It’s as internet-pseudo-intellectual and cliched a statement as can be. “The writing in this game stinks!” We see this phrase pop up in various forms across social media and in reviews, but rarely, if ever is it explained.
What constitutes good or bad writing? How can you tell? Will I know it when I see it or is it all just subjective?” Ultimately there are courses one can take on this and explaining the exact ins and outs is beyond the scope of this op-ed, but no, it isn’t subjective at all.
Bad writing in this medium sticks out like a sore thumb. To me, writing in video games specifically is wholly taken for granted by gamers and creators alike and is almost never properly recognized unless it’s terrible. Which brings me to the point…
Everything was Fine Until the Game Opened its Mouth
In what can only be personally summarized in my painful 12 hours of playtime, Sea of Stars’ narrative and characters fail what is otherwise a strong throwback RPG. Visually, the game is a tour de force. Capturing everything our eyes loved about the genre from generations past. The ears don’t fall far behind as the OST is equal to the task, even featuring tracks from legendary composer Yasunori Mitsuda.
By nearly every measure of the word, indie developer Sabotage Studios succeeded with Sea of Stars. After an immensely successful Kickstarter campaign, SoS was picked up by both Xbox and PlayStation to launch day 1 on their respective subscription services. Reviews were nothing less than excellent as well. Earning a staggering median score of 88 through Metacritic.
So What’s the Issue? Well… Plenty…
So what exactly are my issues then? Multitude. First, it seems that gaming outlets either don’t recognize bad writing or more worrisome, don’t value stories and characters in their RPGs highly. (Which is kind of the most important aspect of the genre when you think about it).
Second and more importantly, Sea of Stars is one of the worst-written games I’ve played in decades. Since games have received proper localization at the least. It’s so poorly done that I couldn’t continue playing, rare for a completionist like me, and rushed directly to a keyboard to hash out my feelings and understand why.
Everyone Thinks They Can Write Good, I Mean Well.
After delving into the development process and Sabotage as a studio, one thing immediately stood out; there are no professional writers on staff, nor did they hire one to help with Sea of Stars, boy does this explain a lot.
Dialogue is obviously integral to RPGs. But most of Sea of Stars seems to be Chat AI-inspired. To borrow from an online poster who so succinctly described Sea of Stars verbiage better than I could hope for:
“Dialogue does not feel like it comes from individual characters, but rather from the writer using words as a device to move his story forward. There’s no depth or authenticity in the dialogue. The conversations seem fake, hollow, and generic. Makes me feel like I am playing one of those free-to-play web-browser RPG flash games of the 2000s.”
Narratively, everything is just so by the book, but nothing insofar as the in-game dialogue. Not that I need dialogue voiced as a necessity, I cut my gaming teeth in an era when this wasn’t even a possibility. But not having voiced dialogue in Sea of Stars exasperates this issue further.
The First Rule of Game Development, Hire a Writer! The Second Rule? HIRE A WRITER!
Much of this could have been solved with a lead who spoke English as a first language. Unfortunately, Sabotage didn’t have this. Paraphrased from the developers’ Discord:
“Thierry Boulanger (President & Creative Director): I solo wrote this on a second language and went through the hoops with a professional proof reading team until everyone was happy with the result”
And it shows in the finished product. Some games just need an editor. Sea of Stars needed a do-over by a competent writer, editing can’t fix this.
Grammar can be head-scratching, with commas overused or unnecessarily, and odd words are used to describe acts in the game. For example, the tutorial has our 2 main characters, known as the Solstice Warriors, crafting a cloth over years that amplifies their magical powers. This is described over and over as sewing when what they’re clearly doing is weaving these cloths to use. I’m sure this seems nitpicky if you haven’t played Sea of Stars, but you can’t help but notice the misuse of the language right off the bat and it happens repeatedly.
