Writing for games
Posted at 20:17 on 17th February 2008 - permalink

Earlier this month, Lindesay Irvine made a post on the Guardian’s books blog bemoaning the news that thriller writer James Patterson was collaborating with Oberon Media on a casual game.

Irvine’s confusion and apprehension at this specific instance of a writer crossing over into a new medium (he seemed, perhaps understandably, to be unaware of the casual PC games market that has been courting Patterson’s middle-aged female demographic for the past few years) quickly segued into a highly defensive rubbishing of games as a whole. He scoffingly suggests games we can expect from other literary figures, including a “Martin Amis first-person shooter”. (Presumably Irvine is unaware that Amis wrote a book on video games over 25 years ago.)

Setting aside the ill-informed bluster, the kernel of Irvine’s argument is mixing imaginative writing with any other form of media serves to dilute it. I have to admit that the bulk of the evidence is on his side. What works on the page may not transfer to the stage, screen, or even audio recording successfully without major rework acknowledging the conventions of the medium. It’s easy to see why someone who has a narrow and outmoded view of games would have difficulty believing that anything of worth could be carried over.

Alastair Harper promptly penned a response which tried to set Irvine straight and make a case for increased involvement of established writers in games. He made the insightful point that storytelling in games allows things that wouldn’t be possible in other media (giving Bioshock’s big reveal as an example). He waxed lyrical about point and click adventures but didn’t touch on the interactive fiction genre, which would have furnished still more examples (from Floyd’s death onward).

Irvine rather sportingly commented back, conceding that maybe there was something to these games after all (and rather quaintly using the term “games arcade”, as well as for some reason feeling the need to resort to a straw man argument about games replacing books in the cultural landscape).

I personally agree with Harper’s position that there need to be more professional writers involved in games development. It’s alarming that games with multi-million dollar budgets (often including a large chunk set aside for professional voice work) still frequently treat writing as an afterthought. As a result, writing for games limps behind the advances made in graphics, animation and music, where it has long been recognised that trained professionals are required.

The embarrassingly witless script of The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion is a good recent example, jarring terribly not only with the obvious effort and attention that has gone into the audiovisual elements of the game, but also with the comparatively high quality of the writing on display in other PC RPGs going back decades.

In my own experience I’ve seen game scripts which the developers (who I’ll spare the embarrassment of naming) have insisted were contracted in from “professional Hollywood screenwriters” which have turned out to be semi-literate gibberish, obviously the work of writers who have been able to dupe the developers (not native English speakers) into thinking they’re the genuine article.

On the other side of the coin are games like Portal and the Mario & Luigi GBA and DS RPGs, which prove that good writing can be a defining characteristic of a game, and that the audience are perfectly capable of appreciating the extra effort and generating good word of mouth for the game as a result.

Assuming that a developer has recognised the value of good writing (both to help communicate a cohesive vision for the game during development, and to do the same for the audience in the finished product) this then poses the question of how writing should be used. It’s increasingly common (especially with the rise of consoles as the lead platform for more traditionally literate games) for writers to work purely on dialogue. Too many developers seem to be afraid of asking gamers read even brief amounts of text to be able to understand the game and the story.

Then there’s the knotty problem of storytelling. There is clearly a place for games that try to interlard portions of a traditional story into the gameplay, hence the mega-success of the likes of Half-Life, Max Payne and Bioshock. The prospect of having a story structured in this way is familiar proposition for the player. However I think that increasingly the place where writers will be employed most effectively in games development will be in the creation of worlds, characters and back story which can then be used as building blocks for the creation of new stories through the actions of the player(s) and the AI.

More thoughts on this (maybe) to follow.

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