Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Does Your Video Game Have Too Many Words? (Yeah, Probably.)

TLDR.jpg (Also note: This gigantic lore-lump is just for choosing your character's sex.)
"Too long. Lose half."
"Which half?"
"The half that you don't need."
- Their Finest
My whole career has been based on writing very story-heavy games, with lots of words. Our company, Spiderweb Software, is small. We can't afford fancy graphics, so we have to rely on words. Interesting, quality words.

We're currently remastering the series with our most loved story and our bestest words. We also finished a new series, which had a lot of words which I suspect weren't as good because it didn't sell as well. Now we're planning a whole new series, and we need to figure out how many and what sort of words to cram into that.

We have a lot of decisions to make, so I've been thinking a lot about words in games. I have made a number of observations.

For Reference

A decently sized novel contains about 100,000 words. The Bible contains about a million words.

My wordiest and most popular game, Avernum 3, which I am now remastering, had about 200,000 words. At its release, people talked about how very, very, many words it had. Yet, by current standards, it is very terse.

In comparison, one of the best-written RPGs in recent times, The Witcher 3, had about 450,000 words. For The Witcher 3, "best-written" means "One really good storyline and many, many other storylines that were basically OK." (To be fair, I think the Heart of Stone DLC was really well-written.)

The word bloat continues. While Divinity: Original Sin had a mere 350,000 words, Tyranny spent 600,000 words telling the story of how you became the word's most evil middle manager, on a bold quest to try to tell apart the game's 73 factions.

And this is positively tongue-tied next to Torment: Tides of Numenara's 1,200,000 words. I admit I am curious about what story is so gigantic and epic that it requires 3 times more words than The Lord of the Rings. I will never find out, as there is nothing that will tempt me to play a game with 1.2 Bibles worth of text.

This is me playing your RPG lol.

Vogel's Laws of Video Game Storytelling

1. Players will forgive your game for having a good story, as long as you allow them to ignore it.

2. When people say a video game has a "good story," what they mean is that it has a story.

3. The story of almost all video games is, "See that guy over there? That guy is bad. Kill that guy." This almost never leads to a good story.

For reference, this is how to get me to read the text in your RPG.

Observations About Words In Video Games

1. For a while, there was a big demand for games like Baldur's Gate and Planescape: Torment. That is, old-school icon-based RPGs with big stories, told in lots and lots of words. Early hits, like Divinity: Original Sin and Pillars of Eternity made a lot of money off this demand. Sales of later games in this style, like Tyranny and Torment: Tides of Numenara suggest that this pent up demand has largely been satisfied.

2. It's really easy to make words. Really, really, really easy. Any writer with half a grain of skill can spew out 500,000 like it is nothing. And if that writer's fingers get tired, an intern with aspirations of authorhood will chip in 100,000 more. And when that intern passes out, you can let your Kickstarter backers add words to your game and they’ll pay you for the privilege.

3. No, really, think about that last point. People will pay you to be able to write for your game! Adding words to your game has negative cost! Think about this the next time someone tries to use a giant word count to sell you a game.

4. The secret of great writing is not adding words. It's cutting them. You can almost always improve your writing by slashing chunks out of it and refining the rest. However, as game development is done with limited budgets and limited time, this editing process almost never takes place.

5. When a writer gets famous, they stop being edited. This is why the fifth Harry Potter book is 900 pages in which only like two things happen. This is also why, when a game in 2017 is written by a Big Name and has a script with one bajillion words, most of those words are going to be pretty boring.

6. There are well-written games. Fallout: New Vegas and Witcher 3 are solid. I remember Baldur's Gate II and Planescape: Torment were all right, but I played those 20 years ago, and there may be a lot of nostalgia in play there. (For me and almost everyone else.) Planescape was cool, but I definitely remember blasting past a lot of text just to get through it.

7. Sturgeon's Law is in play here: "90% of everything is crap." For every Planescape: Torment, where they had a cool setting and story idea and really put the time in to write good text and have it interface with the gameplay well, there have been nine other games where they just threw up a bunch of Tolkein-light Kill-that-Bad-Guy stuff and hoped it stuck. It didn't.

8. Having lots of lore in your game is OK. Some players really love lore. But then, a lot of players really don't. I think it's best if you try to keep your lore separated a bit from the significant game text, like Skyrim putting the stuff in books you could easily ignore. World of Warcraft quest windows did this perfectly. All of the lore was in one lump ("You mean dwarves like to dig mines? WOAH!"), and the actual text of the quest ("Kill 10 goblin toddlers.") was broken out of it so you could digest it quickly.

9. Humor is very hard to write well. It is also one of the most enjoyable things to read. If you can make your game genuinely funny, people will love it forever. (The actual gameplay of Psychonauts was only B-, but people LOVE that game because of how funny it is.)

