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.

“The Fall” is a movie you’ll regret not seeing

Screenwriting: See “The Fall” while you can

the_fall_7.jpgI caught this gem recently on the strength of its trailer, and I definitely don’t regret it. Visually stunning and filled with subtle heart, it’s worth your time.

Here’s the summary: a little girl and a young man are both in a hospital, recovering from injuries; his are grievous, caused by a stunt he attempted for the love of a woman. They become friends, and he begins to tell her a fantastic story of epic heroes and villainy, filled with adventure in improbable places, like the Arabian Nights or any folk tale you can name. The director, Tarsem (The Cell with Jennifer Lopez), shows off both his music video chops and his love of incredible international locations with the settings.

The screenwriting genius here is that the young man is in a lot of pain, physically and emotionally, and he’s telling the story to entice the girl to steal morphine for him, perhaps to reduce his pain, perhaps to hide from reality, and perhaps to kill himself. It’s based on an obscure little foreign film with a much smaller budget called Yo Ho Ho, which you can find at IMDB.

Tarsem made this as a labor of love over the course of five years. It stars virtual unknowns, and that’s my best guess as to why you haven’t heard of it. This movie deserves to be seen on the big screen. Trust me.

JJ Abrams’ Lost Thoughts on Creativity

JJ Abrams’ Lost Thoughts, get it? Ha ha… sorry. Anyhow, a friend recently turned me on to TED.com, a site where you can view talks from the cognoscenti from all sorts of incredible fields and backgrounds.

On TED, I recently found this entertaining and thoughtful lecture by JJ Abrams, the creative guy behind Lost, Cloverfield, Alias, and more.

Game designers should take note of his praise of the democratization of creativity. JJ Abrams works in an industry where a couple of dudes with standard desktop PCs can build all the effects necessary to make Lost or any other JJ Abrams production.

Someday, perhaps ordinary gamers will be able to do the same with a few game consoles. Now that would be a game design revolution, and it’s one that we’re already seeing hints of with some of the downloadable content for the 360 and PS3. It’s certainly in the best interests of console manufacturers, who would be happy to see game designers kicked to the curb in favor of a “reality TV” kind of vox populi revolution in game content.

A moment of Amy Winehouse levity from Photoshop Disasters

amy-winehouse-gets-new-handPhotoshop Disasters is often good for a howl. And it fits nicely into my “geek skills” category on this blog.

With great power comes great responsibility, yadda yadda yadda. As if Amy Winehouse doesn’t have enough problems… she now has Thing growing out of her left shoulder.

(Click to visit Photoshop Disasters. They’ve got some doozies.)

Gears of War 2 gets a new smoke grenade

Gears of War fans, rejoice. The gameplay for those previously useless smoke grenades is getting a facelift.

In the first Gears of War, the smoke grenades were as useful as they would be in a Quake 3 deathmatch. There’s really nothing tactical about GoW; it’s a pure twitch game with zero stealth. And I’m not knocking it. It does what it does, and does it pretty dang well.

Fortunately, that gameplay is getting an upgrade. The GoW 2 smoke grenades will deliver a shock blast that stuns players within the grenades’ explosive radius. Even better: the grenades will have a unique tactical function, knocking shields out of the hands of any targets in the blast area.

(Shields are another new feature, allowing players and NPCs to roam around with a fair-sized bit of portable cover, like the jackals from Halo.)

That’s the news from here. Keep those thumbs happy.

ACL “Sound and the Jury” contest horrors

ACL’s “Sound and the Jury” contest has started, and in a pretty marginal way.

The winner gets a slot at the ACL music festival – huge prestige. It could be a launching pad to great things for the right band. A band with talent. Too bad the bands who are currently winning are spectacularly weak. I’m sorry, Sound and the Jury, but pale imitations of Jack Johnson don’t deserve any stagetime at the Austin City Limits Music Fest.

It just goes to show: being popular doesn’t automatically give you talent. True in the videogame development world, too.

I’m voting for Kissinger right now. I like ’em; check them out. There’s a link there to their MySpace page. All they have to do is get in the top 100 to advance. If you have alternative suggestions I’m open to them too.

Game visuals in Gears of War 2, and RIP CGW

Two quick notes for you game-hungry readers…

First

if you’ve seen the screenshots for Gears of War 2, you might want to compare them with the screenshots for Gears of War 1.

You’ll notice that:

a) GoW 2 is gorgeous.  Haze, smoke, particles. Details recede into the background. Textures are richer and more plentiful. AND…

b) GoW 2 is a lot browner. In fact, if you’re old school, you’ll think that GoW 2 has caught the infamous Quake 2 disease of obsessive brownness. Yellow-browns, red-browns, greenish browns, blackish browns. Every tint and shade of brown is fully represented. Color contrasts, however, are hard to find.

