The term melodrama comes from the world of theatre. More specifically, it stems from plays that used music in unison with the on-stage action, i.e., a series of quick bow slices to the violin would accompany the entrance of the evil, mustache-twirling landlord. Melodramas were widely laughed at by the critics, yet lapped up by the common folk.
Today, most forms of entertainment media are melodramas, and the “common folk” are the mainstream audience. Even when aiming for the so-called lowest common denominator, though, melodramas don’t have to be bad.
There are a lot of negative connotations that accompany the term: black and white characters, formulaic stories, sensational confrontations, implausible coincidences and a rigid commitment to happy endings. Still, these can easily become positives by embodying: unambiguous characters, clear plotlines, emotional climaxes, exciting twists and satisfying finales.
This is the difference between pathos and bathos.
Unfortunately, stories in videogames tend to fall into the latter category. It might simply be an after-effect of their heritage — after all, games are still largely perceived as toys, and everyone (including most publishers and developers) seems to have a hard time accepting the fact that the average gamer can legally purchase alcohol. Of course I also understand that it’s safer to accommodate the youth while banking on the loyalty of older, nostalgic fans, but the same writing principles should apply regardless of the target age-group.
Final Fantasy is a good (or bad, depending on your outlook) example of this. The 8-bit/16-bit games were great for grade-schoolers, and while the later ones swung their focus to teenagers, they were pretty trite and not nearly as sophisticated as one might think. Someone on Slashdot: Games once responded to a post about Square-Enix’s titles saying (and I’m paraphrasing here): “They’re to deepness what Goths are to people with severe clinical depression: showy, self-infatuated shells that take on the trappings instead of the content.” Regrettably, that’s a very accurate description.
So how do we avoid this? If we have to stick to melodrama, how do we fill it with pathos, not bathos?
It’s quite simple, really: respect the setting, the story and the characters.
You don’t have to be Shakespeare, you just have to examine your own work and ask: “Is this good, or is it…laughable?” Everyone has their own subjective preferences, but this alone would eliminate a plethora of banal storytelling in videogames.