Inspiration Only Goes So Far
Sea of Stars introduction is a by-the-numbers example of how not to start your RPG. The game begins with a narrator espousing exposition, followed immediately by a flashback sequence. The best part is this entire flashback is redundant as you simply end up in this same introductory section after you finish the tutorial section. You cannot go from one framing device directly into another one at the onset of your game. That’s sloppy writing and sets a tone for poor story structure. More importantly, it’s slow…
Much of what I’ve just described could be looked past if the pacing wasn’t glacial out of the gates. Sea of Stars supposedly takes its inspiration from many past greats of the genre. Developer Sabotage admitting Chrono Trigger is the big one. During Chrono Triggers‘ introduction, we establish the main characters and see their initial development. We visit multiple settings and are well on our way with our major plot line of a time-traveling adventure in a tidy 90 or so minutes.
By contrast, Sea of Stars doesn’t accomplish half of what its main inspiration does in nearly 3 hours. Sea of Stars begins as a drag and continues as such throughout the first third of the game. The pacing accentuates just how little big story beats there are throughout the first 10 or so hours, which I assure you is not a good thing.
There’s also no journal to access in the main menu to reference Sea of Stars’ current questline. Often times you’re left struggling to remember exactly where you’re going, or why until you just stumble onto the correct path. It isn’t that difficult to find as the game is almost entirely linear. It just all seems to run together without a strong hook to pull you through the story initially.
F*** you Garl
Every story has main characters intended to pull us through the ups and downs of our intended adventure. What do you do as players if the 2 main characters of Sea of Stars, Zale & Valere, are devoid of any characterization and personality? Worst still, what if they deferred entirely to a secondary character named Garl? Even worse, what if this Garl character is the most annoying “Marty Stu” (Male Mary Sue) you could conceive?
Zale and Valere are the fabled Solstice Warriors of legend and trained for years to prepare for their journey throughout Sea of Stars. They’re blessed with innate magical powers that they again, cultivate over years. All to be shown up by a regular guy who fights with a frying pan! Yes, a regular dude who trained by himself can fight gods and monsters alongside and just as well as Zale and Valere who were hand-selected and told they were the only ones who could eradicate the evil of this world.
Seriously, I Hate You Garl
In truth, Garl is actually the main character of Sea of Stars. At least that’s how developer Sabotage presents him. In every scene or conflict, anytime you meet a new character or start a conversation, it’s Garl who takes the lead. He is infuriatingly positive in every interaction. Unflappable in every scenario no matter how grave. Everyone gravitates to him just because he’s Garl and he can solve anything if he just tries hard enough and implements his undefeatable power of friendship!
The best part is that you as the reader think I’m exaggerating. Meanwhile, our two protagonists just stand there like cheerleaders. When Garl isn’t around, they just can’t stop talking about how much they miss Garl and wish he was there. Garl then gets all the praise because why not, he’s f***ing Garl!
Garl is force-fed down the player’s throat at the cost of any chance to develop Zale and Valere. It feels like our two main characters would have been better served as silent protagonists if this was the direction the developers wanted to take the Sea of Stars cast. When they do open their mouth, Garl interjects and talks over everyone else. It’s all so ridiculously done.
So Why Not Just Review Sea of Stars?
I wouldn’t feel comfortable reviewing a game that I didn’t finish and have no intention of going back to. Saying this, I went ahead and spoiled Sea of Stars and read ahead to see if any of this improved. The short answer is no. Although there are some twists and turns, much of the story is standard RPG fare throughout.
Many players hold that Sea of Stars narrative improves somewhat after the Wraith Island arc. But that’s quite a bit further than my 12-ish hours and I was already struggling with uninstalling Sea of Stars before that. None of the issues with the initial cast and the actual quality of the writing seem to rectify themselves.
What did surprise me during my deep dive is that my stance in this opinion piece isn’t a rare one at all. In fact, almost everyone online, outside of reviews, thinks Sea of Stars is poorly done from a story and character front.
If you’re looking for a nostalgic romp through the RPG genre I’d recommend staying away from Sea of Stars:
There are better-written RPGs of the indie nature and the AAA sort.
In fact, there are RPGs with more compelling casts of characters that don’t insult your intelligence.
There are RPGs with much better, snappier turn-based combat, both new and old.
2023 is one of the greatest years in gaming history. Your time is too valuable to play games that hurt your brain.