Bad Video Game Writing Alert: XCOM

Listen: making video games is hard. That’s why it’s kind of a douche move to nitpick at something a team of hundreds spend many years and many millions of dollars to make. But if we couldn’t gripe about tiny annoyances in the games we enjoy, a great many of us wouldn’t be in the industry to begin with.

This is fun, but it needs horses.

Ahh – that’s better.

Whenever i claim that the writing in video games is bad, someone pipes up and tries to prove me wrong – unsuccessfully. Always, always, always unsuccessfully. i’ve been playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown this week, and while i’ve never heard anyone extol it for its excellent writing, there’s a particularly Bad Thing™ going on in nearly every piece of dialogue and text in the game that i felt i just had to call out.

Forced Elliptical Subtext

It’s difficult to even give a name to this Badness, so i’ve decided to call it “Forced Elliptical Subtext” or, if you wanna be low-brow about it, “Dot Dot Dot Dick Quotes”.

Here’s what it looks like: A character who is trying to be diplomatic spends a few moments in ellipses searching for a politically correct word, and then pronounces that word archly. The ellipses and bon mot often follow a word like “rather” or “somewhat” or “particlarly”. Examples:

General: Our men can be especially … persuasive in the interrogation chamber.

Major: Did you mean to express that so … haltingly? (raises eyebrow)

General: You look a little … nonplussed.

Major: Indeed, I am indeed … annoyed to almighty sharting Hell at this terrible dialogue.


Here are some examples from XCOM that i hastily snapped with my iPad at the PS3 version. The images are a little blurry because by the time i decided to write this, i was shaking with nerdrage.

Wa-HEY, that’s some bad writing!

Real people don’t … talk like this. They don’t halt in the middle of a sentence and then … articulate a particular word to be bitchily diplomatic or to tactfully express distaste. In many cases, the ellipsis and emphasis replace air/scare quotes, or “dick quotes”, so-called by comic Jon Stewart and others because wrapping them around a word makes you look like a giant tool. Say what you mean.

But it’s not always the case that this bad writing habit acts as a stand-in for dick quotes. What i think it’s really doing is broadcasting subtext, loudly and obviously, to the reader/viewer, either because the author thinks the reader/viewer is too stupid to clue into subtext through more subtle writing, or more likely because the author is incapable of such subtlety.

Dick Fury

The very first time i remember being annoyed by this dot-dot-dot-italics-eyebrow raise was in the trailer for The Phantom Menace, when Snakes on a Plane expresses his not-so-subtle incredulity over Anakin’s age:

These are not the droids you’re looking for … now go the f*ck to sleep

The first thing that came to mind when i watched that Phantom Menace trailer, after “what’s that crazy rabbit lizard thing?” and “nice green screen, Pulp Fiction”, was “wow … that has to be the worst acting money can buy.” (Or, i should say, “the worst … acting … money can buy”)

Bad writing and bad acting: together at last. It’s like the Reese peanut butter cup of filmic trash.

YOU got YOUR chocolate in MY peanut butter.

Anyway, i’ve characteristically belaboured the point. Forced Elliptical Subtext, or Dot Dot Dot Dick Quotes, or whatever you want to call it, is bad. It’s bad in writing, it’s bad in acting, and it rears its head in bad video game voiceover all the time. Please, let’s do our best to … avoid it.

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