10. The ultimate goal of writing in a game: Have it be good enough that getting past the gameplay to reach the writing is your goal. Your writing should be the REWARD. If your writing is something the player has to slog through to get to the game play, there is too much writing.


Physician, Heal Thyself

Every game I've ever written has had a lot of words. Some of those games, my fans really loved the words. Some of them, not so much.

My goal for my next series is to use fewer words, but to make them as light and interesting and funny as I can. I want words to be the reward, the thing that pulls people through the story. I am dreading this, because, again, writing something good and short is way more work than writing something dull and long.

In the meantime, I am remastering my old Avernum 3, with its pokey little 200,000 words. This means giving those words an editing pass. A lot of my time is spent chopping out extraneous words and revamping what is left to make it smoother, easier to read, and, whenever possible, funnier. If the new version has more words than the old version, I've done something wrong.

For a long time, I sold games with a lot of words. Now there is a lot more competition in that space, and words are super-cheap. I need to try to sell good words. Even if I never make a nicedank meme, in this crowded market, you need to get every little advantage you can.


  1. Replies
    1. Nope.

      It's "NumenEra", not "NumenAra".

    2. I was going to fix this. Then I thought, screw it. If you want people to spell your game's name right, make something easy to spell.

  2. Interesting read! I agree with the power of brevity. However, one thing that I DO disagree with (somewhat) is the implication that "more words" = "bad." If a game has 2,000,000 words, it doesn't necessarily mean you'll need to read ALL of them (or even be exposed to them) to play the game. I mean, the Internet has GAZILLIONS of words, but it still manages to deliver an entertaining experience to countless people.
    Perhaps more meaningful is how many REQUIRED words are in a storyline. If a game has 2,000,000 words but a typical playthrough only generates 100,000 of those, then that sounds AWESOME, like the world is tailored to my choices.

    You touch on this in the "Lore" section, but it applies to the rest of the RPG as well. I mean, if the King has conversation responses to "What's the weather like? How do you like being the King? What's the best foot cream?" then – for folks who like immersing themselves in the world – they can make it come alive for themselves. For those who don't . . . why are they reading it?

    You touch on this, but ideally a game puts required info at easy reach; for example, having "quest" flags that visibly activate (and, say, update your journal) when you initiate the appropriate conversation can let folks who want to blaze through everything do so without fear of missing vital info, while ensuring that someone who LIKES diving into the world can have the experience they enjoy.

  3. The fact that someone took all the lore books from Oblivion and actually published them in a single hard-bound volume will never cease to amaze me. I'm not one for traipsing all across Tamriel reading every book on every shelf but I love that Bethesda put those in there for the gamers that are into it.

  4. Torment: Tides of Numenera is a lot like a China Miéville book. It uses a lot of words to describe a word that is very different from the usual fantasy, and quite alien to us. It can't rely on simple, well-known tropes like "orcs are green and bad, elves are fair and good", or even "Empire bad, Rebels good".

    It does not make it unplayable, because, frankly, you CAN skip most of the words, although what's left would be a short game with few combats. ToN is more of a branching book with some interactive elements than a RPG.

    I agree with you that words should be a reward. But it must be clarified, I think, that they are not to be parcelled out like magic item quest rewards: few, and only once in a while. By itself, a single NPC with one or two dialogue lines is not much of a reward. But the whole new town that I finally managed to reach after a gruelling stretch of battles and puzzles, with all its occupants and their lives and problems, is a good reward. A game with too few words is as bad as the game with too many - or worse, because while extra words could be skipped, missing words, at best, could only be imagined, but that's not for everyone.

    P.S. I'd have to disagree with you about the demand for games like Tyranny or Torment being satisfied. At least I still want more of them... But preferably better. The problem is, both Tyranny and ToN under-delivered, both gameplay-wise and story-wise. The demand for _good_ old-school games is still there, which is why I believe Divinity: Original Sin 2 will have good sales. Maybe Pillars Of Eternirt 2 too.

    1. Totally with you about there still being demand for old school RPGs that don't suck

    2. Yes! More GOOD new classic isometric rpgs please.

  5. On the Oblivion books, I actually downloaded an e-book of the entire collection and read through it. The vast majority of it was mind-numbingly dull, especially when it's not surrounded by all the exciting game bits.

    One of the few games with massive amounts of text that I found worthwhile was the Trails series. There's so many little threads that weave through all 7 games...

    Jejen's comment seems to be one of those obvious linkspam things... Seem so common on Blogspot.

  6. Spelling out everything isn't necessarily a good thing. It like it when the writing is done in such a way that not everything is explained explicitly, so you get the feeling as a reader there's much more lore/background/missing information than you receive.

    It can add to a feeling of wonder and mystery, makes you hunger for more shreds of information, and might also make you feel the world is much bigger than defined by the author.

