I’ve started playing Thronebreaker, the game based on – well, it’s a little complicated. It’s a card game based on a game called Gwent, which is a fleshed out version of a smaller mini-game, also called Gwent, and also played with cards, which you can play in the Witcher games, which are in turn a series of games based on the Witcher books by Andrzej Sapkowski, which are a series of eight fantasy books mostly published in the 90s, originally in Polish. Phew. Anyway, Thronebreaker‘s alright. It struck me, actually – the Witcher games are known for their dialogue, and their writing and plot and so on. They have actual characters with motivations, see, and gamers are usually deprived of all that. But one of the things that struck me about Thronebreaker was that it had a really clear spectrum of writing, from functionalist filler right up to the kinda trademark Witcher grim storytelling. It makes a nice case study.
We’ll start with an example from either end of the spectrum – something purely functional, and then something that has some storytelling oompf. The functional first:
“Beware, m’lady, keep a keen watch. Heard the thunder o’ hooves from th’ high road.”
It’s very basic strategic information passed off in a narrative context. It’s functionalist, in that it’s a gameplay tip masquerading as part of the story. It’s not a bad thing, per se, it’s just kinda unimportant. At worst, this sort of dialogue can maybe pull you out of the story a little bit, because it’s so obviously a gameplay tip. It’s sort of like having one of those advice things during a loading screen – ‘Press X to fly.’ However in this case, it’s all pretty well integrated into the narrative context – we’re being told by some villagers, who might believably have heard the army passing by – yeah, that’s plausible. So this one’s not a bad offender. It’s just a tip. It doesn’t move the story along, doesn’t really expand on your understanding of the fictional world – but it tells you something about the game. Watch out, bad things are up. Fine.
Now to the other end of the spectrum. This is a letter that you can find in a ransacked temple, on a dead body. I won’t type the whole thing out, but it’s a woman who’s written to her husband about how excited she is for him to come home, and they’re going to have a baby, and oh no, you realise, the guy who had this letter on him is dead! Who’s going to tell his poor wife? It’s ironic – the joy of the letter set against the sorrow that we imagine this wife feeling after she finds out that her husband’s dead. The high against the low – it’s dramatic, it’s good contrast. Good stuff. Not necessarily special or unique, but it’s solid workmanlike writing.
So those are our two extremes. There’s good storytelling at one end, and kinda functionalist gameplay tips at the other. The fun bit is judging all the pieces in between. A lot of this will vary according to taste, although there are also a bunch of rules that are worth taking into account. For instance, you want to vary the length and structure of your sentences, so they don’t all sound the same. See Exhibit A:
“Blah blah blah,” Meve said, doing an action.
“Blah blah blah,” Caldwell explained, doing an action.
It just clangs a bit. Not dreadful, but noticeable. The idea of function can become a bit of a football in here, actually, so let’s try and clarify it more closely. Technically, every line of text in a story has some function or other. In the most basic sense, its function is to communicate information. ‘Functionalist’ is therefore a bit of a misleading term. In some ways, we’re really talking about the number of things that a line does. The ‘thunder of hooves’ line above has one really obvious function, and then one secondary function that feels a bit thin. It’s meant to tell you something about the gameplay. That’s basically the thrust of it. It has a little secondary function where it technically does tell you some little things about the story-world as well – you know that these two random peasants support their queen, for whatever that’s worth. The thing about the higher-level writing is that it often has multiple functions, multiple meanings, well beyond the strict literal meaning of what’s on the page. With the letter, for instance, it has the literal meaning – a wife writing about how excited she is to see her husband – and then the context in which you find the letter gives it a second meaning, the ironic tragic reversal. It’s good writing because those different functions sit next to each other in a pleasing way. By contrast, while the functions of the ‘thunder of hooves’ line don’t clash, they don’t have any particularly compelling resonance either.
We can feed that idea back into how we think about the writing throughout this game. What are the different functions of the text, and how do they relate to each other? There are subdivisions too – such as the different ways in which text can communicate information. With the two actions above, for example, there are a couple different types of information being communicated.
“Blah blah blah,” Meve said, arms crossed atop her shining breastplate.
“Blah blah blah,” Caldwell explained, avoiding his liege’s wrathful gaze.
Just focusing on the actions here, we can see probably two-ish bits of information in each one. In the first sentence, we learn that Meve is 1) wearing a breastplate, and 2) grumpy, as her arms are crossed. It’s one function – information delivery – but it does it in two different ways. There’s tangible visual detail about the world, in the breastplate, and then there’s the relationship information. We learn that Meve is grumpy at Caldwell. This sort of combination is one of the most basic storytelling devices. You can see how the different elements are coming together. We could probably think a little bit further about how those elements are juxtaposed next to each other – what’s the effect of pointing out the shining breastplate when talking about how Meve’s grumpy? She’s grumpy, but damn that breastplate shines – there’s no particular resonance here, right, the details don’t build into each other in any interesting way. There’s no clever thematic stuff going on either – which, like, is not the end of the world. It’s not bad or awful or anything, it’s just plain, low-grade writing.
I guess ultimately – and maybe this is more of a statement about me and my taste, rather than any Objective Standard of Good Art – but one of the things that makes writing interesting, for me, is its architectural or structural qualities. It’s not just about the words, it’s about how the words fit into a wider structure or system. It’s about the place of the word in the context of a sentence, a paragraph, chapter, theme, concept – all at the same time. It’s about the resonance and contrasts between levels and between parts. Thronebreaker is interesting because it gives us that spectrum in quite a clear, obvious way. The distinctions are a lot clearer than in some other games. That’s not to say that the writing overall is better or worse than anything else, it’s just – you know – very convenient.