Writers: Why We Need Them in Games Edition

I have been reading the back and forth between writers and game designers sparked by Adam Maxwell’s gamasutra article. There is no shortage of vitriol or cultural elitism on either side. At one extreme, designers are saying writers are never useful or necessary, on the other writers are talking about the weakness of games stories. Did anyone realize in between calling each other morons and useless, they are not even talking about the same thing? Before the sides can work out their differences, they have to be within shouting distance of the same topic. Once they address each other, everyone will agree writers are a tremendous help to games, but they are a single element and their contribution will not make or break any game.

I come to the party from the somewhat unique perspective of someone who both hired and represented writers to work on games. In these roles and from playing a lot of games – a lot of games – I learned there is one truism, a great game with a shit story is going to do very well, but the greatest story in the world will not save a shit game. We play games to have fun. The backbone of the game experience is your interaction with the things on screen. If the interaction is not fun, you won’t slog through it to get to the stimulating third act. Game developers take this to mean a writer is an after thought. By doing so, they are losing the opportunity to share their work with an audience beyond traditional gamers. On the other side of the equation, our Hollywood brethren often see interaction interfering with good structure. Don’t believe me, take a look at this quote from a Hollywood game reviewer:

As a writer myself, you can probably imagine I'm not too sympathetic to Maxwell's argument. In fact, I think I make it a point in my reviews to focus on story, characters, humor and themes, much more than other game reviewers. Perhaps that's why I'm a little more positive in my reviews of titles like "Kane and Lynch" and "The Simpsons Game" and a little harder on "Super Mario Galaxy" and "Rainbow Six Vegas 2" than most other critics.

Does that make sense? Let’s look back through his prism at a film:

I rented No Country for Old Men. The thing sucked. It was completely on rails. I tried to use the bolt gun and the NPC would not let go of it. Completely non-interactive. I tried to use the shotgun at the murder scene, only cinematics. The only thing I could do was advance scenes or go to the menu. I would have to give this one two thumbs way down.

How about a trip to Sea World:

The crowd was awed by Shamu’s jumping ability. He soared above the tank like he had a jet engine up his ass and spun around in a 360 before landing back in the tank and kissing a small child. The food was beyond compare for any other theme park and the weather was beautiful. Unfortunately, I do have to take points off the overall experience because there weren’t any lions. The lack of lions caused the experience pale in comparison to the Bronx Zoo, which had lots of lions.

I rented the film, to see a compelling narrative; I went to Sea World to see the fish. I play a game to interact. I am not looking for something outside of the experience. In his quest for narrative, our game critic is criticizing some great games. His reviews were dramatically different than those of game reviewers. The Simpsons Game utilized writers from the series and the writing was fantastic and completely in tune with the license. But the game was bad. There were camera problems, play balancing issues and other factors, which made it just not fun. Likewise, Kane and Lynch had very well developed characters and a nice story, but neither would overcome the frustratingly poor targeting system and bad AI, which killed sales. The operative descriptor of these properties is "game" and the game was bad. On the other hand, finding all the stars in Mario Galaxy in a single sitting is easier than finding the story, but who ever bought a Mario game for the story. Pick up your Wii mote and you will lose hours. It is just plain addictive. I promise you, not a single one of the legions of game reviewers who gave the game one of the highest average review scores in game history, took off points for their inability to identify Mario’s motivation.

When a critic attacks a game for a bad story or a writer comes to the table with the intention of fixing narrative, or desiging a a game, they are doing a disservice to themselves, and almost guarantying a bad outcome. These are the writers who go to their agents saying they want to work in games. The agents put these guys at the top of their lists, and when the calls come in from the publishers, and after a discussion about how much less they are going to get paid than on a film or tv job, they are sent out to do the work. No one ever talks to them about what is expected from them. As a result of this process, we end up with a writer who believes they will be changing the game world paired with a developer who thinks they are the lead writer. Relationships arising this way create the tension and ill feelings among writers and developers.

The best relationships come from a writer who likes games and only wants to write and a developer who appreciates their contribution. These writers respect designers enough to know they can’t design a game. Robert Rodriguez writes, directs, edits and scores great action movies and plays a mean game of Halo. He does not want to design a game. I was with him when he took a look at a game script and saw the characters were not well established in the opening scene. Robert did not want to give comments on how the game play should unfold, but he did want to explain why it was happening. His paragraph describing the establishing shot of a bad guy's office painted a more compelling and complete picture of the character than any 20-minute introductory level I ever played. Any game would benefit from Robert, few developers know he would do it. I never met a designer who could do that. The company did not listen to Robert and the game came out without the scene. The game didn't suck, but it could have been much better.

Once the writer is picked, the developer has to communicate what they want. This hardly ever happens. One of my favorite horror stories came from one of the publishers who said they would never work with a big name writer again. There are a few of them. They told me the experience they had with an Oscar nominated writer was so bad, they would never hire anyone else. The guy didn’t know shit, he didn’t deliver shit, and everything he said was wrong and never relevant. I knew the guy so this seemed odd to me. I called up to ask what happened. It turns out there was significant back and forth between the writer and the developer. The feedback for each draft was limited to “not right” and “make it different.” Oh yes, there was one more thing, it was six months into the project before they told the writer the lead character could not speak.

As much as the developers hate to admit it, at its best, the relationship is symbiotic. The developer can design and animate a character to participate in a game, but like Gepetto and Pinocchio, it takes the Blue Fairy to give it life. Writers are our Blue Fairies. One of the first times I saw a successful use of a writer on a game was about 11 years ago on Fighting Force. Core Design was working on the game and it was ground breaking, innovative, and fun. The characters could not be described as anything beyond generic. We brought comic book writer and artist, Marc Silvestri, in to help with characters. Marc looked at the little girl character and said "that Jubilee rip off, can she cross her arms, blow a bubble, and tap her foot?" He meant during an idle move, but didn't know what it was called. "Can she rip the bubble out of her mouth and throw it before a big fight?" These moves and new designs were incorporated into the game and the game got better. Core was able to design a brilliant game, but they would not have come up with the character additions in a million years. It is just not what they do.

This not to say writers can only be Blue Fairies, but we have to start somewhere. Before Activision hired Randall Jahnson to work on Gun, they read a lot of scripts. After reading his work, they decided he was the guy to write the game. They sat down with Randall and told him they were making an FPS in a western environment. Nothing more. Then they asked for an outline. Randall spent some time with Neversoft, understanding the technology and gameplay. He worked with them on the story beats and then made himself available over the course of the next two years. The end result was one of the most lauded game stories ever.

Given time and communication, it can really work.

For anyone who thinks these issues are going to resolve themselves overnight, let me point to a story from Variety:

THE HOT TICKET two weeks ago was to Francis Ford Coppola's hacienda in Napa. Fred Fuchs, head of Coppola's American Zoetrope, pulled 50 people to the 1,600 -acre estate for a weekend summit on multimedia, complete with five meals and a tour of the vineyard.

After Saturday morning intros, the afternoon was taken up with demos from companies like Virgin Games and Spectrum HoloByte.

"We're interested in getting into this in a big way," Fuchs said. "We met a lot of fantastic people."

The future isn't in licensing and adapting feature films, it's creating new characters and stories for the interactive marketplace. That's what we're interested in. The time has come." — May 13, 1993.


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