Bryan Howell, who writes video game stories and dialogue for LucasArts, recently took a poll of his co-workers, asking them to quote memorable video game one-liners. Games have been a viable form of mass entertainment for a couple of decades now, so surely he was able to collect zingers as unforgettable as "I'll be back" or "Say hello to my little friend"?
"I polled a dozen different people on my team," he wrote in an e-mail to GameFile late last week, "and I never got anything more than, ''It's-a me, Mario!,' 'Hail to the king, baby!' and 'All your base are belong to us.' "
There are many famous video game characters, many famous bits of video game graphics and even famous snippets of video game music. Famous one-liners are a little harder to come by. Why? How can this be changed? And is this even a problem?
"Gaming writing is still in its infancy," Howell said. "A lot of the rules are still being figured out and the results can be messy."
Matt Williamson, editor of the online magazine The Gamer's Quarter (GamersQuarter.com), could only think of the messy aspects. When asked if he could cite any memorable one-liners, he thought of five — all groaners. He had "All your base are belong to us" from "Zero Wing"; "Metal ... gear?!" from "Metal Gear Solid"; "Perhaps the same could be said of all religions" from "Castlevania: Symphony of the Night"; "You're not Alexander" from "God Hand"; and "Do you know where I can find some sailors?" from "Shenmue." He noted the common quality of those lines: "They stand out for their high level of hilarity ... they're cheesy, poorly acted and great to laugh at with your nerd friends at parties." Naturally, there's already a Web site that has hosted some of the worst audio clips: AudioAtrocities.com.
Earlier this month at Game Developers Conference, game writer Susan O'Connor gave a talk about writing in games. She's as informed as they come, having collaborated on the scripts for "Gears of War" and the upcoming shooters "BioShock" and "Blacksite: Area 51." She, too, agreed there are few top-flight one-liners.
"You could argue that 'Gears' should've had a zillion one-liners, since it was such a bombastic, big-budget action game," she told GameFile in an e-mail last week. "But we were never shooting for that in the script review sessions. It's worth noting that often the people reviewing the scripts come from left-brain backgrounds — the programmers, who are now producers, say — and they don't skew towards one-liners. They're more interested in delivering key data to the player as quickly as possible."
Indeed, what's more important to get right for the player, lines like "Who's next?!?" that Marcus Fenix barks as players use the character to mow down enemy Locust; or the important tactical information that tells the player where to go, what to do and how much time is left before the enemy reinforcements are going to arrive? At her GDC talk, O'Connor noted that the writing in games often gets pruned back during the development process to the point that it includes, for better or worse, the minimal lines needed to ensure the player knows what they need to do: "Your story starts sounding like it's being told by this guy," she said, cueing up a slide of a traffic cop.
Surely there must be a way to get some good lines even in the middle of a heated video game firefight. Well, maybe not. "A lot of quotable movie lines tie into a moment in the movie that has a lot of emotion and intensity," Howell said. "In games, most of the intense emotional moments take place during gameplay, not while the player is taking a break watching a cut scene. And during intense moments of gameplay, the player may not even notice what dialogue is being spoken, much less remember it for quotation later."
At her GDC talk, O'Connor cited what she considered a triumph in the writing of "Gears of War." The player is forced to creep Marcus Fenix through a suspenseful, shadowy area while his teammates cheerfully radio in about their misadventures back at a base camp. The radio chatter increases the player's unease and establishes the teammates' personalities, without requiring the player to take a break from what they're doing to absorb everything. It's a moment, even without necessarily having a memorable line, when she thinks the writing clicked, a triumph of not necessarily what was said but just in figuring out when and how a bit of speech would be delivered.
So blame the struggles of game writers fitting lines into games. Blame bad voice actors. Blame the fear that a good line might be ruined if it plays every other time a player shoots down a bad guy. But the game writers interviewed by GameFile pointed out that even where there is a good one-liner, it might not become a classic, precisely because it is in a video game. Howell's co-workers like jokes in old LucasArts games such as "The Secret of Monkey Island" and "Grim Fandango." But Howell points out that the appeal was niche. "A lot of geeks love those games and can quote them," he said, "but my fiancee has never heard of them. My mom's never heard of them."
He doesn't think the gaming audience is broad enough for great lines to catch on. He considered a hypothetical advertising writer at work on a car commercial: "He's gonna quote something he knows and something he knows other people will know, laugh at and respond to. So he says, 'We'll show you the money with our instant rebates on all used Pontiacs!' "
The writers and gamers interviewed for this story agreed that there weren't a lot of one-liners, but ultimately they didn't all feel this was an issue that needed fixing. "I don't think it's too important to change this," Williamson said. "I think the best games usually involve memorable set pieces rather than one-liners." It's where you're going and what you're doing that gamers value most, he thinks.
For those who disagree, just utter the one-liner slowly building up renown from Capcom's "Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney" series. It's just one word, squawked out of a Nintendo DS's speakers: "Objection!"
More from the world of video games:
Game designer Dave Perry recently explained his master plan to build a massively multiplayer game using a network of Web-connected volunteers. On Monday he announced that nearly 24,000 people have signed on to the project so far. He also revealed that the MMO project, still codenamed "Top Secret," will be in a genre no American MMO has yet to successfully handle: racing. For more details or to sign on to the project, go to TopSecret.Acclaim.com. ...
For those who really like "Final Fantasy" — as in, like it enough to travel halfway around the world if need be — series publisher Square Enix announced last week that the company will host "Square Enix Party 2007" at the Makuhari Messe international convention complex in Chiba, Japan's prefecture on May 12-13. The free event is open to the public and expected to be a celebration of all things "Fantasy," "Dragon Quest" and the like. The company reports that a similar event held at the same venue two years ago drew nearly 47,000 visitors. ...
Fans of "The Sims," art and a possible marriage between the two can look forward to a spring and summer "Sims" art tour. Game publisher Electronic Arts and a trio of universities will host exhibits of student-created "Sims" art. Expect some "Sims" machinima, fashion design as well as more traditional sculptures and paintings. The show dates are: April 19-May 12 at Parsons the New School for Design at New York's Chelsea Art Museum; June 26-July 19 at 79 Gallery at Academy of Art University in San Francisco; and July 14-August 11 at Ben Maltz Gallery at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. ...
One of the best ways for an avid gamer to avoid high game prices without ditching their hobby is to join a rental service like GameFly (GameFly.com). The refurbished GottaPlay is now angling to be a contender as well, offering services for gamers to rent via mail, buy online or trade old games through the company's Web site, GottaPlay.com.
Recent gaming stories from MTV News: