Anyone who has ever considered writing for a living will have heard Opinions about the Passive Voice. At the very least, they will be vaguely aware that the passive voice is considered sordid or sinister. I think it is pretty sinister, actually. Look how I just used the passive ‘is considered’ to shrug the belief off on to some nameless network of grammar mavens, rather than anyone specific. ‘Sinister’ can be good and useful, of course, and there are lots and lots and lots of good articles on when and why it’s good or bad to use the passive. I want to focus on three points about games writing specifically.
The thing about games writing. You have the fragile prize of the player’s attention. You are competing for that prize with a big tempting ‘CONTINUE’ button, on the other side of which waits the actual game. Thousands of brilliant UI designers have spent tens of years calculating ways to make that CONTINUE button the most clickable thing ever. If there’s one thing that working in tech has taught me, it’s not to go up against UI designers.
Switching between reading copy in a game, and what happens next, requires cognitive energy every time. This is true even of games that consist mostly of copy. It’s true of Fallen London, it’s true of parser games, it’s true of CYOAs, because there’s a choice coming up in a mo and that choice ties into the underlying game model. People will skim; they’ll skate along the surface of your copy. There is a tradeoff between complex, demanding copy, and copy that your players will read. It would be a shame to make all game copy glib pap, so let’s trim out the complexity where we can, where we don’t need it.
1. The Revenge of Transformational Grammar
When your player reads something in the passive voice, they will usually, probably have to perform a kind of shrugging mental involution in order to get the sentence to lie straight in their brain, because something Chomsky something deep structure something. It’s a cognitive tax you’re making your player pay. Perhaps ‘the grimoire has been stolen from the library!’ is better than ‘someone’s stolen the grimoire! from the library!’ Sometimes there’s a good reason for it. But it’s a tax. And, besides…
2. The Harrison Test
I’m going to get off the fence and make a bold recommendation. Game copy should, in general, fit the rhythms of spoken speech. I don’t mean that it should all be dialogue. I’ve written a lot of prose poetry in games. But when copy is natural and conversational, it’s easier to absorb. (I’d go further, actually. I think that something about the back-and-forth interactivity of games means that conversational copy is usually a better fit. But I want to talk more about that elsewhere, soon.)
Passives are slightly unusual in informal spoken language, because you need to do that little mental transformation – and when you find yourself using them, it’s often for a good reason. So they’re an amber light (no more than amber: not red) when you’re writing copy for a game.
A writer who used to work for me used to fill their prose with vague passives. They once told me bluntly that all this stuff about passive constructions being harder to read sounded like ‘moon language’ – that they didn’t believe it. But, bless’em, they trusted me, and with time, patience and occasional savage sanctions I trained them out of the habit. They believed me by the end. I think.
There are two reasons that I think this nameless individual needed the training, and two reasons I see games writers being particularly tempted here: vagueness, and formality.
- The temptation of vagueness. Copy that pays its way in terms of player attention is clear, crunchy and colourful, with incidental detail and strong connections to the lore or events of the game. That can be hard work. It usually is. When you’ve spent a morning labouring away, anchoring the corners of paragraphs to the player’s sense of what’s going on, it can be tempting to let some of the specifics slide. The passive is a good lubricant for that sort of sliding. But crunchy is generally better than vague.
- The temptation of formality. A lot of game copy is weirdly formal. I think there are two reasons for this:
Reason (a) is that much of our game dev heritage is high camp: epic fantasy characters and superheroes will happily say things like ‘WITNESS YOUR DOOM!’, a phrase that no human mouth has ever actually uttered in actual earnest. That’s fine, it’s part of the fun, but it means that we have a strong magnetic pole dragging our needle to slightly absurd high style.
Reason (b) is that games writing is relatively new, and is the locus of a whole mess of insecurities around cultural seriousness and literally relevance. So I constantly see perfectly decent writers reaching instinctively for unnecessary formality. The passive is quite a formal-feeling construction. So when someone wants to get formal, especially when they haven’t quite understood why they feel that way, passives tend to accumulate. I’ve managed more than a dozen writers, and I keep seeing people do this, and get better over time. Confidence helps.
Gratuitous passives aren’t uniquely aggravating, or uniquely baffling, in game copy compared to other writing. But they are a particular local weed. I recommend you sharpen your scythes.
BONUS POINT: If a character uses the passive voice in dialogue, it can make them seem indefinably shifty. Sometimes you want that.