The Chicago Tribune recently ran a feature discussing the narrative power of Grand Theft Auto IV (via Kotaku). The article itself is a thorough look at what GTA IV is (after all, the Tribune is meant for non-gamers) and it does a good job of pointing out that the literature of the future could easily be video games. I love this concept and I also think that GTA IV is a great example of quality writing in games.
So I was taken aback to read some of the user backlash over at Kotaku to this story and a ton of people were saying that rather than GTA IV, it should have been Metal Gear Solid IV that was considered for such a mention. Well, I could go on to give personal reasons why I think this is a fallacy, but Kotaku user ray89 took care of that for me:
I think MGS4 had some great writing..GTA4..nothing memorable.
One of the best moments, for me that is, is when Snake and Raiden are speaking, and I think it goes like this..
Raiden: I'm unlucky, it rained on my birthday.
Snake: Your were the lightning in that rain, you still shine in the darkness.
I thought that was a great bit. I don't think GTA had anything like that for me.
I will grant you this, ray89, that visual metaphor is solid. There is a massive problem in how it is presented though. You could easily talk about a rainy birthday and lightning in poetry all day and it would be perfectly fine, but this does not make believable dialogue; especially when the character delivering the line is a quip-spewing war veteran.
The problem with MGS IV's writing isn't that it's bad, it's simply that the dialogue is over the top and forced. What makes GTA IV's writing so good (and San Andres I would say) is that all the dialogue fits with the characters and gives them believable voices. There are a lot of critics out there who complain about the writing when, in fact, they simply don't like the world and the characters. There's a huge difference.
I want to point something out: If you have an emotional opinion about a character, chances are they are well written. For instance, I think Steve Stiffler from the American Pie trilogy is an absolute asshole. I hate that guy (I laugh at his jokes, sure, but the decisions that character makes are deplorable) but that doesn't mean he's poorly written. In fact, that is exactly the character the writers were going for and they conveyed him extremely well.
Personally, I think Rockstar did a kick ass job of making all the characters real. They're not reciting iambic pentameter or coloring the winds of Liberty City with colorful pros; they say "fuck" and crack inside jokes, they chat with friends and associates that have nothing to do with your story. They are organic and real.
That is good writing.