The Importance Of Writing

It was recently announced that God of War writer Marianne Krawczyk will be lending her talents to the upcoming game Shank

I thought the God of War games were above-average in the video game narrative department and Shank looks like a well-done update to one of my favourite games, Metal Slug.  However, instead of making me anticipate the game even more, the news has left me perplexed.  Why?  Because this game was announced last year and has already been previewed by game reviewers. The game is done and now it's time to get a writer on board.  As a writer, this strikes me as odd.

As a writer who plays video games, however, it strikes me as typical.  Most video games are "written" after they're completed.  Writers are usually brought on board to write dialogue and exposition.  Only people who don't understand what writers do would think this is an acceptable use of writing talent. 

To my knowledge, film was the most recent medium that thought it could get along all right without writers.  Of course, that was many years ago, during its advent, when directors would drive actors out to the countryside and make up a story based on whatever was around ("Here's a barn, so let's say you're the farmer and you're his wife.  Oh, and here's a shovel, so let's start with you digging something.").  Films varied in terms of how much planning went into them back in those years, but for the most part you wouldn't be able to find anything resembling a script floating around anywhere.  The only writers you'd find hanging around were the guys who wrote the dialogue cards.  Sound familiar?

It's important to remember that this method of filming was quite sufficient as long as film was considered a second-rate form of expression, the technology driving it being far more impressive than the works themselves.  People didn't mind poorly thought-out plots or terrible acting because they didn't expect anything better.  If you wanted to get a good story, read a book; if you want good acting (with sound, even), go to the theatre.

In the present day, we know that we no longer have to engage in such trade-offs.  We can demand more of films than its original audiences thought possible.  While colour and sound are often given credit for bringing the cinema into the realm of respectability, films were widely accepted as valid forms of expression by the 1920s, well before these inventions were mainstream.  The innovation that preceded them was the screenplay.

It could be argued that other mediums don't require writing - painting certainly doesn't, and certain forms of music don't have a writing process.  Even some films and TV shows don't use a script, relying in improv performances to tell the story.  We'll deal with improv later, but first, let's address the painting issue.

Painting doesn't require writing because painting is a form of writing itself, or the other way round.  Writing a book also doesn't require a script - the book is the script.  This changes when you want to create a work of art (or entertainment, if you like) that is acting out a story.  At that point, you need to have a story before you can start acting it out, which is exactly what most games don't do.  They start acting out the story and then close to the end of development, they try to figure out what they were acting out the whole time.  Even moderately creative people can come up with a decent story to connect all the dots, but they will never create a picture that's as good as someone drawing a picture without being constrained to only use semi-randomly placed dots.

Others may find improv to be a more appropriate comparison to video games, as the story is not dictating what the player does.  Unfortunately (for the argument, at least), that's not true.  Games do constrain what players do, and none are worse violators of player freedom than narrative-centric gated games.  For improv to work, the performers need as little constraint as possible.  But video game developers run into a problem when they lift constraints - most players are not good at improv.  They will not receive the rich experience that rivals cinema, the goal of most AAA developers.  Remember that the reason Christopher Guest movies even get off the ground is because of the talented actors who have had years and years of experience doing improv.  Everyone else is going to need a writer.

I get the feeling that most video game developers start their creative process thinking, "What would I like to do in a video game?"  This is a natural thing to do, and I think most people who wanted to write a movie for the first time would think to themselves, "What would I like to see in a movie?"  Most people often think of great premises for a movie - often involving terrorists or zombies and think that the work is almost over.  This is the birth of bad scripts.  This is the mindset of amateurs.  A great writer will rarely start the process by saying, "What would I like to see in a movie, or read in a book, or do in a video game?"  And if she did, she would know that 99 per cent of the work in front of her.

How does this change the end product?  A game is a set of rules, and everything - including the story - must follow the rules for it to be great.  If a story demands a character be weak for the drama to happen, but the game has given that character a lot of power, something is going to have to change or "ludonarrative dissonance" will be the result.  As the game has probably already been in development for years, it's not difficult to figure out who's going to buckle in this dilemma.  This means that even a writer who knows what is necessary to make the story work will have hands tied when it comes to implementing it. 

