The videogame writing quandry
Videogame writing often gets overlooked in the modern videogame development process. There’s no hiding from the raw facts.
From EGM’s review of Alone in the Dark for Xbox 360:
AITD wants to emulate the presentation of serial television, but neither the writing nor the “performances” compare to even TV’s least-essential shows. Certain events benefit from a dramatic camera view, but the unlikable cast of needlessly angry antiheroes punctuates dialogue with romantic cliches and superfluous cursing in such a way that you’re not hearing unique characters – you’re hearing one writer who ran out of ideas.
A highly-qualified team of dozens of engineers, artists, animators, modelers, scripters, level builders, producers, marketeers, and managers spent years working on this product. Man-decades of work went into making it. The franchise has benefited from even more time and expense; the original PC game was the progenitor of survival horror videogames.
And this reviewer reserved 75% of his comments about the game for the videogame writing.
Why videogame writing usually sucks
1) Dev priorities. Making a game is a ridiculously huge undertaking. Most of the software has to be written from scratch; even if the developer uses middleware, tons of customization and game-specific functions must be created and tested. While the dev team struggles to maintain a stable environment, the designers, engineers, and artists must ride that buggy, half-built, half-realized swaybacked mule and perform their delicate and deadline-pressured work. It’s like trying to paint the Mona Lisa on a moving city bus while psychos constantly steal your brushes and replace them with crayons.
Because the technical challenges are so great, game writing becomes a bit of an afterthought. Videogame writing is malleable and stable. As long as the game writing doesn’t alter the flow of the game, it can be changed up until the 11th hour. It’s generally not a huge challenge to replace one dialog line with another, or move some narration from one level to another.
2) Everyone thinks they’re a videogame writer. How may of your friends want to write a novel someday? How many of those novels do you think will be really worth reading? The same is true of videogame developers, except more so, because they’re generally creative folks.
However, for every videogame designer, engineer, or producer who has a writing background and serious literary chops, there are five to ten others who lack that background. Unfortunately, all of them would love to get a crack at doing the videogame writing for their current game.
The videogame team leaders, who are budget-constrained and harried, usually give them that opportunity or take it for themselves.
3) Bringing in a videogame writer can seem like an insult to the game staff. When not handled well, the introduction of a videogame writer can chafe at egos and cause team dissension. Management has to work with the videogame dev team to emphasize how the writer will actually reduce workloads, develop the plot and thematic points that they’ve so carefully crafted, and carry the responsibility of polishing dialog and storyline in crunch times when the team will have little time or patience for inspecting niceties like development of ancillary characters.
Why videogame writing shouldn’t suck
1) Game writing doesn’t crash. I know this is a shock, but videogame writing doesn’t cause A-class bugs or videogame crashes. Never has a game been recalled because there was a critical flaw in the writing.
2) Videogame writing has no dependencies. A game’s plot and character development can be created in a vacuum. Game writing doesn’t need special tools, art assets, or a stable “build” of the game development software.
Of course, good videogame writing generally is the product of constant feedback from the entire game dev team, adapting to changes in character design, art style, and level design. And those changes can easily precipitate changes to code, design, and even art. Still, the fact is that videogame writing is remarkably independent of other game development efforts, and as a result, it can be very polished regardless of the state of the overall game.
3) Game writing is vital to your game’s success. Let’s face it: videogame writing can sink an otherwise legitimate game. Players rely on game writing to give them motivation and excitement. Cheesy or cliched videogame writing sucks all the joy out of a player’s experience. There’s nothing sadder than a good game that doesn’t motivate players to enjoy the whole experience.
4) Hiring a videogame writer is cheap and efficient. Just compare the hourly rates of contract programmers and contract videogame writers. Good videogame writers take some effort to find, but they won’t bust your budget. And hiring a videogame writer takes an extremely visible part of your game out of overworked dev team members’ hands and puts it in the experienced hands of someone who can devote their full attention to it.
In fact, we’d argue that game writing shouldn’t suck. Ever.
If you’d like to chat with us about how game writing can fit into your production flow, please contact us for a free game writing consultation.