Game Writer Questions from Sheffield

A Virtual Game Writer Interview

Game Writer Central received this request for a few words across the ocean, and I thought it might be of interest to all:

I’m a student studying Internet & Business Technologies at Sheffield Hallam University and I’m currently in my final year. My final year project revolves around video game writing as a game design medium and it’s place in the computer games Industry. More specifically, I’m looking into the troubles of games writers attempting to get into the industry, and the trending lack of a writers talent’s, and in some cases, writers being excluded completely.

Stevie, thanks for writing…! Here are your answers, below. Questions in italics.

Are the requirements and or challenges of getting into the games development industry as a writer or even a designer more difficult than before?

I’d say yes. Games are no longer marginalized as the domain of pimply-faced teens, and the games themselves are more immediate and life-like than ever before. As a result, the industry has more hopefuls knocking on its doors and more students seriously pursuing it as a career, instead of falling into it by accident.

How would you say the life of a writer and the challenges that come with the job (or benefits) 15 years ago differ from today?

That is a wide-open question, all right. In many ways, game design and game writing is returning to its roots with the mobile revolution. Once again, it’s possible for a little one- or two-person team to change the world from their garage. But the game industry as a whole is getting more diverse and concomitantly more fractured, with all the different platforms and delivery media. More than ever, it seems to me it helps to be open to new fields and challenges, and well-versed in the eternal truths of storytelling. No matter what new devices hit the market, a good story is a good story.

What are your opinions on the industry today, do you think writers are neglected? have they always been? should there be a solid position in every creative team for a writer, especially with such large budgets nowadays?

It depends on your perspective. As with Hollywood, gaming is more sensitive than ever to large fan bases outside of their medium. We’ve seen games like Strongbad, Sam & Max, and Penny Arcade that really sprung from a writer’s head well before ever hitting an interactive form. But unlike Hollywood, the game industry isn’t really script-dependent and many games — heck, the majority of games — go out the door with story and dialogue flaws that would be universally panned by movie critics.

Sometimes this is because of budget, but just as often it’s because of the tremendous egos of producers and designers who never bother to have a professional check their work. It’s the same kind of flaw that induces everyone to think they could write a bestseller, but these same people would never try to pick up a paintbrush or step on a stage without training.

I don’t think every creative team should have a dedicated writer, though. There are some people who can capably handle, say, a programmer and a writer role simultaneously, and of course there are games that don’t really have much of a storyline, like Angry Birds or most puzzle and sports games.

Do you believe social platforms online could be used productively to give writers more recognition? If not, what alternatives could help? A common topic in recent years has been that games developers are
sacrificing emotional depth and narrative for more visually appealing features, what are your thoughts on these opinions? Can games fare better with the correct creative writing input regardless of visuals?

I do believe that social platforms could lead to recognition, but I don’t see it happening. What’s lacking isn’t information or tools — it’s the sheer disinterest in the way a game is made. When people start to care more about screenwriters than the actors who speak their lines or the directors who manage film projects, then perhaps we’ll have an environment where game writers will get their due.

Big-name writers could change things, I think. If Clive Barker’s Jericho hadn’t bombed, then maybe he’d have been at the vanguard of a new writer-driven game segment. Game writers get less credit than screenwriters, and often it’s difficult to figure out who wrote what on a game. If gamers demanded better accountability on that, I’m fairly sure we’d see a change because it’s not hard to reformat the credits. However, it’s a rarest of rare days when you see a designer or writer top-billed on a game as was the case with American McGee’s Alice.

I do think that blockbuster games can overlook the writing, but often gamers are quick to pick up on the weakness. Writing is comparatively cheap and any producer who slights it is really running a very competitive and expensive race while blind to the project’s flaws. There’s no doubt in my mind that better writing would make a lot of game SKUs more valued and more saleable.

In fact, I’d argue that slapdash, rote game writing and design is one of the primary reasons why games are not considered an art form today. It has the potential, but no one can seriously point to some of the generic sequelized shooters on the market today and call them art.


Game Writer Rundown: Skyrim

Thoughts on Bethseda’s Skyrim

I rented the popular new RPG Skyrim last weekend and lost 2 days to it. This game is a GOTY contender and has garnered over 200 perfect scores from game writers. The usually reserved (and incisive) Eurogamer goes as far as calling it a “masterpiece.”

I think it’s pretty good, although I’d say Bethseda’s older RPG Fallout 3 is still superior for a few powerful reasons:

  • Fallout 3 takes itself less seriously, but is no less perilous. Only in Fallout can you plunder a ray gun from a crashed alien, for example, or follow a trail of clues to a life-or-death confrontation in a scavenger hideout over a treasure that turns out to be an item called “Naughty Nightwear.” And it’s useful, too; wearing it imparts great charm bonuses for trading, natch.
  • It’s hard to do sword/axe/pikearm combat in a videogame. Without going third-person*, how do you tell a near-miss from a hit? (And when, oh when, will we get a game where a good sword strike stops the sword instead of clipping through the target?) With Fallout, it’s projectile-based combat, complete with the limb-subtargeting gameplay that the original Fallout was known for. No such thing in Skyrim, and as a result combat is simply much less tangible.
  • Fallout’s retro alterna-’50s mood is entertaining and the vintage music enchanting. In my admittedly-brief exposure, nothing comes close in Skyrim.
* And yes, third-person gameplay is an option, but then camera control and opponent targeting will gank you even worse than your enemies.

Skyrim Still Totally Worth Playing

I also reserve final judgment for a full playthrough. Many of the game’s quests and character development are yet to be explored by this humble game writer. And there’s a lot to like about Skyrim. Like F3, it has a truly great UI for inventory, quest, and trading management, and it doesn’t suffer from grinding or slow-travel problems. I was a little annoyed by the heavily pixelated shadowmaps of the dynamic shadows in Skyrim (I’d rather have them turned off or static than see obvious globs of shadow fringing moving shadows), but I truly enjoyed the dragon encounters and the eerie combat in the catacombs of ancient Nordic temples.

Skyrim also has an entertaining thread where you can become a werewolf, and I’ve read that vampire is possible too.

Thanks to my fellow ex-3DO colleague Keith Meyer for triggering this post!


Gomez Airing This Weekend

Hello Indie Rock Fans

It’s time for your sporadic pop culture injection. This weekend, one of Austin’s proudest cultural institutions, Austin City Limits (the show), is airing the Gomez taping that this humble game writer was fortunate enough to attend.

Gomez, for those unaware, is a talented, long-lived, guitar-heavy ensemble from Ol’ Blighty. They got this odd appellation from a note they left on the door at an early show for a friend named Gomez.

Below is a video of one of the best songs from the show. ACL titled it “Behind the Scenes,” but it’s not an interview. Instead it’s a cool format that mixes performance video with footage of the prep and walkon. It’s as if the band is playing the soundtrack for their own tour video. It also includes a pair of odd still shots, the first coming at 3:21 and lasting for about six seconds. I wasn’t expecting the video to grind to a halt after spending the first 3/4 of the video in pure motion. My first reaction was to suspect some kind of glitch. Interesting touch that I think could be more effective if it were used more consistently.

This episode broadcasts on January 7th, 2012 on Austin City Limits. Check your local PBS listings for schedule information.