earlier, segment text into smaller chunks. Make every paragraph (and sentence) have a purpose, and avoid trying to sound profound and wordy. If you are stuck, try skipping ahead, and if it still doesn’t work, take a break and consider redoing the entire segment or even losing it altogether (yeah, sorry, but you might have to. Half of writing is rewriting, and the other half is deleting). If working on a single page takes several hours or days, then something is definitely wrong.
When presenting the story, use gameplay to your advantage. Present less at any one time (if it’s dialogue, have shorter lines) and you might even consider having text gradually “type” itself in (though some people may find this distracting if not done properly).
Finally, avoid bloat and pretentious-sounding expressions, and when rewriting, it is almost always better to delete than to add new stuff. In fact, if you can find ways to combine two paragraphs or lines of dialogue into a single, shorter one, do it. Listen to one or two of your closest friends and take their negative (and positive) criticism to heart. If something seems like too much, it probably is (this article for example was about double the size in its original unedited state). Delete wisely and rearrange.
In Other Words . . .
Lots of text isn’t necessarily a problem: too much (bloated, improperly paced) text is. Professional writers can get away with writing lot of text because they know how to keep writing interesting, succinct, and relevant to the genre. There are ways to easily recognize which category a game falls into when it comes to writing, but I suppose that’s an article for another time. 🙂
Mentoliptus is one third of the Black Olive Games team. Level 12 Programmer and Level 2 Barbarian. He writes code and usually complains about everything (but we promise he knows what he’s talking about!). Wladisha is the Writer and Game Designer (meaning he doesn’t actually do any real work). He has lots of ideas, though only half of them are any good.