The videogame writing smackdown of the month

videogame-writerThe 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.

Sigh.

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.

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8 Comments

  1. Wow. I can’t tell you how wrong you are when you write “Videogame writing has no dependencies. A game’s plot and character development can be created in a vacuum.” The game itself depends on the story. Ever had to develop the story when the entire company can’t move forward until you’re done? Obviously not ;)

    When game writing sucks, it isn’t incorporated into the entire game, rather it is tacked on like a texture. The best story and writing plays out in the design, the art, the levels, and the AI. Here’s a bunch of links on game devs working cross-discipline: http://writerscabal.wordpress.com/2008/04/08/got-cross-discipline-why-you-need-it-in-game-development/

    Many of your other points I have covered over at our blog, so of course I agree ;) I won’t link to it since there are so many posts on these points, but feel free to check it out!

  2. Ha!

    Well, I can’t tell you how wrong you are when you claim on your blog that I said “game writing could be so much better because it could occur in a vacuum.” :) Clearly I’m not claiming that.

    You did catch me, however, in leaving out the all-important adjective “upstream” before “dependencies.” And I assumed that the context would make it clear what point I was making. But you know what they say about assuming!

    “Ever had to develop the story when the entire company can’t move forward until you’re done? Obviously not”

    Hmm. A not-so-friendly competition dig. Can’t we all get along? No, I haven’t ever frozen an entire company by being a bottleneck – and when you did, I doubt it was your fault – but yes, I think we’ve all been in situations where coworkers were waiting for our writing. Maybe I’ll pursue that in a future post that is a little different in scope.

    Thanks for reading, Anne…!

  3. You’re funny. “Can’t we all just get along” then you accuse me of bottlenecking a company. Your post still says “Game writing has no dependencies,” but clearly it does, both up and downstream. You’re doing yourself a disservice to keep that up there.

  4. I didn’t bring up the bottleneck – you did. In the 1st comment where you insinuate that I lack experience. So I wouldn’t call it an accusation.

    As for dependencies, well, we could pontificate all day about the existence of upstream game writing dependencies, but I think a lot of it depends on the shape of your preproduction and concepting, no? And that’s not the point of this post.

    I’d recommend you take down the bit on your blog where you say “they proposed that game writing could be so much better because it could occur in a vacuum.” That, IMHO, is a significant misrepresentation.

    To respect your complaints, I’ll leave my blog post, flawed as it is. Wouldn’t it look cheesy if I edited it? But I don’t want to continue arguing about this. It’s not salient to the main gist of the post, and frankly, I blog for fun. And this ain’t fun.

  5. I think employing writers in many fields is over-rated. When I was studying to become a game artist we never even heard the term ‘writer’ once. I’m not doing that anymore, however. But I have acquired a highly talented writer-friend in the event that I decide to pursue it some more.

    When I used to think of writing I used to think of “writing out what happens”. And I’m sure I’m not the only one. When the main point of the plot is when one outcome clashes with other outcomes and turns into a bigger event. An event that thrills and shocks us into continuing to invest in a story to uncover the greater outcome. Writing without losing the important place that variables have in a story. Or foreshadowing. And suddenly a plot seems intimidating. Which is good because it is. When a plot doesn’t seem like a grand undertaking then your doing it wrong.

    Anyway, that’s my feelings on the matter. Thanks for the article, I enjoyed reading it.

  6. Thanks for your comment, Toby…!

    We’ll have to agree to disagree about your first sentence. Note, too, that most games are written by designers or producers (sometimes to the game’s detriment) so it’s a bit misleading to say there’s no writer involved.

    I think we both agree about the importance of plot, meaningful conflict, surprise, character, and all that good stuff, as mentioned in your 2nd paragraph. Even if the person writing it isn’t called a writer, it’s magical when it’s done right, and we believe it can have value to a game production disproportionate to the actual investment in that writing.

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