But imagine if the writer came up with a "story" before the rules.  A "pre-rules story".  At that point, you could create the rules around that story, and even if the rules seemed unconventional or unbalanced, you could be confident that they would work as long as the story works.  Suddenly you have the freedom to create a game that actually does have a great story without sacrificing the game experience, because they grew up organically together, instead of one being thrown over the other at the last minute.

And even more importantly, programmers cost more per hour than writers  Do the maths.  Have the writers work on the game for two years before the programmers come on board instead of the other way around and maybe we can stop pretending that there's ever been a game worth $US60. 


Comments

    This subject is one of the primary topics I've been pondering for quite a while now. While I generally agree with what's written here, I'd like to point out a few subtleties.

    1. Videogames are not homogenous, nor should they be. A fiercely competitive multiplayer game like Team Fortress 2 doesn't need to make good narrative sense, because its priorities lie elsewhere. That's fine, that's good! A game like Heavy Rain, however, needs to have GOOD story-writing behind it. Its important that we as gamers (especially you journalist types who are helping to bring videogaming in the mainstream) are aware and sensitive to the differences.

    2. Stories have rules also. This is a big thing I'm trying to articulate. We tend to think of games as rule structures with stories strapped on, but if you step back and look at narrative and fictional worlds like Middle-Earth, Star Trek, Star Wars, or even the world of Tom Clancy novels or Twilight, there are rules there too. Warp 9 is as fast as the Enterprise can go. The Force has a Dark and a Light side, and only Sith can shoot lightning bolts. Vampires melt in the sun (dammit!). Whenever you see a sci-fi movie and you shout 'That's wrong, why the hell is he SPARKLING instead of melting?!!' you are noticing a breach of the rules that the author has described in the fiction.

    The trick isn't to create a set of game rules and then write a story that matches. It would be much better to write a great story, then figure out all the rules that govern that story and its fictional world. That would get us a lot closer to the satisfying, coherent kind of game experience (story + action/play) that games like Fable continually promise and don't quite deliver. This is basically what you say at the end here. The same general guidelines that make balanced rules for a (single-player, not multiplayer) videogame adventure will guide you through a satisfying drama. Conflict, overcoming odds, harrowing close-calls, fear, pressure and resolution, that sort of thing. WHY is it possible for Luke to eventually overcome the much more powerful Death Star? Because he has the support of his friends. Ergo the rule is, More Friends = More Power, so the game needs to support the gathering of friends... pretty standard fare for sci-fi and fantasy genre.

    Anyway, cool post. :)

    I think it's easy as a writer, to imagine the best circumstances that produce the best results and I suppose that's a good place to start, so I mean as little offense as possible when I say it's not realistic, and it's easier said then done.

    It's great to say 'write the story first then do the game', but you forget that sometimes parts of games don't get done because of a time issue or because it just doesn't meld or feel cohesive in the game, whatever the reason, it happens all the time. The result is they are cut. So what happens when you have a pre-written story to be developed and something goes wrong, maybe a stage is too big/too ambitious for the team to complete and they have to cut it? The writer will still have to improvise their way through it.

    I think skilled writers stick close with and understand the production process of videogames and more importantly, how they DIFFER from other mediums, getting familiar with the kinds of things that can go wrong etc. and as a result, even when the gamey parts are done before the story, they are still passionate enough having been involved with the process to understand how the narrative they are crafting will affect the player even if it is after-the-fact. Rockstar's games, those that are generally open-world games, aren't pre-written. I don't know that for a fact, but when you look at GTAIV and the dialog in that game, the amount of specificity and detail points to a likelihood of writers who are part of the production process.

    At the end of the day, gameplay is still paramount and something you can't compromise at the behest of story. And stories, if they are to be implemented with a sense of importance, must be an aspect of development passionate to everyone on the team not just the writer -- who must also participate in various if not all aspects of development if they want to communicate an effective narrative.

    My two cents.

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