[I’m perfectly willing to admit that this sounds like it was written by a 14 year old pumping out his latest English assignment. It’s not TOTALLY unbearable to read, but be warned…]
It’s difficult to refute that people like transparency, whether it’s a game’s development, a band’s tour, or a writer’s latest work. I’m watching Ken Levine discussing Elizabeth’s development at a BAFTA Q&A right now, and it’s a little mind-blowing seeing just how much detail exists within her. So, naturally, when I heard about the Game Changer’s panels for the Perth Writer’s Festival, I almost threw up from Apogee levels of keen. It was a great event, the guests were fantastic, and I’m really excited to see more events like it pop up, but lets get to the point: Where do writers fit into games?
Well, as Guy Gadney noted in great detail, it’s a strange and exciting new way of doing things and no one fully knows yet. Games as a medium are not necessarily linear or predictable; a player could spend an hour doing side quests or skip them entirely. In transmedia (for example, The Suspect), several mediums in which one person interacts with the story can be completely ignored, and the writer must adapt. It’s a totally different process to writing a novel or a screenplay due to the interactive and transitive nature of the medium. This is a system with moving parts that a player can jam a plank into at any moment, and writing for it can be quite daunting.
In a sense, writing for a game is equivalent to game design, with each element of narrative integrating into the core design principles. One of Guy’s concerns with developing The Suspect was coming to terms with the fact that not every player will experience every part of the story due to the number of mediums it was presented on. This isn’t to say that the story would fail, but rather that the story would need to adapt into a digestible form across each medium. So, rather than experience the whole story through solely a PC or smartphone, each form of delivery offers one perspective of the overarching narrative. This is obviously entirely different to, say, a movie, where all information is self-contained and can be delivered in one sitting.
Ultimately, the game comes first, and how the plot interacts with that game system is a key component to the writer’s role. Jill Murray joked that her boss described game design as verbs, but it’s a pretty damn good analogy. It’s the system that allows the player to interact and do gamey things, and what the player can do changes what the player does, like jumping or throwing. Would the story of a single-player game be suited to a multi-player only title? Can a RTS plot transfer into a FPS, like in the case of Syndicate? Should a game adjust it’s narrative when being ported to mobile devices? This sounds extremely obvious, and it is, but what a player can do will affect and hopefully accommodate the story.
Even the smallest changes can influence (or be influenced by) plot decisions. Clint Hocking spoke about how gruelling the choice to prohibit players from ‘cooking’ grenades in Farcry 2 was, noting that it simply wouldn’t fit with the plot his team were trying to achieve. This received a lot of backlash from CoD players where you could cook grenades, to which Clint wholeheartedly agreed that he liked that mechanic too. Perhaps a hardened navy seal could hold an unpinned grenade, but someone as untrained as Farcry 2’s protagonist would simply freak out. It’s often these small details that can help shape and support a game’s narrative.
Writing for a game is typically a collaborative process between various teams working on different parts of the game, such as animators, programmers, and business managers. This collaboration gives developers the potential to create an incredibly rich, narrative dense, and symbol laden whole, instead of slapping a story onto a game and hoping it works. Writing on the walls in Left 4 Dead, overhearing a conversation in Bioshock Infinite, or simply not being able to ‘cook’ a grenade are all part of the game’s experience, which writers may have an ongoing role in contributing to throughout the development process. I’m always a fan of finding unnecessary fluff in games, but only if it doesn’t kill the pace.
Something I latched onto at the panel was the discussion on cutscenes. I’m a strong advocate against cutscenes generally, but it does depend on the game and context; imagining MGS without them is practically a sin. The consensus of the group was that a reliance on communication methods of other mediums, like pure text and cutscenes, was a less than preferential way of conveying narrative. I tend to find it self-defeating, ignoring the uniqueness of the medium in favour of what could be better portrayed through a film or novel. Finding creative ways to express meaning and convey emotion are often difficult, especially when faced with programming or time restrictions, but good writing finds a way.
Of course, when you mention good writing in video games, the inevitable video-games-as-legitimate question props up. There seems to be the constant self-deprecation from gamers that we have to question whether or not the medium has reached the same level of acclaim as cinema or TV. Well, none of the panellists cared, and neither do I. As Guy put it (half jokingly), it’s simply a new medium to explore the human condition, and it will only take time earn a seat at the table of culture. There’s still room for CoD and Flappy Bird next to Bioshock Infinite and Gone Home, it’s not like one or the other inherently devalues the medium itself. Movies, theatre, even prose has it’s own set of ‘devaluing’ pieces, so why not just chill out and make some games?
Overall, the panel was extremely enjoyable and being able to take part in it was incredibly memorable. It may not have given any hugely practical information for people seeking advice on how to break into the industry, but it was thoroughly insightful into what goes on behind the scenes. The more creative-centric focus complemented the #CTRLDEV seminar nicely and given the turnout, I wouldn’t be too surprised to see more events like this in the future.