The Case Against Writers - Continued

Snipehunter's picture

When I wrote that original blog, I had no idea how touchy a subject I was broaching. The amount of discussion the recent reprinting of the “Case Against Writers in the Games Industry” blog has generated has itself, been insightful. Clearly, “Story” is something near and dear to the hearts of gamers and developers, alike. I have to sheepishly confess, it’s near and dear to my heart, as well.

I have to admit I wrote the original blog in that way specifically to be somewhat provocative. But, to be clear - I never once said I thought writers weren't useful or that games shouldn't have stories. I did say that games don’t need stories in order to be games, but that’s not the same thing....

In truth, those that know me know that I am a strong advocate for narrative in games. I have passionately defended the need for and impact of deep characters, intricate plots and thought provoking stories, but in the last 14 years of working in this industry I’ve been grossly disappointed, despite this. Writing in games isn’t where it needs to be, a fact made incredibly obvious by many of the replies to my original article. Where I seem to differ from the community at large, however, is why I think that is.

I blame linear narrative. If you prefer I return to being provocative – I blame conventional writers and their influence on our chosen medium of expression. Where games can excel, and rarely do, as a form of narrative is in collaborating with the player to create the narrative of the game. Many respondents mentioned Portal, a game I seriously loved, as a paragon of writing in games. While I’m not entirely certain I agree, I agree it was incredibly well written… but perhaps it’s more accurate and more important to point out that the story was incredibly well implemented. The way the story is delivered to players of Portal is half, maybe even more than half, of its brilliance.

Portal is, exactly as pointed out, a fantastic example of collaboration between specialist writers and specialist designers, but it’s also a standout example; an exception. The truth is there are more writers working in this industry than it seems people realize – and many of them are responsible for the games many pointed to as reasons the industry really ought to hire writers. So, at least in my experience, having a writer isn’t a silver bullet. In fact, the two best hits I saw developed – Warcraft II and Diablo when I was QA at Blizzard – weren’t written by a “writer,” at all. They were written by an artist, who it turned out could also write. A person who is just the type of multi-talented individual I advocated in my first blog. That person was Chris Metzen, who is still at Blizzard today. You might even have heard of him.

What made Metzen’s work so great, in my mind, was how easily he understood the limitations and strengths of the games he was working on and how he used that knowledge to fashion a story that was part of the game. He didn’t just write a story and try to impose it on the game; he wrote a story that supported the game – a story that depended on the game. I am sure there are specialist writers out there who can do this, but I also know there are plenty of people working in the industry already who can do it – these people tend to be designers, engineers, scripters, or artists… They are people who understand what games are and how you can use them to collaborate with the player to elicit narrative not from some artificial story channel, but through the act of play itself. Because writing and design cross over so much, I focus on the designer who can write – it’s the most common occurrence, though also the one most often overlooked or discounted as matter of course.

In a lot of ways, what I’m advocating is the generalist over the specialist, but that’s at the most simple level. What I’m really trying to do is challenge the validity of linear narrative as a whole. It’s a broad sweeping statement, and one I admit I have done little to explain or support, but I think there is more potential in our games as an art form or narrative medium through collaboration with the player, and imposing a linear plot inherently prevents that collaboration.

Pass/Fail (advance or retry) progression through a story is no collaboration at all, and I know of no linear games which work in any other way. Even the branching games, like Mass Effect or KOTOR are ultimately gated by pass/fail. You have more than one way to pass – but these aren’t true collaborations with the player – they’re “pick your version of the pass ending” affairs that ultimately only offer one choice to the player at all – “how does it end?” Sadly, this is true of most sandbox games, as well. How do you “win” a GTA game? You finish the linear story.

I think we can do more than this and I think the potential to do so is unique to games. Not to nerd out too much, but what made games like Dungeons & Dragons great was the DM’s ability to adjust the story based on the player’s action. The type of collaboration I’m talking about isn’t unique to video games, but it is unique to gaming. Players should be able to influence the outcome of games and most importantly, players should never look at the actions of their character and think, “That’s not how I would have done it.” That’s a travesty right there – because ultimately, games are about choices. Yes, we have to limit choices players can make for many reasons (including to make games more fun), but we should never take away from players the choices that influence their role in the narrative, because those are the choices that players use to identify with, or invest in, their characters.

The “Golf club” scene in Bioshock is emblematic of the problem. I won’t spoil the game by going into details, but there comes a moment when the dialog, the cinematic, and the fact that I can make no choice, all come together to create a complete divestment between me and my character – from that point on what had been a completely immersive experience became a standard FPS shooter because I could no longer identify with my character and thus had no investment in the story, at all. Despite this, Bioshock had the best and most impactful writing of any game to ship last year, but that’s sort of the problem, isn’t it?

How many games were released last year?

How many of them even had memorable writing, at all?

How many of them were written by non-designer writers?

More than you think, if your comments across the web have been any indication. The writers of the world need to make a paradigm break if they want to play truly vital roles in games, and until a critical mass of them do, my money is still on the designer-who-can-write over the specialist writer. None the less, once that critical mass does occur, you can bet I’ll be right there trumpeting the next wave of the revolution.

- Snipehunter

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Snipehunter's picture

A final thought

I really need to leave this topic be, but the discussion this has generated has been so interesting and so thought provoking for myself and others that I admit it's really hard to do. Still, it's time for me to move on to other insights and other thoughts, so I'll leave this final thought. This one is in reference to the recent rebuttal the IDGA's Game Writer's SIG has posted on Gamasutra:

There's a lot of merit in what they say, but I guess I'm still waiting for the game that proves out any writer's ability to deal with non-linear narrative. Every game that I know of with any form of narrative in it is deterministic - at best you get a few choices for how it ends, but your choices along the way actually mean very little to the game itself other than to influence the end result. I suppose the Bioware team has come closest with moment to moment decisions that at least affect how characters react to you, but honestly - even they boil down to a "pick your ending" paradigm that, while varied, is /still/ linear.

I mentioned D&D as an example of the type of non-linear storytelling I'm talking about - I find the Game Writer's SIG's response mentioning the same thing both telling and interesting - because, while I think we all agree that's a great example, I have yet to see its ilk realized in a video game, and I wonder why the folks from the writer's sig seem to think it has been.

In a D&D game, the entire course of the game and the shape of the narrative can change instantly and permanently, but that /can't/ happen in the games with narrative written and implemented as it is, to date. Admittedly, the major reasons for that are production costs and workload, but there are ways to deal with this that don't involve writers at all.

Have you heard of Dwarf Fortress? No game in recent memory has generated as many interesting and emotional stories for me as Dwarf Fortress - a game that has no inherent narrative. The stories arise out of the interaction between the game's systems and the player. There is no preplanned or prewritten plot at all. Ironically, the developer that creates this game determines what systems he is going to put into the game by writing stories and then analyzing them for the types of interactions his game will need to be able to create such scenarios - so I'll state again, writing is useful no matter what. None the less, why is it that the totally unprofessional bedroom coder who is not a professional writer gets that this is a better and more interesting way to use our medium, while the professionals do not?

Is Choose your own adventure really the best that writers can bring us?

Is Choose your own adventure really all that we want from our games?

I think our games can do a lot more - and I don't think we have a right to call what we're doing new, innovative, or "art," until they do. It's time for a revolution in game story telling and honestly, I think we all know it. Writers can fear this change and get left behind, or they can embrace it and join the charge - but either way they need to understand that in our medium, it's games first and writing second.

- Snipehunter