For those unfamiliar with Perth City, it’s often been known as a dead zone when it comes to certain professions. In fact, the same could probably be said for Australia as a whole. However, when it comes to the subject of game development, Perth was definitely not the place to be. At least, that was the case until several years ago, roughly in time with the boom of independent game development. Since this time, Perth has slowly seen a shift in opportunity, with universities now offering degrees in game design, and many smaller studios finding life. Notably, Stirfire Studios, who recently launched Freedom Fall, the first ever Perth-developed game to release on Steam.
In line with this direction, I was thrilled to learn that these developments would lead to further opportunities. For years now, The University of Western Australia has hosted the Perth Festival, which has often then been broken down into several smaller genre-specific festivals, such as the Perth Writers Festival. I had always intended to go one day, but this year was different. For the first time ever, we would have game writers coming out to discuss various topics as a group panel. As someone who writes, this was an incredible opportunity, and as such, I rallied the GameCloud team together to cover each of the panels, and more importantly, the subjects being discussed!
I was assigned to cover the third panel, “Character and Story”. For the purpose of reference, this panel featured the following writers: Clint Hocking (Far Cry 2 & Splinter Cell, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory), Jill Murray (Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation & Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag), and Steve Gaynor (Bioshock Infinite & Gone Home).
Honestly, the biggest revelation of the panel was learning how different the process of writing for a game is to any other medium; whether that be for the characters, or the primary narrative. There is so much collaboration with the game designers that it is an on-going process with many people involved on both sides. In fact, before you can even begin to write, it’s important to decide whether the game is going to be based from a third-person or first-person perspective as the writing approaches for both the character and story are entirely different. When using a third-person perspective, the writers have more freedom to personify the character, as well as to frame the actions of the world around them; taking an approach which is more indicative of film screenwriting. However, when writing for a first-person perspective, the writers will often use the character as a vessel for the player to personify themselves, and then write the scenarios based around the players single perspective; which when you think about it, is a lot more indicative of novel writing. Essentially, both styles require very different approaches.
At this point in the panel, it was very interesting to hear from Clint Hocking, who had written from both perspectives, and learning the intricacies between developing an iconic character such as Sam Fisher, and then writing for Far Cry 2, which essentially provides a vessel for the player to personify. Notably, Clint pointed out that one of the most important parts of the development process is ensuring you can write characters who share a relatable perspective with the player, regardless of whether they are good or bad. We have to consider who these characters are, what makes them tick, and how these personality traits can involve the player in the experience. In a third-person adventure, it might be the charisma and motivations of the lead character that in turn motivate the player, however, in first-person adventure where the protagonist is more subjective, it may instead be driven by the personality and motivations of a strong villain, who in turn challenges the player. Regardless of the approach, there has to be some important element to let the player in, and allow them to drive the direction of the game.
Earlier, the panel mentioned that there was usually an on-going symbiosis between the writers and designers during production. However, the panelists went on to discuss how there is an even deeper level of collaboration between various tiers that make up the writing team. For example, in the case of Splinter Cell, Clint discussed the process of creating Sam Fisher and writing the main plot, which was subsequently passed onto other writers to flesh out his personality, backstory, fill in all of the gaps, and write the individual scenarios that exist throughout the main plot. It was interesting to hear this because Steve joined in to explain his perspective coming from in that aforementioned side with Bioshock Infinite, and how he his contribution was long after the characters and premise had been established. If anything, it demonstrated that if you want to be involved in game writing, you need to be prepared to work as a team; whether that’s with the game designers, or with another team of writers.
At one point, the panelists were asked about the responsibility of being a game writer. Whether that’s through the representation of race and gender, or exploring a topic which might be considered controversial. The consensus to their answer was that there is no topic of controversy which should never be explored in a game if it can be done thoughtfully. Jill was asked whether she was afraid to approach the subject of slavery in Assassin’s Creed: Freedom cry and her response was “not at all.” As a group, the panel strongly believed that the gaming medium has the potential to engage people, and it didn’t always need to be solely for the purpose of “fun”. Clint proceeded to explain how the act of “playing” in its primal nature is about learning, and that while there had definitely been misrepresentations in the past, more positive exploration is what will allow the industry to grow; essentially stating that the words “game” and “play” are not misused within our industry, just misunderstood.
When we arrived at the subject of game narrative, the interesting element within the discussion was the fact that Steve’s most recent title, Gone Home had primarily relied on a lot of indirect context to portray its story, and this got the panel talking about all the possibilities of game writing. Jill proceeded to talk about the kinetic connection between the player and the game, and how this physicality was essentially a barrier that reminded the player they were engaging in something external to themselves. This meant that those playing could not be swept away into the fiction the same way as someone else who was watching a movie. However, Jill proceeded to clarify that this particular medium also allowed for many ideas which couldn’t be explored through any other creative platform.
Evolution has been a constant for gaming since its foundation, and while it is prominently noticed through graphical presentation and gameplay, the same can also be said for the writing. In fact, in the early days of the industry, narrative was often a second thought and no way near considered the way it is today, and to be honest, while there were some great stories told, the industry was supported by more stereotypical tropes than you could throw a stick at. The panel was asked what they would want to change, and several points involved stereotyping and violence, with Clint, a writer primarily involved with fiction heavily involving violence, stating that he feels violence is one of the most overused and tired subjects, and that there are plenty of other topics that could provide new and innovative experiences. One major change with narrative in gaming has been the evolution of simply using cutscenes to tell story between gameplay, to a lot more environmental narrative, and narrative through play. Whether it is a third or first person perspective, the panel felt these new approaches to both game design and narrative could help to embrace the kinetic connection between the player and the game.
To conclude, each of the panelists had a unique perspective to offer on the subject, but there was a unanimous appreciation for the potential of the medium. It was best put as a new frontier for writers, learning to collaborate with not only other writers, but as an on-going process with the game designers. We also learned that the writing process can be entirely different just based on the character perspective of a game, and how important it is to develop compelling characters which the player can be involved with. The writers were adamant that there was no topic that was inappropriate for a game as long as it was approached thoughtfully, and that through positive representation, the words “game” and “play” could one day be understood, rather than trivialised as “fun”.
The biggest point was that evolution is a core part of game writing, and with so many new approaches seen with environmental storytelling and narrative through play, the days of simply playing a level and watching a cut scene could soon be behind us as a staple for the industry. Game writers want to engage the player, embrace that kinetic connection to the game, and to find ways to compel as it’s own medium without relying on the establishment of other creative platforms. It’s a massive industry, and the ability to experiment is there. If I took anything away from the panel, it’s how important writing has become in games, and how quickly it’s transcending stereotypes to embrace new ideas. We might not have our “Citizen Kain” yet, but we’re definitely on the right path.