    I think it is also very difficult to pull that off properly. :D

  7. Would you mind condensing that a little? It seemed interesting, but I'm not really up to reading through all of it to find out. Sometimes less is more.

    1. You're right. I should go back and delete everything but Observation #10 and the pictures of Kawakami.

      Then I should delete Observation #10.

  8. Normally I tend to gain a great deal from your posts - I must say though that I disagree with a lot of what's written here today.

    To be honest, I struggle to give any discussion on (video game) writing real weight that makes claims of the form 'Planescape Torment was just alright'. This is especially true when you've talked extensively in the past about how 'envelope pushing' DragonAge Origins was - a game that has very average story-writing. Sure, it has some really great characters, but it's mechanically far inferior to the infinity engine games and as a narrative pales utterly in comparison to e.g. Mask of the Betrayer or Betrayal at Krondor.

    You make several statements about what good writing consists of - I agree with these, but then too much of the argument above seems to rest on 'too many words = bad'. This is just not true at all - again cf Betrayal at Krondor which is a literally a book's worth of text. Torment Tides of Numenera is not disappointing because it has too many words - it's disappointing because the words often don't mean much or convey anything. There's far too much purple prose. This is in stark contrast to Planescape Torment actually!

    On another note, I also disagree (as others have said) that there is no longer demand for old-school RPGs - this is simply not reflected in fact. See e.g the success of both the Divinity Original Sin II and Pillars of Eternity II campaigns. I'm sad Avadon 3 was not more successful, but this is not at all representative. The issue there (in my opinion) is that you are not targeting the right audience any more with your style of RPG games actually, but that is another debate entirely. Incidentally, Jeff, you are often an excellent writer and more people should talk about your writing - particularly the Geneforge series - something I truly hope you remaster someday so more people can experience its brilliance.

    1. "Torment Tides of Numenera is not disappointing because it has too many words - it's disappointing because the words often don't mean much or convey anything. There's far too much purple prose."

      Those two factors are inextricably linked. Once you have that many words, the writing will almost invariably be dull. One leads to the other. When you have 1000000 words, editing and shaping them until they're not trite and dull is prohibitively difficult.

      - Jeff Vogel

    2. There's definitely truth in that - I guess my point is that this isn't always the case. Betrayal at Krondor is far from short - there's no voice acting whatsoever and literally everything is very descriptive and yet its easily some of the best video game writing of all time. Interestingly it never info-dumps and like the Witcher series, it has a great way of assuming you (the player character) *know* things about the world you live it - it doesn't explain stuff that you the player character in that world would never ask about! This for me is one of the worst offenders in Video game writing when it happens - it's so inorganic!

      I think there's this tendency especially among RPG writers to think that super philosophical complex rambling = good writing. That is definitely false.

    3. So thats why the bible sucks, too many damned words that mean nothing...heh

    4. Bell88, let me just say that I agree 100% with you. IMO info-dumps are the exact reason why certain (most) RPGs suck. To this day I yet have to find an RPG that has writing as good and to the point as BaK.

  9. Why not aim to create an IP, starting with a novel? You can write fewer, more refined words, see if the characters and/or world click with people. And then you have the base on which to build a game, or perhaps multiple games?

  10. Hey Jeff, love your games! Great article! About the not being able to afford better graphics, which isn't entirely necessary, I mean it doesn't have to look like a modern RPG but some enhancements would be nice.

    Have you considered the route both Divinity: OS & OS2 took with Kickstarter to enhance the game. I certainly would back your next game{series} for some extras!

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  38. Facile gibberish that makes overly obvious points to further, what? Your procrastination? If one of your primary considerations for a piece of art is what the word count is: you're doing it wrong. You ain't Hemingway, so do stop pretending you have anything useful to say on the subject or "make every word count."

  39. I loved the writing and story in the early Exile games. Not to sound disrespectful, but I did not care at all about the writing of Avernum or Avadon. I think, for me, the writing in those early games felt more genuine... or something. I say this because I seem to remember the Exile games being very verbose.

    The guy above me points out that, if you were talking about only word count, there are obvious flaws in that logic. I'm reading a book that's something like 1,000 pages right now, and it is very engaging and consuming. But, in Jeff's defense, I think he's talking more contemporary writing. JK Rowling isn't exactly Hemingway either.

    The point I think he's trying to make is that word count is often inflated with meaningless crap, at the expense of trying to find other ways to present information. every word should have a reason to be there, instead of, "Bill begat Andrew, who begat Ozmodius, who begat Fried Chicken, who begat Minecraft, who begat..."

    But it also depends on the medium. A game like The Witcher or Fallout can be very slogging at times if you do not want to ever skip dialogue. But like I said, the Exile games were very engaging for me to read, mainly because it was an old-school CRPG, and kind of made for that kind of information dump in the first place.

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