Hopefully the full game will show more variety, because it looks like hella fun to play. I just don’t want it so rococo with texture maps that it causes me to lose the brown spectrum in my eyes.

Second

I got a postcard a few days ago from Games for Windows Magazine, once the mighty CGW. (And boy, is that a step down, to lose a feared and respected moniker like CGW in favor of Microsoft’s paltry G4W tag.)

Well, the ignomy doesn’t stop there. My postcard says,

Dear G4WM subscriber,

We regret to inform you that Games for Windows Magazine has ceased publication with the April/May 2008 issue. I am, however, happy to inform you that the remainder of your subscription will be fulfilled with Electronic Gaming Monthly – The #1 Videogame Magazine.

Quaint, especially for PC gamers who care not a whit for the console-heavy content of EGM.

Yeah, you bet EGM is #1. Once again, corporate greed and ridiculous marketing strategems waste money and take choices away from the consumer. RIP, CGW. You deserved better.

Best videogame monster

Best videogame monster: now accepting your nominations

The best videogame monster. Now that’s a competitive category. Like best movie villain, except a heck of a lot more likely to make your palms sweat.

Even if you’re a novice videogamer, you’ve probably seen your share of incredible videogame monsters. Some examples that spring to my mind:

  • the Big Daddies from Bioshock,
  • the implacable Unseen Terror from Infocom’s Enchanter,
  • the suicidal bombheaded screamers from Serious Sam,
  • True Ogre, the oversized, winged, fire-breathing final boss from Tekken 3,
  • the vicious three-headed Hydra from God of War, which you face in several stages (you actually take out a single hydra head early in the level, so you could call it four-headed),
  • Psycho Mantis from Metal Gear Solid, who did some eerie personality analysis of you, the player!,
  • Saddler from Resident Evil 4,
  • and the Colossi from Shadow of the Colossus.

What makes a “best videogame monster”?

Obviously, everyone’s going to have differing opinions about what’s the best videogame monster. Sometimes it’s a devilish boss like Final Fantasy VII’s Sephiroth. Sometimes it’s just a common grunt like a zerg from one of Starcraft’s zerg rushes.

We could judge by gameplay, by backstory (this is a game writing blog, after all), by ingenuity, by shock factor.

But, my friends, this is a simple blog. Just let me know what’s the best videogame monster that you cherish most fondly. What fiend springs to mind, howling and spitting, when you think “best videogame monster”? It doesn’t have to be your best videogame monster of all time. Just your best monster of the moment or the week or the month. Lay it on us.

Best videogame monster of the moment

For me, right now, it’s got to be a miniboss from the PS2’s Bard’s Tale.

Two words: Haggis Monster. That’s right. An enchanted sheep’s stomach, stuffed with the other organs of the sheep, including the lungs*, liver, and heart. Mmm!

According to Answers.com:

A 150-g portion is an exceptionally rich source of iron; a rich source of protein; a good source of vitamins B1, B2, niacin, calcium, and copper; a source of zinc; contains about 33?g of fat, of which half is saturated; supplies 450?kcal.

* Because you can’t vend any product containing the lungs of an animal in the U.S., true haggis is illegal. Take that, you dirty Scots!

What happened to M. Night Shyamalan?

What the heck happened, M. Night Shyamalan?

I just saw the ad for the new M. Night movie. It’s designed to look like some kind of andromeda strain movie.

“There appears to be an event happening,” a man intones. This, according to our statistics, is the blandest, most uninformative, passive-voice piece of advertising ever recorded in the history of modern advertising (post-1890).

Then we see the word SOMETHING flash in big letters. People look panicked.

IS, say the titles. Some crap about it being a three-stage phenomenon, going from disorientation to fatality.

HAPPENING, say the titles. Apparently the fatality is caused by people spontaneously being turned into silhouettes that fall from great heights.

Suspense! And now the name of our filmic production? It’s called THE HAPPENING.

Oh. My. Gawd. How could this be?

How could M. Night make such a laughable and airheaded trailer?

How could the guy behind The Sixth Sense continue to piss away his once-mighty creative license with movies like Signs and The Village?

How can this guy continue to land talent like Wahlberg, the star of his new pic?

Does he still know how to tell a good idea from a weak one? Has he lost the knack of screenwriting?

The third stage is fatal

M. Night, the clock is ticking. This Happening better be happening. Hollowood is the home of upward failure, but you know, you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. Even fanboys.

Gameplay Cliches

Gameplay cliches get a lot of chatter, but when the game is successful and has a core experience that people enjoy, no one says a word.

Case in point: Gears of War.

Mine carts.

Ammo boxes that are strewn around abundantly.

Crates that contain ammo boxes. Also strewn around at every juncture.

Lava levels.

Gears of War has all of these gameplay cliches.

Not a peep about it in the rags.